If you have ever been on safari during the summer in South Africa you will be able to associate yourself with what I am about to explain and if you haven’t, then you need to start planning your next safari trip to Londolozi SOON.
After the first big rains on Londolozi the bush comes alive with melodious bird calls and insects buzzing around from every angle. For me one of the most exciting to return each summer, is without a doubt the dung beetles; we know summer is here when you drive past a pile of dung or a midden and the plant-filled excrement is pulsating with life. These piles of dung become bustling work places of dozens and dozens of dung beetles fighting for their share of fresh dung. It really is incredible watching these scarabs working with so much perseverance and strength.
There are approximately 7000 species of dung beetles worldwide, of which Southern Africa hosts the widest variety of approximately 780 species. These dung beetles vary in size and colour from a few millimetres and a metallic green to some of the larger getting up to 5cm and a being jet black. Dung beetles only emerge during the summer after the rains when the ground softens and they are able to bury their dung. The work of a male dung beetle is astonishing as he will set out everyday in search of fresh dung. These beetles are astute navigators and are able to detect fresh dung within minutes of it being dropped by the various host animals.
The beetles enjoy a symbiotic relationship with a very small dust mite which lives around the mouths of the dung beetles and which cleans excess dung particles off them. As one can imagine they spend a lot of time in the dirt, dung and dust and it’s while they are flying in search of new dung piles that these small mites are hard at work cleaning them off, ensuring their exoskeleton doesn’t become clogged
There are of four main sub-groupings of dung beetles, classified according to what they do with dung and .
- Endocoprids or “dwellers”; these are the dung beetles which live and remain inside the pile of dung, living and breeding in situ.
- Paracoprids or “tunnellers”; they bury their dung directly underneath the site of dung as their larval food supplies.
- Telecoprids or “rollers”; they are the group which we often see rolling their balls of dung and take it away from the original site to be eaten and buried elsewhere.
- Kleptopcoprids, they are the thieves, that will steal balls from the telecoprids in which they will lay their own eggs.
Once the telecoprids find a pile of dung the hustle and bustle then starts just like the Monday madness rush to work after a holiday on safari, but for them there is no break.
They are out to roll one of two balls.
The first is what we call a nuptial ball, and is rolled for a female by the male, for both of them to consume and mate in; the bigger the ball the more impressed the female will be. Once a female has found a male with a ball suitable and up to her standards she will the proceed to cling onto the side, and the male will roll the ball into a hole or dig one himself. The second type of ball rolled is called a brood ball and is rolled as a larder for the dung beetles larvae.
The female will lay a single egg in the brood ball and pat it down leaving it in an almost-pear shape. It is then buried. During the winter months the outer shell hardens to keep the inside moist, so the larvae can develop and consume the remains of the ball. A female can lay up to 60 eggs per season which means a male will have to roll up 60 brood balls alone.
If you have ever seen a male rolling a ball, you may have noticed him stopping from time to time and glancing up into the sky. What he is doing is navigating to the exact same location where he has buried other balls. It has been scientifically proven that these incredible scarabs are using the solar rays during the day and the Milky Way to orient themselves at night.
Dung beetles can bury more than one metric ton of dung per hectare per year. In this regard they are exceptionally important ecologically, being responsible for the renewal of vast amounts of waste and plant excrement being buried under the ground. This can help enormously in pest control. Not only does it reduce the number of things like flies by lowering the amount of breeding sites for their eggs (dung), but when we examine the amount of elephant dung that is excreted on a daily basis and with elephants only digesting roughly 44% of what they eat there is still a significant amount of nutrients that remain in the dung and the beetles are returning these nutrients back into the ground.t
If you’re out on game drive and are wondering why your ranger seems to be making erratic swerves in the Land Rover, it’s probably because he or she is dodging these industrious little insects that are just going about their days.