We have frequently pointed out the importance of recycling agents in the natural world. They are creatures that take waste material of any kind and process it so that our planet is not inundated with excrement and dead bodies. The microbes that process dead material and produce soil, the dung beetles that handle excrement, and the vultures that eat carrion are among those recyclers essential to our environment. From the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory comes a recent discovery of another recycling agent to handle waste most of us would not even know existed. It’s the Mauna Kea wekiu bug (Nysius wekiuicola).
In 1980, scientists on Mauna Kea in Hawaii discovered the wekiu bug that handles natural waste on the summits of mountains where it is too cold for life to exist. At these extreme elevations, the jet stream, typhoons, and other sources of high elevation winds deposit the dead bodies of insects and birds. Instead of those bodies piling up, the Mauna Kea wekiu bug processes them. It’s a beetle whose name comes from the Hawaiian word for “summit.” This bug is specially designed to process mountaintop waste.
The wekiu bug has a straw-shaped mouth that it inserts into a dead insect or bird, allowing the bug to draw out any fluids or nutrients. That leaves the hard parts, which crumble and are carried away by rain, snow, ice, and wind. Even in this very inhospitable area for life, with frequent temperatures well below freezing and no surviving plant life, these bugs process organic material. The Mauna Kea wekiu bug is another example of God’s design to provide balance in nature. He created a natural system designed to allow the constant reprocessing of organic materials so that our planet can support an abundance of all kinds of life.
When you think of dirty jobs, think of dung beetles. They have the task of cleaning up the savannahs, grasslands, and forests where wild animals live. If you have had the experience of cleaning up after a dog or cat, just think about cleaning up after elephants. A dung beetle can move dung weighing 250 times as much as itself in one night’s work.
There are thousands of species of dung beetles. Some bury the dung where they find it, and some live in it. Others known as rollers take the excrement of elephants and other large animals and roll it into balls. Then they roll the balls to their nests to use as food for themselves and their offspring. They use their back legs to roll the balls, so they are not facing where they are going. Imagine rolling a ball that is larger than you in a straight line without looking where you’re going. So how do they do it?
These beetles can do their cleanup work in the daytime or at night, using the Sun or the Moon to navigate. An African species of dung beetles (Scarabaeus zambesianus) uses polarization patterns from moonlight to chart its direction. Another African species (Scarabaeus satyrus) can stay on course when there is no moonlight. South African researchers using a planetarium for a testing lab found that these beetles can go in a straight line using only the Milky Way on a moonless night. They are the only insects we know of that can use the galaxy to find their directions.
The idea of insects navigating by the Milky Way was a surprise to the scientists. I wonder Who thought of that idea first? (Hint: Perhaps the Designer of insects and the Milky Way.)
There is a great story circulating about a man named Jesse Newton who lives in Arkansas and has a dog. He also has a robotic floor-cleaner called a Roomba. The Roomba is a device you program to run while you are in bed, and it goes all around the rooms you designate sweeping up any dirt and debris on the floor. Last fall Mr. Newton had his robot programmed to clean his house starting at 1:30 AM.
The Roomba was doing fine until it hit a pile of dog poop that was picked up by the brushes and wheels of the device. The robot then spread the feces all through the house, on the carpets, the floors, the chair legs, the baseboards, and the kids’ toy box. Mr. Newton tells the whole hilarious story of how he discovered the mess at 3:00 AM and how he spent the next three hours trying to clean it up. He said the Roomba left the house “looking like a Jackson Pollock poop painting.” The story went viral on Facebook and was picked up by many news agencies, newspapers, and their websites, including USA Today and The Guardian. You can Google it to get the whole story.
That story reminded me of articles we have published in the past dealing with the process of cleaning up the waste that accumulates in nature. There are many living things that exist solely on the wastes of animals and plants. A classic example is the dung beetle, which cuts up chunks of “cow pies” or “elephant pies” into small balls and rolls them to their homes underground. Termites process dead trees into fine confetti which helps aerate the soil. Flies produce maggots which process large carrion in such a way that it is returned to the ecosystem in the form of chemicals. Certain kinds of fish clean up the bottom of rivers and lakes. While zebra mussels are a hazard to water-handling equipment, they filter and clean the water of their environment.
The universe is designed in such a way that things are constantly being recycled, cleaned, and worked back into the soil for future generations. This cleaning operation is highly complex and vital to all forms of life. It was not just a series of fortunate accidents that designed and maintains the system. By the way, iRobot, the company that manufactures the Roomba, says that this problem is not uncommon for people who have dogs or cats. Their engineers have been working on “poop detection technology,” but for now, they recommend not using the device when animals that might make a mess are present. We are glad that God figured out the process a long time ago.