Dung Beetle

Participants of the Downey Ranch tour in Wamego, Kansas took notice when Dr. Cassandra Olds, a professor of entomology at Kansas State University began her presentation on all-natural poop scoopers, widely known as dung beetles. The crowd of nearly 50 local producers sat up even straighter when they learned there was a virtually labor-free way to reduce the cost of chemicals used for pest control.

“The more animals you have, the more poop you have,” Olds said. “The more poop you have, the more breeding environments you have.”

This enigma, created by agriculturalists, can be explained with the Integrated Pest Management disease triangle illustrating a concept that three ingredients; a host, a pest and a conducive environment are necessary to cause biotic disease. Because all animals poop, a breeding environment is created promoting unfavorable pests.

“We will get mad at those flies, but we created the environment for that,” Olds said. “In our livestock production systems, we can make the environment less favorable for these pests. Less favorable environments mean fewer pests, which means less money you spend to get rid of them.”

Understandably, producers become frustrated with pests that no amount of chemicals can control. Over time, these creatures have developed an immunity to many popularized chemical products.

“We cannot rely on chemical control like we used to,” Olds said. “We’re really bad at removing those breeding sources and finding natural ways to get rid of them. What we really need to do is flip that around. What we need to do is spend most of that time getting rid of the breeding habitats.”

For Olds, it comes down to simple math. If producers can find a way to reduce breeding habitats, the result would include fewer flies, fewer worms and a reduced cost of chemical control.

Since most people don’t have the desire nor the time to follow the herd all day long picking up poop, an alternative was proposed. The North American dung beetle. These creatures are all-natural poop scoopers using the dung of mammals for feeding and nesting. The insects will break down dung piles into small balls and bury them underground.

“You have manure pads just sitting there for ages and it ruins the pasture,” Olds said. “These little dung beetles get rid of that. More importantly, they put nutrients back into the soil and you get better uptake for your pastures, and the production rate of your grasses is better.”

Knowing dung beetles have a positive effect on the ecosystem and a high Return on Investment gets producers excited to jump the gun and order dung beetles delivered to their doorstep.

“The dung beetles that you can buy for sale are invasive dung beetles,” Olds said. “They’re not native here. The problem is it will displace all our native dung beetles. We don’t want that to happen.”

The pyramid of pest management tactics according to IPM starts from the ground up. Prevention is the most preferable followed by sanitation methods of control, mechanical methods of control and biological methods and topping off with chemicals and pesticides. Producers have moved past prevention and now, bringing back dung beetles is considered a biological pest management intervention method.

“Without knowing it, producers have been having an effect on their dung beetle populations for a long time,” Olds said. “The biggest effect has probably been since the 1950s when we started using oral dewormers for large-scale deworming. Primarily, we’ve been using ivermectin-based products. What we know is that the ivermectin is secreted out in the manure and it impacts the developing dung beetle larva.”

Ivermectin, used to treat infections caused by roundworms, threadworms, and other parasites, is secreted from livestock. The issue arises when dung beetles are moving dung balls underground, their eggs are developing in the manure contaminated with oral dewormers and it impacts the ability of the dung beetles to survive.

“Any sort of contaminate not only [affects] that manure, but also the soil around it,” Olds said. “What we have are these legacy effects of years and years of using oral dewormers and we’ve even got some evidence to suggest that the stuff that we use for fly control can also impact different dung beetles and their ability to produce healthy young. All these management practices we’ve been doing have been negatively impacting the populations. Now we’re at a point where we have noticeably fewer dung beetles.”

So, what happens now? Olds said current knowledge and research documentation on native dung beetles is limited. Through the entomology department at K-State, Olds is setting up visits with farmers and ranchers to partake in population research. Her team is visiting local Kansas livestock operations and setting up traps for dung beetles to continue her research.

“What we’re going to try and do is correlate that with current land management practices, but also historic land management practices,” Olds said. “What we really need to have is really accurate reporting on the size of your area that you have, how many animals you have, your stocking density, how you rotate and very, very importantly, what kind of external and internal pest management you use. That’s probably going to be our biggest effector on the dung beetle population.”

According to Olds, there is not one downside to improving local native dung beetle populations. They are beneficial to local ecosystems and, if widespread, save immeasurably on fertilizer costs in the long run.

“Dung beetles are the unsung heroes of grassland ecosystems,” Olds said. “They also are great for improving water quality because they remove the manure that is contaminated with bacteria and they bury it underground, so it can’t run off into our streams,” Olds said. “They have a number of different ecosystem services that they provide. There is nothing negative that a dung beetle does. So anything that we can do to promote them is, in the long run, just going to help producers out.”

To get in contact with the entomology department at Kansas State University, contact Cassandra Olds by email at colds@ksu.edu or call directly to 785-532-4731 to set up a visit.

“They’re basically just nature’s little miracle workers,” Olds said. “I think that they’ve been underappreciated for a long time, everybody sees them and thinks they’re cute, but very few of us actually think about how much good they do.”

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