Beetles are used as symbols in myths, art and culture. Scientists and engineers have even begun looking to them for modern-day innovation.
Humans may think they rule the world, but it’s beetles that really dominate it. In The Book of Beetles, editor Patrice Bouchard goes in-depth about these creatures that make up a quarter of the world’s animals. With 400,000 known species, these insects are about as abundant as they are interesting. This excerpt, which explains beetles’ effects on culture, art, history and present day, is from the section “Beetles and Society.”
Beetles have long occupied prominent places in our mythologies and in arts and crafts. The Sacred Scarab (Scarabaeus sacer) is the best-known beetle of mythology. Images of scarabs commonly appeared in funerary art and hieroglyphs. Scarabs carved in stone bore religious inscriptions from the Book of the Dead and were placed in tombs to ensure the immortality of the soul.
Artists have depicted beetles in all manner of media. Fireflies have long appeared in Chinese and Japanese art. One of the most notable examples of beetles in art is the watercolor of the European Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus) by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer in 1505. In the 1920s, the French artist Eugène Séguy created a famous series of art deco insect portfolios that included many striking beetles. Craftsmen use the durable body parts of beetles to make jewelry or adorn ornate pieces of furniture and wall coverings. South American indigenous artisans use the elytra of the giant Euchroma gigantea (Buprestidae) for necklaces and other decorative pieces. Today in parts of Mexico and Central America, a zopherid beetle popularly known as the Maquech, or Ma’kech (Zopherus chilensis), is decorated with brightly colored glass beads, fixed to a short chain tether, and pinned to clothing as a reminder of an ancient Yucatán legend.
Beetles and their grubs are an important part of human diets around the world. In Southeast Asia, grubs of the Red Palm Weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) and Asiatic Rhinoceros Beetle (Oryctes rhinoceros) are roasted and eaten as delicacies. The Chinese collect giant water scavengers (Hydrophilidae) and remove the head and appendages before frying them in oil or soaking them in brine. The Aborigines of Australia collect large, nut-flavored longhorn (Cerambycidae) larvae (witchetty grubs) from rotten logs and roast them. Even in America, a country that has not embraced entomophagy, there is a popular line of insect-stuffed lollipops.
Rather than developing complicated and expensive engineering techniques to develop new products and materials, scientists are mimicking the features of beetles already tested by millions of years of trial and error via evolution. A case in point is the Dew Bank Bottle, a stainless-steel dome microsculpted like the back of the darkling beetle Onymacris unguicularis (family Tenebrionidae) of the Namib Desert to extract moisture from the air. A similar technology is being developed to collect water for desert irrigation systems, clear fog from airport runways, and develop fog-free windows and mirrors. Engineers studying the incredibly dense pads of hair-like setae on the feet of some beetles have inspired the development of a reusable and adhesive-free tape that is twice as sticky as other flat tapes.
The shiny and metallic or iridescent colors of beetles, especially of jewel beetles (Buprestidae), scarabs (Scarabaeidae), and weevils (Curculionidae), are of particular interest to physicists. Stacks of reflective layers or honeycomb-like photonic crystals within beetle scales and cuticle simultaneously reflect different wavelengths of light to produce a shimmering effect. The reflective properties of these structures have not only been used to develop iridescent paints, pigments, and cosmetics, but may also prove useful for enhancing monetary security and engineering optical chips for use in ultrafast computers.