“Bob, I was walking from my house and saw a ball rolling across the road. There was a green beetle pushing it. Do you have any idea what I was seeing?”
This was a call from a friend who lives north of Loachapoka. He’s a good bit younger than I and grew up in Pennsylvania.
I told him it was a tumblebug and that green ones are and have always been uncommon. I’ve seen fewer than a dozen in my lifetime and am delighted that they still exist in these parts.
During the 1930s and 1940s, tumblebugs of another species, black ones about the size of man’s index fingernail, were abundant. In cow pastures, they fashioned pieces of fresh cow manure into marble-sized balls and would push them, using their front legs, for varying distances and bury them, for food or for providing nurseries for their larvae.
In Tennessee, some country folks called them tumbleturds, and a few applied an even more inelegant epithet, s***rollers.
As a youngster, I was fascinated by tumblebugs’ behavior and would watch them carve off wads of cow manure and form them into balls. I would follow the tumblebugs until they commenced to bury the balls.
Occasionally, the pusher would be accompanied by another tumblebug, which I assumed would be catching a free ride on the rolling ball or might be a member of the opposite sex awaiting a mating opportunity.
A notable member of the tumblebug family, Scarabaeidae, is one that was revered by ancient Egyptians. It was placed in the tombs of their dead; its picture would be painted on sarcophagi; and its images were carved in stone and precious gems.
The dung balls were supposedly rolled from dawn to sunset and were considered to represent the earth.
In Alabama and several other states, tumblebugs underwent a sharp decline beginning in the 1950s. A decade later, in Alabama, there were few if any of the formerly common black tumblebugs left.
Reasons for the disappearance are not precisely known. Treating pastures to kill white-fringed beetles doubtless took a toll on the tumblebugs. Fire ants probably preyed on their larvae and pupae. Injecting cattle and hogs with the chemical invermectin to kill endo- and ectoparasites makes the feces toxic to tumblebug larvae and is believed by many to have resulted in the demise of the species.
The Indo-African gazelle tumblebug was introduced into Texas in 1970 and reportedly is widespread in that state and has spread eastward into Louisiana. Perhaps these tumblebugs are using “ready rolls” provided by deer for their survival.
A related species has been introduced into Florida where it has become established. In Australia, 23 species of tumblebugs have been introduced, where there were none before. These introductions have resulted in improved pastures and a 90 percent reduction in pestilent bush flies.
In Australia tumblebugs are available for purchase, but none are for sale in the United States, despite the considerable number of would-be buyers.
I have spent quite a bit of time in Texas, and in the semi-desert area west of the Pecos River, black tumblebugs identical to the ones that were formerly common in the Southeast were abundant, taking advantage of the fecal pellets deposited by numerous deer and free-ranging goats. In some places one could, with minimal effort, capture half a croaker sack full of these beetles in a day’s time.
Were I 20 years younger I would, with permission, visit the Trans-Pecos area, gather up a batch of the bugs and bring them back to Lee County in an effort to re-establish them. I’m surprised that such an effort has not already been undertaken. Even if the feces of cattle are unsuitable to sustain populations, those of the numerous white-tail deer should be sufficient.
Tumblebugs aren’t the only scarab beetles experiencing declines. Green and brown Junebugs and spotted vine-chafers are among some others. Declines of these species can’t be blamed on toxic manure. Rather, their problems, I suspect, can be attributed to fire ant predation on their larvae and pupae.
Coinciding with the scarcity of these insects was the decline in skunk populations in fire ant-infested areas. Immatures of these scarabs were important dietary items of skunks, particularly striped skunks.
Interestingly, fire ants are not as abundant as they once were, and I’m seeing more June bugs now than when my property was heavily infested by the ants. A resurgence in the numbers of striped skunks conjoined with a continuing decline in fire ants would lend credence to my hypothesis that ant predation was indirectly responsible for the skunks’ decline.
Another scarab, the Japanese beetle, is apparently increasing in abundance. This beetle and a few other scarabs are agricultural and horticultural pests.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.