Sandy’s Garden ... Dump!

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

“Roses are red / Violets are blue / Without dung beetles / There’d be loads of poo!”

I suspect that this quatrain must be a contender for the least romantic rhyme associated with the first couplet of a quatrain commonly used with reference to St. Valentine’s Day. Its author, Sally-Ann Spence, runs invertebrate educational workshops under the name of Minibeast Mayhem and keeps sheep, cattle and horses on her farm in Wiltshire. She is also a member of the Dung beetle UK Mapping Project, which is hosted by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH), set up by a small team of people passionate about UK dung beetle ecology and conservation. The Dung beetle UK Mapping Project has the acronym DUMP and is dedicated to finding out where the several species of British dung beetles are found and whether they are flourishing or, as some research has suggested, their numbers are in decline. And, gentle reader, if you share my former view that dung beetles would never be missed, then you are every bit as misguided as I used to be.

Unsurprisingly, dung beetles eat poo. Most are thought to have a distinct preference for the droppings of large herbivorous animals … animals like cows, horses and deer … which eat plants and whose dung consists mainly of partly-digested plant material and is a nutritious food source for these beetles: but a suggestion that the dung of omnivores … animals which eat other animals as well as plants … is actually the favourite food has gained popularity recently, probably because this poo tends to stink and is easier to find. I used to think that dung beetles rolled their precious dung into balls to be moved and buried, but know now that only some species do this; other are content to tunnel under a poo pile and let gravity do the rest. Their purpose in doing this is partly to provision their larder and partly to assist in the survival of their species, the female beetle often preparing a s*** sausage for each egg during the egg after mating, so that when the larva emerges it is entirely surrounded by its very own stockpile of food.

Once mature, the young dung beetle must compete with its elders, its siblings and, in some areas, with other species of dung beetle to find food. The fresher the poo the better apparently for, rather like ourselves, dug beetles prefer fresh food to stale dried-out fare; well given the choice, would you eat bread fresh from the baker’s oven or stale, week-old crusts? I have read, on the internet, of a scientific researcher who recorded 4 000 dung beetles on an elephant patty within 15 minutes of the elephant relieving itself, with a further 12 000 rivals soon joining the melee. (How does one count the number of dung beetles on an elephant poo pat, I wonder; and who, other than a dedicated researcher, would fancy undertaking such a task?) And certainly, with so many beetles competing for a piece of the cake, one can understand each individual beetle’s concern to roll up his share of the loot and roll it off to its own larder without delay. It was once thought that, when several beetles were observed rolling the same ball, they were acting as a team: it is now thought that each is vying with the others to prove that it is the strongest and to make off with the ball for its selfish self.

Now, do we need dung beetles? When European settlers first introduced European herbivores into Australia, the native sewage scavengers ignored their droppings and continued to search for kangaroo crap. European dung beetles had to be imported to clean up the spreading poo piles. So yes, as is the case with so many animal and insect species, the dung beetle has a vital, if unrecognised, role to play - a starring role in animal farmers’ fields and an important bit player in the countryside. We need DUMP to reassure us that all is well.