How Dung Beetles Help Support Pasture Ecosystems and Help Control Flies and Internal Parasites

Some of the warm weather problems that farmers and ranchers face include the control of flies and internal parasites. These two problems are closely related by the origin or breeding environments of many kinds of flies and internal parasites.

Regarding flies, the types of flies that breed in fecal matter include most non biting flies and several kinds of biting flies. These are the filth breeders and they are attracted to their breeding places by odors…I just can’t call the smell of crap a “scent”. Some types of biting flies lay their eggs in moist vegetation or moist soil so that their larva will be able to feed on organic matter.

Internal animal parasites life cycle is as follows…the adult, which has been eaten as a larvae by the host animal, sheds eggs in the digestive system of the host animal. The host animal then “goes to the bathroom”…deposits its fecal matter in the field and along with the fecal matter are eggs from the parasite. The eggs remain in the dung and in one to two weeks, the eggs hatch into the larvae stage. The larvae then migrate to the tips of grass blades and are eaten by grazing animals and the cycle continues.

In both of the breeding cycles of flies and of internal parasites, if that breeding cycle is broken, the success of the breedings will be compromised. Guess what? My pals the dung beetles do just this…and they do more….but I’m getting ahead of myself…first things first.

Let me tell you about dung beetles. Dung beetles are of the zoological order Coleoptera and the family Scarabaeidae. There are more than 90 species of dung beetles in the United States but only about 10 or 12 that are efficient dung buriers. Within this small group, there are three behavioral groups that are relevant to dung burial which means that they are recyclers of dung…poop processors. If cleaning up livestock dung is all that dung beetles do, they would be valuable…but the clean up part is only the beginning.

One of the dung recyclers is the “tumble bugs” or “rollers” …species Canthon pilularius. These guys are fun to watch work and they represent the best known group of dung beetles. Usually working as a male-female team, they detach pieces of dung and roll them into balls which are then rolled to their tunnel, deposited with a little dung beetle egg which is sealed inside the ball, and then rolled down the tunnel where it is sealed into the tunnel with dirt. The egg hatches in about a week. The larvae feeds on the interior of the brood ball, usually eating about half of the ball which is filled back up with the excrement of the larvae. The larvae is protected in his little ball and will pupate in about three weeks if the conditions are ideal…right temperature and adequate moisture. When the young beetle emerges from the ball by eating its way out, it will then dig a new tunnel and start looking for fresh dung by smelling with its antennae. This young dung beetle will breed in about two weeks and a new generation will be underway.

Another group is the “tunnelers” which usually bury their brood balls under the manure or near it. Look for piles of soil near the dung. Don’t disturb those piles of dirt!

A third kind of dung beetle is the “dwellers”. These guys usually live in the manure pat or pile, do very little digging and usually don’t form brood balls.

Dung beetles are good fliers. They scout around “smelling” for fresh poop with their antennae which are segmented and topped with a plate like oval of three to seven expandable leaves. The large surface area of this plate serves to detect the odor of dung. The range of dung beetles is around 10 miles or so and some of them actually prefer the poop of specific animals…picky, picky. The first beneficial act of dung beetles is feeding on the liquid in the poop. This is their nourishment…it’s their poop smoothie and it helps dry out the dung. This is a critical first step in eliminating the breeding opportunities of flies which must have moisture in order to hatch their eggs. While feeding, dung beetles may also damage the eggs of flies. This is extremely effective in reducing the reproductive success of flies. You already love these little beetles, don’t you? Hold on…there’s more.

The manure dehydration-removal by dung beetles also helps eliminate the egg incubator needed by gastrointestinal parasites. I must bring up a problem of conflicting effects. We use poisons to worm our animals. The poisons are then excreted with the poop and the dung beetles are then poisoned by the toxic poop. We are killing the beetles who are working to help use reduce the need to worm our animals. It’s a catch 22. My thoughts…do not worm as a regular precautionary procedure. This has other disastrous effects and is not wise for the health of our animals. Take fecal samples and only worm IF NECESSARY. The fewer times you worm, the fewer times you will have to worm because the population of dung beetles will thrive and help destroy the parasites before you have to take action. There are also some wormer medicines that are not as harmful or toxic to the environment as others. Ivermectin is a danger to dung beetle populations for example. Also, a restriction of the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides is in order. Your soil is supposed to be alive with organic activity…don’t fight nature…work with nature.

The tunneling of dung beetles also serves to aerate the soil, provide for better water retention and the left over stored dung that has been buried in the ground makes more nitrogen and carbon available for the use of vegetation. Nutrient rich soil is needed for the health and welfare of soil microbes, fungi and bacteria. Organic matter is also food for earthworms…another one of my favorite recyclers…soil builders. Your pasture will benefit greatly.

Combating flies and intestinal parasites is a multi-billion dollar effort, annually…not just for farmers and ranchers, but for all of us. The way to manage the exponential growth of these critters is to interrupt their breeding programs. Once flies and parasites have reached adulthood, they have most likely already started breeding before we kill them with traps and poisons…more are already on the way. Tests have shown that adequate populations of dung beetles have reduced the number of flies (horn flies and face flies) at cattle and horse farms by as much as 95%.

Currently, it’s not very practical and it’s very expensive to order dung beetles. But you can help breed them yourself. The easiest way to have more dung beetles is to encourage their presence by providing a non toxic place for them to live and breed. Dung beetles will find their food. It’s up to us to not stand in the way or do anything that will compromise their breeding success. Support your local dung beetles.

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