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Would you like something else to talk about rather than Coronavirus? Need something to distract you from the lack of toilet paper in the shops? Read on to learn more about some pretty nifty little creatures: dung beetles!

Dung beetles: what do they do?

Dung beetles – also known as scarabs, dorbeetles, tumble bugs and dung chafers – are an underground army that reworks and enriches our soils. There are thousands of species across the world, who all live on – you guessed it! – animal faeces. They are strong fliers with an excellent sense of smell: they can sniff out a manure pat from a distance and get to it very quickly. On arrival they form balls of manure that are taken into underground tunnels. Some species of dung beetles will roll these balls further afield while other species make a dwelling in the dung pat itself. The beetles lay eggs in the dung balls: the eggs hatch into larvae which then develop into adults within the ball.

How do dung beetles help our cattle?

Cow pats can be homes for cattle gut worm larvae. These worm larvae hide away until weather conditions are suitable and then emerge onto pastures, becoming a source of infection for animals. Bush and buffalo flies lay their eggs in dung pats. These flies are firstly a nuisance to cattle (and us!) and can also carry diseases like pink eye. The shredding of dung pats by dung beetles breaks these life cycles. The photo below shows how well these little creatures work.

Animals don’t like grazing the area around whole cow pats and so some pasture goes to waste. The break up of manure pats improves pasture grazing efficiency.

What about helping the planet?

Dung beetles also play a role in nutrient management. The movement of the dung balls into tunnels brings nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphate and carbon underground. The tunnelling aerates the soil and, rather than running off into waterways, rain also penetrates the soil. All this leads to stronger roots and plants, and more soil microbes and insects.

The reworking of the top soil by dung beetles is called bioturbation (or should that be bioturdation?)

Dung beetles can also reduce methane emissions. By shredding the dung pat, there isn’t the opportunity for anaerobic fermentation and methane production.

Some interesting dung beetle facts to share with family and friends (if you happen to be in self-isolation?)

  • Dung beetles emerged in the mid-cretaceous period (~100 million years ago) at about the same time as flowering plants. They dined on dinosaur poo – and some species of dung beetles became extinct at the same time
  • The Egyptians thought that the sun was rolled across the sky by a scarab beetle. They had a god named Khepri with the face of a dung beetle. He was the god of the rising sun, creation and rebirth
  • Dung beetles can be eaten (though are said to be an “acquired taste”): cooked over coals like popcorn, stir-fried with basil and chilli, or dehydrated for a snack on the go
  • “Roller” dung beetles navigate the straightest paths back to their tunnels using the sun, moon and even the Milky Way
  • They live for 3-5 years, reaching maturity in 1 year, and are one of the insect species that cares for their young
  • Dung beetles can bury 50 to 250 times their body weight of dung in just one night. That’s like a 80kg person burying 4 to 20 tonnes of poo!

So pop out into your paddocks and have a look to see what the dung beetles are doing. There’s also lots more information out there, such as:

  • Information about how cattle drenches might affect dung beetles
  • An identification chart in case you want to ID any critters you find
  • Heaps of dung beetle colouring-in pages to keep everyone entertained
  • And lastly, a joke! A dung beetle walks into a bar and says: “is this stool taken?”