Dung beetles

TWT30DaysWild_countdown_22

Day 22 of #30DaysWild coincided with a talk from Farming Connect, a government scheme that aims to ‘safeguard and enhance the rural environment’, whilst revitalising rural economy.

img_7843

Dr Beynon from The Bug Farm presented a fascinating talk on the economic and inherent value of dung beetles.

Last year I wrote a post about my (poor ) attempt at a dung beetle hunt on our farm.  At that point I didn’t spot any dung beetles, but thought I might resume the hunt at a later date. I didn’t think it would be an entire year later!

What do you think of when you here the words ‘Dung beetle’ ? If you are anything like me your first thoughts may be dredged up memories from primary school projects on the ancient Egyptians worship of these creatures.  Or perhaps you think of wildlife TV documentaries, with African Dung Beetles rolling massive balls of Elephant poo about.  Neither  thought  accurately represents the dung beetles that we have here in the UK.

img_7642
Dung beetles are a ‘superfamily’ of insects that practice coprophagy – the delightful habit of munching other animals faeces. Some live exclusively off dung, whilst it only forms part of the diets of other species. Members of the dung beetle family can be found all over the world, in habitat as diverse as deserts, forests, savannah and even UK farmland. The only continent free of these insects is Antarctica.

Entomologists have grouped dung beetles according to the way they use dung;

‘Rollers’create balls of dung, roll them away and bury them, either to use as food or somewhere to lay eggs.  None of our native  species fit into this group.

Instead, the 40 or so  dung beetles found within the UK fit into one of 2 other categories. Either they are ‘ Tunnelers’,  creating vertical and horizontal mazes of  chambers beneath a pat, or they  are ‘Dwellers’,breeding and tunnelling within it.

img_7699

The presentation took place on a dairy farm not too far from us. We listened to Dr Beynons talk before setting out to check pitfall traps that had been set by the farmer the night before.

The first few traps brought forth several ground beetles but no dung beetle species. In the next field Dr Beynon turned over a cow pat and immediately spotted several Dung Beetles. They were tiny – perhaps a third of the length of my little finger nail. Although they looked pretty similar to my untrained eye, Dr Beynon immediately began identifying which species they were. Another, larger beetle appeared in the sludgey remains of the pat. This, apparently, was Aphodius fossus. Bigger than the others, this beetle moved quite slowly and tentatively. Every so often it froze, tucking its legs up under its carapace in case danger was imminent. Whilst we were standing listening to each species being identified, the air around the dung was gradually beginning to come alive with beetles, flying in attracted by the malodorous faeces. At first I thought they were flies, but their flight pattern eluded to their true identity. It had an almost clockwork or mechanical aspect to it, and I half expected the air to be full of whirring and clicking mechanical noises as they alighted on the cow pat.

Once home again, I was itching to go and see if I could find any beetles of our own. The cows had been in the Quarry field the previous day, so it seemed a logical place to start my search.

img_7645

Within a few feet of entering the field gate my path was crossed by a rather large and shiny ground beetle.

A few more steps and I reached my first dung pile. Flipping the crust off, I waited patiently to see if I could spot anything. I was in luck.

Maybe it was beginners luck – I moved onto another pat close by – sure enough 4 beetles appeared, tunnelling through the pat, along with other ‘creepy crawlies’, flies and a few larvae.

img_7669

One more pat – I scrapped the pat close to the ground. Iould make out beetles disappearing down into tunnels. One larger beetle caught my eye – slower than the rest and sitting amongst the grass that had been directly underneath the dung. I scooped it up for a closer look. Aphodius Fossor. Jackpot!

My search wasn’t very scientific in methodology, but at least I know we do have some dung beetles present. This is encouraging. Dung beetles play a vital role in our ecosystem. If they disappeared entirely we would quite literally be up to our necks in dung . These beetles play a role in making soil more fertile and help to redistribute the nutrients in dung back into the soil. They contribute to improving water quality, undo ‘damage’ caused by grazing horses,help reduce green house gas released by farm animals and can even help to prevent livestock getting ill due to parasites. All this is quite a feat, considering they are only a few millimetres long!

img_7658

From this….

img_7657

to this…

Unfortunately, as with so many of our other native species, dung beetles have suffered massive declines. This is largely due to the overuse of and overreliance on products used to worm horses, cattle and sheep.

Dr Beynon, along with a host of other scientists, is hopeful that this trend can be reversed. In fact, they state that not only will it benefit the species of beetles themselves , but it will also benefit the UK farming industry financially, something which seems blatantly obvious when you look at the list of their ‘helpful qualities’.

If you want to have a go at looking for dung beetles (and you have land owners permission!) check out DUMP – a uk based mapping project. You can also see how to build a pitfall trap here. Happy beetling!