Dung beetles make the best employees

Grazing with Steve Kenyon

In a well managed pasture, dung beetles can help reduce methane emissions.

This is how we roll. Or maybe we dig, or just hang out, but no matter how we work, we work really hard. We have a really crappy job and I would like to tell you a little bit about us. We are known as scarab beetles, commonly called dung beetles. We have a very important job to do. We degrade dung! Our family is rather large as there are over 5,000 different species in the family Scarabaeinae. (We don’t have common names and I never took Latin so you can call me the little red guy.)

I live in Alberta, Canada, but I have lots of relatives. Locally, there are my cousins the long skinny brown guy, the big black guy, the golden boy, just to name a few of us. But we have family all over the world. I know that we don’t normally communicate with humans but I feel that it is important to get my message out. I guess I am a little bit of a dung disturber, if you know what I mean. I want to get your attention.

There are three basic types of us. I’m a dweller but I have cousins that are tunnelers and rollers. Dwellers hang out in the dung pat eating manure and laying our eggs in and around the pat. Some of us eat the manure itself but some adults only suck the yummy juice from the pat and dehydrate it. We get our diet from the millions of dead rumen bugs that are expelled with the manure. We lay our eggs in the manure and our larvae will consume the manure as they become adults.

Now my cousins the tunnelers — just like the name says — will dig a tunnel down under the pat and will take a ball of manure deep down into the soil and lay their egg inside the ball. This is what the young larvae will feed on until they become adults.

The rollers seem to get all the credit because the large African elephant dung beetle is quite famous. He is a bit of a glory hog but we all do the same job. Rollers form a ball of manure and roll it away from the pat until they find a suitable spot to bury it. Once the ball is buried, the male and female have a romantic encounter and deposit the larvae inside the ball.

We may approach our work a bit differently, and take our meals from different animals but we all do the same job in the end. Our job is to eat dung, and then we die! Isn’t there more to life than that, you say? Yes, yes, there is! I am here to tell you that what we do is a very important job for you as a producer.

Let me break it down for you. In the process of degrading the dung, we help to control parasites and pathogens of your livestock. If we can degrade the dung pat and have it completely gone, the parasite life cycle is disrupted and/or the pathogen has no place to live.

Flies are always a big concern. We provide a natural fly control. If the dung pat is degraded quickly, fly larvae have no place to call home. You are welcome.

We also dig around in the soil improving air and water infiltration to help keep our soils healthy. Tunnelers are really good at this. You want more rain? Well, we can’t do that but we help you hold on to the rain you already receive. Did you know water is the most important nutrient for any crop? We improve the infiltration and can help reduce the runoff and evaporation from your soil. You are welcome.

We also help fertilize your crop. We move nutrients from the dung pats around in the soil providing many different root systems access to needed fertility. So we are not just feeding our young, we are also feeding the plants. You are welcome.

Livestock have a bad reputation for emitting high volumes of methane gas. Well, if you allow us to do our work in a well managed pasture, we greatly reduce those emissions and actually help the plants reverse this issue by sequestering more carbon.

We don’t really like the whole feedlot thing. It’s not really a great environment to work in so we tend to stay away. Give us a nice healthy well managed pasture, however, and we are the work crew for you.

We miss the good old days. In ancient Egypt we were kind of a big deal. We were protected and worshipped as representing Khepri, the god of the rising sun. Still today, our cousins the rollers actually roll their dung balls in relation to the sun. This made the Egyptians believe we had a hand in allowing the sun to rise again each morning. Those days are gone now and we are no longer treated with the same respect.

However, if you put our size into perspective, you would show us a lot more respect. You should know that we are the strongest critters on the planet! We can move over 1,100 times our own body weight. Second place goes to the leaf cutter ant, but compared to us he is a lightweight and can only move a mere 50 times his body weight. What can a mere human move?

We do love our work, and would love to come work for you. All you need do is give us room and board. We need food, water and shelter and desirable working conditions. For food, we need lots of dung that is free from contaminants. We like poop straight up, no additives or preservatives. We also need water. We need lots of residue left on the soil surface to keep our environments moist. And we need shelter, a roof over our head if you will, with very little disturbance.

Give us these few simple things and we will work tirelessly for you, never taking a sick day, until we die.

How is that for a dedicated employee? Can I send you a resumé?

— Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta.; call 780-307-6500, email them or find them on Facebook.

About the author


Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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