Do Scarab Beetles Eat Flesh? Dispelling Misconceptions

Scarab beetles are a diverse group of insects known for their distinct appearances and interesting life histories. These beetles have a wide range of diets, depending on the species. Some feed on decomposing plant matter, while others eat dung, fruit, or tree sap.

A common question regarding scarab beetles is whether they eat flesh. To address this intrigue, one must explore the feeding habits of specific scarab species. While the majority do not consume flesh, a few species such as the hermit flower beetle have larval stages that feed on old, rotting wood source. However, wood consumption does not equate to flesh-eating behavior, debunking the myth.

Hence, it is important not to generalize the entire Scarabaeidae family. The diversity of their diets and habitats make them unique, each contributing to the ecosystem in different ways. The vibrant colors and patterns of various scarab beetles add to the fascination surrounding this group of insects.

Scarab Beetles Overview

Scarab beetles are a diverse and widespread group of insects, with thousands of species found across the globe. They play essential roles in various ecosystems, especially in the recycling of organic matter. This overview offers a brief introduction to dung beetles, carrion beetles, and hide beetles – three sub-groups of scarab beetles that interact with different organic materials.

Dung Beetles

Dung beetles are a sub-group of scarab beetles belonging to the family Scarabaeidae. They are crucial to the environment as they help break down and recycle dung. Their key features include:

  • Feeding primarily on animal feces
  • Rolling dung into balls to lay their eggs
  • Some species tunneling into the soil for feces storage

A few examples of dung beetles are:

  • Scarabaeus sacer (sacred scarab)
  • Copris hispanus (Spanish dung beetle)
  • Canthon pilularius (tumblebug)

Carrion Beetles

Carrion beetles, belonging to the family Silphidae, are another group of scarab beetles that feed on decaying animal remains. Their ecological role involves cleaning up carcasses and aiding the decomposition process. Key characteristics of carrion beetles are:

  • Laying eggs on or near decomposing carcasses
  • Some species carry mites, which help control fly populations
  • Predators of other insects often found on carcasses

Examples of carrion beetles:

  • Nicrophorus vespilloides (burying beetle)
  • Thanatophilus sinuatus (zigzag carrion beetle)
  • Oiceoptoma thoracicum (red-breasted carrion beetle)

Hide Beetles

Hide beetles, or Dermestidae, are also a sub-group of scarab beetles. They mainly consume animal hides and other dried organic materials. Hide beetles can be beneficial in cleaning bones – for instance in museum specimens – but can also be pests in homes and warehouses. Essential features of hide beetles:

  • Feeding on animal skins, dried meat, and fur
  • Larvae are often hairy and can damage museum specimens and stored goods
  • Adults range from 2-12 mm in length, with dark-colored, oval bodies

Examples of hide beetles:

  • Dermestes maculatus (hide beetle)
  • Attagenus pellio (fur beetle)
  • Trogoderma granarium (khapra beetle)

To summarize, scarab beetles, including dung, carrion, and hide beetles, play essential roles in various ecosystems, both in the breakdown of organic matter and as part of the food chain & recycling processes. While some species can be beneficial, such as decomposers or museum specimen cleaners, others may be pests in homes and storage facilities.

Flesh-Eating Habits

Dermestid Beetles

Dermestid beetles, also known as skin beetles, are known for their flesh-eating habits. These beetles typically feed on:

  • Dead animals
  • Animal products
  • Dried plants

Dermestids are often used for skeletonization, a process where they clean the flesh off bones for displays and research.

Silphidae

Silphidae, also known as burying or carrion beetles, are primarily scavengers. These beetles:

  • Bury small carcasses
  • Lay eggs near the carcass
  • Provide a food source for their larvae

Although not directly feeding on human flesh, their larvae do consume the decaying flesh of various animals, ensuring a clean environment.

Rove Beetles

Rove beetles are a diverse group of beetles, but a few species are known to be carnivorous. These beetles:

  • Feed on maggots and other insects
  • Do not consume human flesh directly
  • Are beneficial in controlling pests

Carnivorous rove beetles can indirectly help in breaking down decaying flesh by consuming the maggots that feed on it.

Beetle Type Flesh-Eating Habits Examples
Dermestid Beetles Direct Skin beetles
Silphidae Indirect Burying beetles
Rove Beetles Indirect Carnivorous species

In summary, while some beetles like dermestid beetles directly consume flesh, Silphidae and rove beetles are more involved in the scavenging process.

Ancient Egypt and Scarabs

Symbolism and Mythology

In ancient Egypt, scarabs were highly symbolic creatures. They were associated with the sun god Ra due to their unique behavior. Scarabs, particularly the Scarabaeus sacer, were seen as a symbol of resurrection and the process of metamorphosis.

