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better known as weevils, destroying our crops. In my home state, the Colorado Potato Beetle is hardly a source of pride. It has spread throughout the US, Europe and now Asia, dragging the state’s name through the mud as it goes. However, from a strictly scientific perspective, we might celebrate all beetles, even Colorado’s state’s spud-eating namesake. We have thrown every toxin known to man, including DDT, at the potato beetle and it has developed a resistance to them all. Surely, perseverance should be worth something. This ability to adapt has allowed beetles to fit into every niche imaginable and some we’d rather not imagine. We are indeed fortunate to have a wide variety of beetles evolved to eat carrion and dung. It would be disastrous if they ever went on strike or found career coaches who steered them toward more elegant occupations.

Many varieties have even conquered freshwater. The familiar Whirligig Beetles amuse us with their seem- ingly confused circling on a pond’s surface, while a host of predacious diving beetles make their living hunting un- der the water’s surface. The largest of these, at just an inch or two, regularly eat small fish and frogs. Ranging from the size of a pin-head to huge, cumbersome beasts over seven inches, the beetles’ structure is the basically the same. What distinguishes beetles from other insects are their wings. They have hard wing covers known as elytra that meet down the middle of the body and membranous hindwings that do the flying. That basic design has been tweaked into a vast and often fabulously colorful number of varieties. Metallic greens, golds and iridescent rain- bows appear like living gems and in fact have been used as such. Yet the ancient Egyptians are famous for rever- ing an unremarkable, black dung beetle known as a scarab (from the family Scarabaeidae).

The scarab rolls its ball of dung along just as the Egyptian god Khepri rolled out the sun each day. In the case of the dung beetle it then buries the dung ball, laying an egg inside, thus continuing an amazing life cycle. That egg turns into a larva (commonly called a grub) then pupae and finally an adult. Even in metamorphosis, beetles offer surprises. The California Prionus Beetle spends several years underground as a grub, boring into plant roots and eating sapwood. By contrast, it spends only a few weeks as the large black adult beetle (sometimes over two inches in length) seen flying about during summer. Perhaps we should consider them grubs that go through a beetle phase, rather than the other way around.

One can find the unexpected even among the fire- flies, those harbingers of warm summer evenings. They are not all sweetness and light. Different species of firefly use

Dung Beetles

different patterns when flashing their lights. These bioluminescent chemical reactions in their abdomen help males and females find one another. However, there is often an impostor lurking during these lovely summer scenes. Some fireflies have learned to mimic the flashing signals of other firefly species, thus luring them in with an invitation to mate. These impostors’ true intentions are far more sinister. Their objective is to lure these other species in and then eat them.

So what then is a gardener to do? For over 300 million years beetles have evolved into their current myriad of shapes, sizes and lifestyles. These unassuming insects are found in every part of our gardens. Their complexity is so stunning as to defy any simple solution for beetle pests. My approach is to try to create a full and complex eco- system surrounding my gardens and let the natural world sort out some type of balance. Since toxins have proven ineffective, when I feel I must meddle, I do so by simply plucking off and destroying the offending invaders. More often I enjoy seeing their amazing diversity and count their nibblings as a small fee to pay for an amazing show. Clearly the beetle deserves our appreciation; they are in fact one of Darwin’s superstars of evolution. Per- haps no group of animals has been so successful and yet remained largely unknown. As the resurgent VW Beetle has shown, we humans are suckers for a winning design.

Winter/Spring 2012 49

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