Insecta, Macro

The Value of Dung Beetles

Dung Beetles belong to the Order Coleoptera and Family Scarabaeidae which also contain many of the Fruit Chafer and Flower Chafer beetles so well known for decimating our rose bushes and other ornamental plants. Of course, many of these beetles are also important agricultural pests and if not controlled can have devastating economic repercussions for crop farmers.

Dung beetles on the other hand, in contrast to their destructive family members, fulfil a very beneficial agricultural and ecological function. They perform the indispensable but unenviable task of breaking up, dispersing and burying dung which without their help would lay unattended in the wild.

There are approximately 8 000 species of what is generally referred to as “Dung Beetles”, varying from as small as about 5mm to more than 50mm in size. Wherever cattle, horses or wild animals are found dung beetles will also be found to be active. Although best known for their “ball rolling” activities, not all dung beetles roll dung balls. Some species will dig a chamber directly under a dung pattie into which they then shovel dung, in effect serving to bury it and so fertilizing the ground. This dung filled chamber is also where they will lay their eggs. There are also some species which feed on the surface and do not bury the dung.

The “ball rolling” species use their strong legs to form round balls of dung which vary in size from relatively large to small depending on the specific species. These dung balls are then often rolled considerable distances away before being buried. Once the dung ball has been safely buried mating will take place and some of the dung will be eaten. The rest is used to make smaller balls into which eggs are laid. After hatching the larva will feed on its “brood ball” until it changes into a pupa and later into a beetle.

Members of the Scarabaeidae family can always be recognised by their lamellate antenna, which consists of a number of plates that can be opened and closed, like a fan.

Dung beetles have specially adapted forelegs used for digging and scraping. The forelegs are also without a tarsus (foot).

Equipment, Technique

Techniques Used

Almost all the insects that I photograph are alive and in the place where I have found them. It is important whenever possible to show not only the insect but also the foodplant on which it has been found. From time to time, however, I find a dead specimen or someone brings me a specimen that is already dead. In such a case I attempt to reconstruct the insects natural surroundings either outside, or where circumstances demand, for example if the insect is very small in a studio set. It can be exceedingly difficult to make a dead insect appear alive as small detail such as the position of the tarsus (foot) as well as the antennae need to be properly positioned. Before handling the specimen needs to be relaxed (softened) in order to be able to move the limbs without breaking them, often even this does not help and after losing a few legs the specimen is no longer worth photographing.

Great care and patience is required. Photographing insects is in many ways like hunting wild game and many of the same principals apply. Insects have acute hearing, they can sense minute vibrations and have excellent eyesight, their multifaceted eyes being able to pick up the slightest movement or change in light. Many are as vigilant as the most nervous buck and most possess the capability of flight. When stalking a skittish butterfly or dragonfly with a camera and long lens capable of only a few centimeters of field depth every bit of the skill and dedication of the big game hunter is often needed. Knowing your subject and its habits helps a lot too. Many insects will repeatedly return to the same plant or flower and this allows one to settle down and “ambush” it as it returns.

I have neither very expensive nor very specialised equipment. I make use of two cameras, a Canon Powershot G3 and a Canon 300D. The majority of my photographs have been taken with the 300D. Although I have recently acquired a 100mm macro lens, many of my photographs have been taken using a F4.5 80-200mm zoom lens with various homemade attachments including lenses salvaged from an old pair of binoculars which make excellent supplementary lenses. I use these in various combinations as well as a reversed 55mm Pentax lens either alone or attached to the zoom lens or the macro lens. I furthermore have a Nikon SMZ-10 trinocular stereo zoom microscope which I use for identifying and studying specimens and to which I am able to fit either of my cameras.

The only basic requirements are that the article fit the broad theme of the Insecta website, that is, that it be of interest to nature lovers and/or nature photographers. It must obviously be your own work and your name and contact information must be supplied. If you wish you can do your own layout of text and pictures based on a 1024 x 768 screen resolution or simply forward text and pictures and I will do the layout to fit the style of the Insecta website. Do take note, however, that articles that I consider unsuitable will not be published, the discretion lies entirely with me. No payment will be made for articles or photographs published, the copyright of all text and photographs remains that of the author/photographer.