Sacred Scarab Beetle

The Egyptian scarab (Scarabaeus sacer) is a type of dung beetle. It is well-known for its distinctive antennae and the way it shapes dung into a ball. Ancient Egyptians observed this behavior and linked it to the sun’s movement across the sky, believing the beetle was responsible for rolling the sun.

Scarab Amulets and Artifacts

Scarab amulets were popular in ancient Egypt. They represented protection and were often inscribed with spells to ensure the safe passage of the deceased into the afterlife. Examples include the heart scarab, which was placed on the chest of the mummy to prevent the heart from speaking against its owner during judgment.

Key Features of Egyptian Scarabs:

  • Representation of metamorphosis and resurrection
  • Association with the sun god Ra
  • Use in amulets and artifacts for protection

Characteristics of Scarabaeus sacer:

  • Unique antennae
  • Rolling dung into balls
  • Symbolic connection to the sun’s movement

Pros and Cons of Scarab Amulets:

Pros:

  • Represented protection and guidance
  • Inscribed with spells to ensure safe passage in the afterlife

Cons:

  • Limited to usage in funerary contexts

Comparison Table: Scarabs and Modern Beetles

Feature Ancient Egyptian Scarabs Modern Beetles
Symbolism Metamorphosis, resurrection, and the sun No particular symbolism
Role in culture Sacred and protective amulets Typically just observed in nature
Behavior Rolling balls of dung Various behaviors depending on species

Role in Science and Forensics

Forensic Entomology

Forensic entomology is the study of insects’ application in criminal investigations, which can help estimate the time of death. Scarab beetles, also known as storage beetles, are less common in forensic entomology. Instead, insects such as flies and other beetles play a more significant role.

Pros:

  • Can estimate time of death
  • Non-invasive method

Cons:

  • Restricted to certain environments
  • Less effective with scarab beetles

Skeletal Preparation

Dermestid beetles, or flesh-eating beetles, are commonly used in skeletal preparation by consuming remaining tissue from bones. Although not scarab beetles, these insects are also useful in forensics.

Scarab vs Dermestid Beetles

Scarab Dermestid
Not flesh eaters Flesh eaters
Storage beetles Skin and bone beetles

Research and Technology

In forensic research, scientists use the microbial evidence found on insects as evidence. Although less common, storage beetles may occasionally provide relevant data. Future technology advancements may increase their role in forensic investigations.

Features of insect evidence include:

  • Microbial trace
  • Unique insect species
  • Ecological information

Characteristics of forensic entomologists:

  • Knowledge in insect science
  • Analytical skills
  • Collaboration with forensic teams

Unique Traits and Behavior

Appearance and Physical Features

Scarab beetles are a diverse group with a wide variety of physical features. Some key characteristics include:

  • Colors: Many are black, but others can have metallic or bright hues.
  • Body shape: Oval and often with a slightly flattened appearance.
  • Horns: Some species, like the rhinoceros beetles, have distinctive horns.

For example, the grape pelidnota has a spotted pattern, whereas the June beetle is typically brown or black.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

The life cycle of scarab beetles includes the following stages:

  1. Egg
  2. Larva (grubs)
  3. Pupa
  4. Adult insect

During the larval stage, the beetles are known as grubs and are usually found in burrows. Scarab beetle adults mainly feed on plants and pollen, while grubs are known to consume decaying organic matter or roots.

Habitat and Distribution

Scarab beetles can be found worldwide and inhabit diverse environments, such as:

  • Wooded areas
  • Gardens and agricultural fields
  • Damp soil or leaf litter

Various species of scarab beetles, including Japanese, Oriental, and Asiatic Garden Beetles, are common in North America and inhabit different regions.

Scarab beetles and flesh-eating habits
While the majority of scarab beetles do not eat flesh, some related beetles within the family Silphidae, also known as carrion or burying beetles, are known to consume decaying animal carcasses. Similarly, the Staphylinidae family of rove beetles includes some species that are scavengers and may consume dead animal matter.

However, it’s essential to clarify that scarab beetles, such as June beetles and rose chafers, are not typically flesh-eating beetles themselves. They mainly feed on plants and pose minimal threats to humans, although some species can be considered pests in gardens and agricultural fields.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Hairy Beetle from Oregon: Little Bear

 

Beetles
I saw these beetles in the Owyhees in SE Oregon this last weekend. I think they are rain beetles? Very cool even though I am by far not a bug/beetle person….I like furry animals, but not hairy beetles…Please confirm. Cheers,
Gretchen

hi Gretchen,
We believe your hairy May Beetle might be in the genus Phylophagus. We found two similar images on BugGuide, one listed as Phylophagus tristis, and the other just as Phylophagus. We will contact Eric Eaton who once lived in Oregon to see if he is familiar with this hairy May Beetle.

