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).