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Dung Beetle Benefits in the Pasture Ecosystem

Dung Beetle Benefits in the Pasture Ecosystem

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11/23/2012

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ATTRA is the national sustainable agriculture information center operated by the National Centerfor Appropriate Technology under a grant from the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, U.S. De-partment of Agriculture. These organizations do not recommend or endorse products, compa-nies, or individuals. ATTRA is located in the Ozark Mountains at the University of Arkansas inFayetteville (P.O. Box 3657, Fayetteville, AR 72702). ATTRA staff members prefer to receive re-quests for information about sustainable agriculture via the toll-free number 800-346-9140.
By Michelle L. Thomas, NCAT Agriculture InternOctober 2001
C
URRENT
T
OPIC
D
UNG
B
EETLE
B
ENEFITS
 
IN
 
THE
P
ASTURE
E
COSYSTEM
Introduction
Dung beetles play a small but remarkable role in the pasture ecosystem. They feed on manure, useit to provide housing and food for their young, and improve nutrient cycling, soil structure, andforage growth in the meantime. Dung beetles are important enough in manure and nutrientrecycling that they well deserve the pasture manager’s attention.Dung beetles belong to the zoological order Coleoptera and family Scarabaeidae
.
Of the more than90 species in the U.S., less than a dozen are significant in dung burial. Three behavioral groups ofthe beetles are relevant to manure recycling. Probably the best-known group are the ‘tumble bugs’or ‘rollers’ (e.g., the species
Canthon pilularius
). In the behavior characteristic of this group, a male-female pair roll a ball of dung (brood ball) away from a manure pile in order to bury it. Dungbeetles generally work in pairs.Another group are the ‘tunnelers.’ An example of this group is
Onthophagus gazella,
which typicallybury the dung balls under the manure pat or close to the edge. Piles of soil next to the dung pat areindicators of tunneler-type dung beetle activity. Collectively, tunnelers and tumblers are classifiedas ‘nesters’ because of their behavior in preparing a home for their young. The third group ofbeetles that use dung are the ‘dwellers’. Most dwellers belong to the subfamily Aphodiidae
.
Theylive within the manure pat, engage in little to no digging, and generally do not form brood balls.
Appearance and Behavior
Dung beetles range in size from 2mm (0.1 inch) to 60 mm (2.5 inches). The front legs usually haveserrated edges, used for powerful digging. Colors range from black to brown to red, and can havea metallic appearance. Males often have one or two horns. Scarabs are distinguished from otherbeetles by the appearance of their antennae, which are segmented and end with a plate-like ovalclub of three to seven expansible leaves. These lobes create a large surface area for detecting odors.Look for these specialized antennae with a magnifying glass.Adult dung beetles are drawn to manure by odor. Many are species-specific
  
they prefer a certaintype of animal manure. They will fly up to 10 miles in search of just the right dung, and can attackdung pats within seconds after they drop. Some species will even hitch a ride near the tails ofanimals in anticipation of a deposit. Once drawn by the odor, the adults use the liquid contents ofthe manure for their nourishment. Dr. Patricia Richardson, Research Associate at the University ofTexas, memorably refers to this as a “dung slurpie.”If they are a nesting species, the pair then goes to work on forming a brood ball out of the dung,which contains a large amount of roughage. The pair continue to work as a team to bury the ball.
 
P
AGE
2//D
UNG
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EETLE
B
ENEFITS
 
IN
 
THE
P
ASTURE
E
COSYSTEM
The female, which typically has shorter, thicker legs, digs while the male helps haul the soil fromthe tunnel. The female lays one egg in each ball. She then seals the brood ball, seals the tunnel,and begins the process again if she is of a species that lays several eggs.
Source: Fincher, G.T. and P.B. Morgan. 1990. Flies affecting livestock and poultry. p. 152.In: Habeck, et al. (eds.) Classical Biological Control in the Southern United States.Southern Cooperative Series Bulletin No. 355. November 1990.
In about a week, the egg hatches within the brood ball. The larva feasts on the interior contents ofthe ball, eating about 40
50%, and sealing the interior with its own excrement along the way. This
 
P
AGE
3//D
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ENEFITS
 
IN
 
THE
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ASTURE
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leads to a totally enclosed, protected environment. The larva does not have to compete with othersfor a food source, and is also protected from predators outside the brood ball. If the integrity of thebrood ball is destroyed, the larva will die. Under ideal environmental conditions, the larva willpupate at an average of three weeks. A young adult beetle emerges, eats its way out of the broodball, forms a new tunnel to crawl out through, and goes on its way in search of fresh manure. Thenewly emerged beetles will breed two weeks later, with a complete generation taking six weeksunder ideal environmental conditions (1).Soil moisture level is crucial to many species, as breeding and dung burial are decreased in dryperiods. During dry weather, the young adults emerge from the brood ball but remain within thesoil, waiting for rain. As with most beetles, activity decreases during the coldest months. Thelarvae remain viable deep within the soil, waiting for environmental cues such as rainfall andtemperature to prompt their emergence.Other dung beetle species prefer an arid climate.
Euoniticellus intermedius
, imported from Australia,is found in south, central, and west Texas where it is especially important ecologically, being activeduring dry weather when other native beetles are not (2).
Importing New Species
Dr. Truman Fincher (retired) directed the dung beetle research program at the USDA-ARS FoodAnimal Protection Research Laboratory at College Station, Texas, until 1998. His research wasdirected at importing and introducing dung beetle species that would complement and notcompete with native populations, in order help balance U.S. pasture ecosystems. According toFincher, the beetles in the U.S. have not been able to keep up with our increased livestockproduction and manure waste. Increased fertilizer use and higher-producing forage varieties haveboosted forage yields, increasing in turn the animal carrying capacity per unit of pasture. Also,widespread use of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and anthelmintics may be responsible forreducing dung beetle populations (3).If pastures throughout the variety of climates, soil types, and other physical conditions in the U.S.supported Dr. Fincher’s ideal complex of dung beetles, manure burial would be ongoing 24 hours aday. Though it may take up to 120 different species of dung beetles to accomplish this goal, thebehavioral diversity among species makes it a feasible goal. Some are nighttime flyers, some flyduring the day, and some prefer older manure to very fresh. If several species are workingtogether, some may bury the brood ball close to the manure pat, some farther away, some shallow,and some deep (4).
Benefits to the Pasture System
Dung beetles’ benefits to livestock and the pasture environment just might outweigh theirsomewhat disgusting choice of food. For example, manure is the breeding ground and incubatorfor horn flies (
Haematobia irritans)
and face flies (
 Musca autumnalis)
, two economically importantpests of cattle
.
A single manure pat can generate 60
80 horn fly adults if protected from insectpredators and competitors such as dung beetles. As dung beetles feed, they compete with the flylarvae for food and physically damage the flies’ eggs. Fly populations have been shown todecrease significantly in areas with dung beetle activity. Dr. George Bornemissza found that 95%fewer horn flies emerged from cowpats attacked by
Onthophagus gazella,
than from pats wherebeetles were excluded (2).

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