Correction: (05/25/2008)
Daniel:
Yes, I do recognize that beetle:-) It is the “little bear,” Paracotalpa granicollis. I recall collecting a couple in the same part of Oregon the submitter describes, back in 1982! The adult beetles feed on tree buds and blossoms, while the larvae likely feed on the roots of sagebrush.
Eric

Thanks for bailing us out on this one Eric. Seems we didn’t even have the subfamily correct, as the Little Bear, Paracotalpa granicollis, is a Shining Leaf Chafer in the subfamily Rutelinae, and not a May Beetle.

Letter 2 – Cotalpa species

 

Large yellow beetle
Bug Man,
My four year old son found this bug while camping… he quickly became attached to it and played with it for most of the morning! (a budding entomologist??); unfortunately the close up photo did not come out very clear. It was approx 1 inch long, bright yellow and unlike anything I’ve seen around here (central Saskatchewan , Canada ). The bottom was furry, much like the “Watermelon Bug” on your beetle page – though not striped. It had large legs that it used to help right itself when flipped on its back. Quite entertaining for the crowd of kids it attracted. A lady on the beach thought it was a “Japanese Dung Beetle” which she claimed to have encountered while farming cotton in the southern US – I’ve looked up pictures and this does not seem to be the case. Assistance with identification appreciated.
Thanks!
Guy

Hi Guy,
Identification is difficult because of the blurriness of the image. We sharpened it as much as possible, and believe it is a member of the genus Cotalpa. Here is a link with some good beetle photos, including Cotalpa lanigera and Cotalpa consobrina.

Letter 3 – Countdown just Eight more postings until 20,000: Monkey Beetle we believe

 

Subject: Flying beetle
Location: Indio, CA. March 28, 2015
March 28, 2015 3:02 pm
Looks like swarms of this guy’s companions perished on our pool. Body about 1/4″ long. I fished this one out and photographed it as he dried off. Then he flew off shortly after the BUG 1 pic was taken. We have a lot of grass, trees and hedges around our lot.
Signature: Tony

Possibly Monkey Beetle
Possibly Monkey Beetle

Dear Tony,
We believe your Scarab Beetle is a Monkey Beetle in the genus
Hoplia, possibly Hoplia callipyge based on images and the range information on BugGuide.  According to BugGuide:  “Adults feed on flowers and foliage, often in groups … Larvae feed on roots of various plants during the summer, hibernate in a late instar, pupate in soil in spring; adults emerge in spring … Some are considered pests of ornamental plants and grapevines, especially H. callipyge.”

Monkey Beetle, we believe
Monkey Beetle, we believe

 

Letter 4 – Dynastes tityus female

 

Not a Rhinocerous Beetle?!
Hi there — I’m in south central Texas, and had the privilege of meeting this giant beetle! She looks like a June Bug, but way too big. As you can see, she doesn’t have the horned head, just a little round one, so I’m stumped! Any ideas?
Oh, and just for fun, here’s a shot of a red wasp trying its best to get this GIGANTIC dead spider into an eave of the house. I watched this wasp for at least an hour, during which time she dropped the spider at least twice and drug it back up the wall about 15 feet, all the way from the ground! Not a great shot, but I filmed a bit of this also, if you’re interested I can send the AVI file. I love bugs! Thanks for your great website.
Debbie

Hi Debbie,
The females of the horned scarabs, are with the horns lacking, as in your specimen of a Dynastes tityus, sometimes called the Eastern Hercules Beetle, and sometimes called a Unicorn Beetle. Nice use of scale.

Letter 5 – Hermit Beetle

 

Subject: Triceratops Beetle?
Location: Western Virginia
July 2, 2017 6:31 pm
Hi guys,
This beetle was on the front walk this evening. I think it is a Triceratops Beetle, but I am not sure.
What do you think?
John O’Neil
Signature: John

Hermit Beetle

Dear John,
This is not a Triceratops Beetle.  It is a Hermit Beetle,
Osmoderma eremicola, based on images posted to BugGuide.  Did you detect the smell of leather when observing it.  According to BugGuide, it is also called Odor of Leather Beetle:  “for strong odor of ‘Russian Leather'”.

Hermit Beetle

Hi Daniel,
Thanks for the identification.  I did not detect a leather odor, but that may be because there was a lingering skunk odor from the previous night.
John

Odor of Leather Beetle

Letter 6 – Little Bear

 

Metlaic Green and Brown Beetle
Subject: Metlaic Green and Brown Beetle
Location: Zion National Park Utah USA
May 3, 2011 10:14 pm
I found this guy in Zion National Park. The beetle was aproxamatly 3/4” to 1” in a desert location, but close to water.
Signature: Just Curiouse

Little Bear

Dear Just Curiouse,
We are positively thrilled to post your photo of a Shining Leaf Chafer in the Tribe Rutelini known as
Paracotalpa granicollis which we identified on BugGuide.  The Data page on BugGuide indicates that Utah is part of the range of this lovely little Scarab.  We learned from Eric Eaton back in 2008 when we posted photos of a specimen from Oregon that we had misidentified that Paracotalpa granicollis is called the Little Bear.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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