Dung beetles in the Scarabaeidae family

Scarabaeidae Family

There are over 20,000 species in the world in the Scarabaeidae family, 300 in Europe, and 89 in the British Isles. There are over 50 species of dung beetle in Britain, but none of them are dung rollers, i. e. none of them break off a ball of dung and roll it off over the ground as the famous Egyptian beetles do. They range in size from 0.2 - 17 cm.

The Scarabaeidae contain two main groups, the dung beetles and the plant-eating chafers.

Aphodius sp. typical dung beetle

On the right is Aphodius sp. showing the typical dung beetle shape - the strong, digging legs, shovel-like head and lamellate antennae.

What dung beetles do for us

Dung beetles perform a very necessary service to us humans with our ever increasing consumption of meat. For example, in the U. S. there is almost 1 cow for every 3 people. Each cow produces about 9 tonnes of dung a year! And how do we get rid of this dung? Well for cows reared outside we do nothing at all. The dung beetles and other invertebrates perform that service for us for free.

In Australia there are no native dung beetles, and after the introduction of cattle in the 19th century there was a massive fly population explosion because of all the piles of dung lying around for months on end. So they introduced a South African dung beetle. This greatly reduced fly numbers, which pleased both cattle and humans.

The ancient Egyptians associated the dung ball rolling behaviour of the adult beetles with their sun god, Ra, whom they believed rolled the sun across the sky, consequently dung beetles were venerated in their culture. Even today the image of the adult scarab beetle in jewellery is supposed to bring good luck to the buyer and wearer.

Aphodius sp., adult dung beetle

Geotrupes stercorosus Dor beetle

Though beetles in the Geotrupes genus are large and heavy-looking they can and do fly both during the night and day.

The adults emerge from the soil on warm nights and take flight in search of manure. The beetle below was found lying dead on some steps in Rhodes. It is probably Geotrupes stercorosus, a dung scarabid commonly found on the island, and all over Europe. Adults are 14 - 20 mm long, black or blue/black with a metallic blue or green sheen.

The adults mate in spring then the male and female dig a tunnel below the dung (they prefer the dung of herbivorous mammals, and work fast enough to bury almost a whole cow pat in a single night).

The tunnel is around 40 - 60 cm deep and branches at the end into 4 - 6 chambers. In each chamber an egg is laid. Then the adults drag dung down and fill the chamber with it.

The parents supply the growing larva with fresh dung. The larvae usually take just over a year to develop, so the lifecycle takes 2 years. Geotrupes adults also dig shallower tunnels to store dung for their own consumption. They will also eat rotting fungi.

Geotrupes stercorosus, dung beetle, adult

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