DeWitt column: Our hero, the dung beetle

We all know what to do when life gives you lemons. (I’ll give you a hint: it involves lemonade.) But sometimes life really rears back and lets us have it, and it seems like that’s what is going on in the world this week. We’ve got the coronavirus lurking around out there, the economy is tanking, folks are out of work and now, to make matters worse, the teachers have given their children back to us to raise and educate for the next few weeks.

Sounds like, instead of lemons, life is dishing out a big pile of dung these days. So what recipe do you use to make that sweeter?

When life starts slinging dung at me like a disgruntled monkey in a zoo, I look to one of my favorite, fascinating creatures for inspiration: the dung beetle. Humble and unattractive, Arthropoda Scarabaeidae (we have a different, less classy name for him down on the farm) lives on a diet of mammal dung, so you can imagine he doesn’t get invited to too many fancy dinner parties.

But the dung beetle is a tough little dude, and can be found worldwide on every continent except Antarctica, in habitats ranging from deserts to lush forests. No matter where they live, some animal (elephants, cows, rhinos, you name it) is always dropping dung on them, but the little guy doesn’t let that get him down. After all, it’s what you do with what life gives you that defines you.

So instead our pal DB puts all that dung to good use. There are three primary types of dung beetles - rollers, tunnellers and dwellers - and each is named for the way they use the poop they scavenge. Rollers shape dung into balls and roll their carry-out lunch away to munch on later or even to lay their eggs in. Dwellers simply live inside the dung, while tunnellers dive headfirst into the pile and dig a tunnel beneath it. The female then stays in the tunnel and sorts out the dung brought down by the male. Finally, a wife that knows what she wants to eat and isn’t hard to please.

But despite this less than glamorous lifestyle, dung beetles still manage to be cool. In fact, according to National Geographic Kids, ounce-for-ounce the dung beetle is probably the world’s strongest animal. When moving a ball of dung, a roller can pull a whopping 1,141 times its own bodyweight. That’s the equivalent of a human dragging six full double-decker busses along a highway!

And if that isn’t cool enough, one species, the nocturnal African dung beetle, is the only known non-human animal to navigate and orient itself using the Milky Way. Another species of African dung beetle can navigate using polarization patterns in moonlight.

Yet another African species, often referred to as the scarab, was considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians and today you can still find scarab statues and hieroglyphs in Egyptian ruins.

So despite what life drops on him, the dung beetle feeds his family, fortifies his house, grows stronger and even keeps his eyes to the heavens and stars for guidance and direction.

I think there is a life lesson in there somewhere, if we can get past the icky smell.

So how can we make lemonade out of all that life is dumping on us these days? If we are quarantined at home with our families, let’s make the most of it. Spend some quality time with each other. Do something you haven’t done in a while: play some stupid game with your kids.

Start having family dinners again. Enjoy some outdoor time and take them hiking, camping or fishing. Use the fresh, clean outdoors as a classroom. Give them some educational activities to complete that they might not find in the public school classroom, and teach them a life lesson every now and then. How many kids these days can balance a checkbook or change a tire or cook using a recipe?

You might even want to teach them about the dung beetle. I’m sure he has a recipe or two that he wouldn’t mind sharing.

Michael M. DeWitt Jr. is the managing editor of The Hampton County Guardian newspaper in South Carolina. He is an award-winning humorist, journalist and outdoor writer and the author of two books.