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The Beneficial Beetle

When you hear the term beneficial insect, pollinators like bees or butterflies probably come to mind. Or maybe you think of predatory insects such as the praying mantis or spiders. Either way these good bugs sure are nice to have around.

There is another insect, though less glamorous than butterflies or ladybugs, but arguably just as important – the dung beetle. These industrious little workers are the waste disposal engineers of the insect world. If they weren’t around, it would be us living in a pile of poop instead of them.

Dung beetles are the ultimate recyclers. They rid the world of much dung, and in a very useful way. Not only does this make the world a less smelly place to live, it reduces the number of flies, parasites, and other pests that also spend time in the dung pile.

The Dung Beetle. Photo courtesy Axel Strauss.

Over 50 dung beetle species call Nebraska home. They belong to three basic behavioral groups: rollers, tunnelers, and dwellers. Each group moves and buries their treasure in slightly different ways for the same purposes. Rollers shape pieces of dung into balls and roll them away from the pile. They roll them away to munch on later and use as a brooding chamber. Tunnelers bury their dung underneath the pile. And dwellers just live and breed right there inside the pile. These actions help aerate and enrich the soil, increase plant growth, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, that’s not all. These good guys also pollinate and disperse the seeds of some plants.

“While their choice of food may sound gross, dung beetles are extremely important ecologically and play a valuable role in nutrient cycling. Ultimately they are a key component to maintaining a healthy landscape,” said dung beetle researcher and native Nebraskan, Dr. Sean D. Whipple. Whipple is currently a Field Development Representative at ISK Biosciences Corporation. “They provide a valuable ecosystem service that not a lot of insects do and they do it very efficiently. Dung beetles can potentially do in 48 hours what would otherwise take a couple of years.”

While at the University of Nebraska, Whipple studied the impact dung beetles have on range management, the foundation of beef production and a major contributor to Nebraska’s number one industry.

“The benefits of dung beetles go far beyond benefiting plant communities, but also improve livestock yield,” Whipple said.  “Based on the many ecosystem services that dung beetles provide, the estimated economic benefit of dung beetles to the environment and cattle industry in the United States is worth over $380 million each year.”

Now, that is beneficial. Be sure to give some love to the humble dung beetle – they deserve it.

About Kimberly Stuhr

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