Stargazing Dung Beetles

An edited version of this post appeared as ‘Life with the insect astronomer’ an article for ‘Rooting For Nature,’ my monthly column in Deccan Herald. The published column is linked here.

I kept my eyes peeled to the ground as I walked the path from the cottage to unlock the gates of Navilu Kaadu early in the morning. What was I looking for?

Canine turd to avoid stepping on! Zoey, our little furball loves attention, even in her most private moments. After extensive deliberation, she picks a spot slap-bang in the middle of the road to relieve herself. If in Bengaluru, she picks the centre of a tarred traffic-plying road, and if it is at Navilu Kaadu, it has to be prime real-estate in the middle of our front yard or on the mud path. I suspect she imagines an eager audience for what she deems an absolute tour de force.

A small dog siting on a becnh
Zoey, the queen of Navilu Kaadu

Many a city driver has had the misfortune of witnessing a defecating Shih tzu staring pompously into the headlights during nightly walks, with her embarrassed Dad hurriedly scooping the ordure in full glare.

I recall my own distinct dog-walking moment when a bunch of ladies on a morning stroll caught me scooping-up doggy do off the road, and one of them muttered ‘Kashta’ (difficult)!  

On the farm though, we have help.

Zoey’s doo-doo is meticulously cleared round-the-clock at Navilu Kaadu with zero-intervention from her anointed human poop-scoopers. Our resident dung beetles catch wind of the feast Zoey lays out for them every couple of hours, and they flock to the banquet site in a trice. The beetles get to work rolling-up the turd into spheres and haul away the spoils, pushing them in reverse with their hindlegs.

What do the beetles do with these balls of excrement?

Dung beetles can be rollers, tunnelers or dwellers depending on how they use dung. ‘Rollers’ roll-away dung balls for use dung as food and nesting chambers, ‘tunnelers’ bury the dung wherever they find it and ‘dwellers’, well they just dwell in the dung pile.

Roller dung beetles are a common sight around Navilu Kaadu, especially when we feed Jeevamrutha to our crops. Jeevamrutha is a fermented concoction of desi cow dung, urine, jaggery and gram flour that serves as a microbial culture of good soil bacteria. It is a critical component of natural farming. It enriches the soil, which in turn proffers bountiful, nutritious, chemical-free produce.   

A roller dung beetle rolls a ding ball with its hind legs

The rich blend draws dung beetles like a magnet, and we inevitably spot ‘roller’ beetles trying to roll-up tiny balls of Jeevamrutha in reverse, in and around the containers with  the mixture.

The story of the humble dung beetle is fascinating – one that involves stars and galaxies. These little insects are mini astronomers and read the sky to navigate. They have supernatural strength and punch way above their weight. Researchers have found that Onthophagus Taurus, a species of horned dung beetle can pull 1,141 times its own body weight — the equivalent of six full double-decker buses to a human, making it the world’s strongest bug!

Dung beetles are drawn to the fecal matter of herbivores and omnivores by scent. Male beetles roll dung pat into little balls and snare an agreeable she-beetle while they are at it. The males mount their dung balls and perform a little jig, turning round and round like whirling dervishes. This is when they take-in celestial cues such as the positions of the sun, the moon and the glow of the Milky Way to get their bearings so as to steer the dung balls in a straight path, in the opposite direction of the dung pile.

It is crucial that the beetles cart the balls away from the dung pile as quickly as possible in a linear direction to avoid other thieving dung beetles from stealing their precious cargo, should they end-up circling back to dung pile.

A roller dung beetle rolls a dung ball with its hind legs

They bury the dung balls in a place with soft soil to make cosy love nests called ‘brood balls’. The pair mate and the female lays eggs in the brood ball. The hatched larvae feed on the dung, pupate underground and eventually emerge as adult beetles with wings.  

Dung beetles clean-up waste, control breeding parasites contained in the dung and aid secondary seed dispersal. Most notably, these tiny stargazers are mother nature’s special agents that render yeoman ecosystem services even as they enrich the soil with their intriguing way of life designed for nutrient cycling.

Wish we had these live poop-scoopers back in Bengaluru to deal with irresponsible dog-owners who refuse to clean-up after their pets.