Charles Walters on Dung Beetles

In his book Dung Beetles, Charles Walters digs deep into modern science and ancient history, traditional folklore and the best practical advice to resurrect the lowly dung beetle, exposing farmers and ranchers — and anyone with a desire to work more closely with nature — to this amazing creature.

The excerpt below features the book’s prologue, and some of Charles Walters’ more philosophical thoughts on the humble dung beetle.

Copyright 2008, softcover, 215 pages.

From: Prologue

“A camel is a smoother ride than a horse.” I made up my mind to add that line to my notes as I glided along on a Bactrian camel while most of my associates took their pounding on ever-jolting horses. We left the Great Pyramid of Giza on a day trip from the Pyramid of Cheops to el-Sir (pronounced sigh-ear). The camels often did not keep pace with the horses. This enabled a personal discovery that has not entirely evaporated during the intervening quarter of a century.

It was a sandy trail, this ride along the Nile. Animals fed in the evening usually discarded their used feed along the trail, which was free of vegetable growth. Horse biscuits dropped only moments earlier were already being worked on by the time I came along. Incredibly, some beetles were rolling the fresh deposits across the sand, seemingly coating the purloined dung with flecks of sand that caught the sun like so much mica.

Mark Sturges, Meet the Beetles, from the 2007 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (51 minutes, 28 seconds.) Listen in as Mark Sturges, professional grower and input provider, talk about how and why beetles can help you grow your crops.

Where did they come from, these beetles? This was real desert, not the arid land we Americans call desert in spite of flowers, cacti, brush, and grasses with roots tucked under rocks. This desert drifted with the wind, scoured its foundation as if to desiccate the earth below ever deeper. The cycles that turned the Sahara from a grassland savannah into a centuries-long desert required only 300 years. Those same forces made Australia what it is, a drought-cycle-dogged land forever at the long range mercy of the perihelion, when the Earth is closest to the sun, and the epihelion, when the Earth is farthest from the sun. Add to the above the positions of the largest planet, Mercury, and Earth’s neighbor, Mars, plus the Chandler wobble at the North Pole, and you have a good example of cause atop cause until Australia arrives at its six-year drought cycle, a short-term hard times, and finally cessation of the most imaginative event since ancient seekers first domesticated wild animals.

I caught up with Professor Phil Callahan, entomologist, philosopher, physicist, and science writer.  “How do these tumble bugs know that there’s fresh dung to be had out in the middle of the sand?” It seemed a reasonable question. It certainly couldn’t be odor that communicated the message, not in that wind. And there didn’t seem to be any bugs on the wing, like scouting planes hunting a polar bear or even an armadillo on a Texas gravel road.

Callahan had just released his magnum opus, Tuning in to Nature. It was his thesis that insects communicate in the infrared end of the spectrum, and that they receive emanations in the same way. Yes, the dung sends out a message in the infrared, and antenna-toting insects pick up the signal. Callahan said, “That’s your scarab. If you had the scarab’s power in terms of its size, given in terms of yours, you’d be Superman.”

Callahan’s view is not the conventional view. Entomologists by the hundreds have made library shelves sway-back with tomes that turn dung beetles into odor-loving insects that slurp dung juice because it smells good to all the tribes just as most foods smell good to most human beings.

Scarabaeidae sacer became an Egyptian obsession because the beetle united no less than three elements of their culture, sun, soil, cattle. A very large beetle, this sacer character preferred cattle dung to camel droppings. It reminded of the civilization along the Nile, of the sun in its morphology, the rising sun, that is.

The dung ball of this roller bug is shaped in the morning. Its rolling capacity depends on the terrain in a land with a paucity of forage. It travels, this miniature ship of the desert, the way the sun navigates the sky. The scarab sees to the birth of its young in underground chambers, the destiny of its brood balls. The sun resurrects itself, promising new life. It is said that the god Osiris arose from the beetle’s pupa. Nesting, like sex, preserves the species.

dung beetles
“That’s your scarab. If you had the scarab’s power in terms of its size, given in terms of yours, you’d be Superman.”

The dung beetle Scarabaeidae family seems as important to the mythology of Egypt as is Osiris. It was and remains the sacred scarab. It is likely that Egypt’s interest in scarabs was theological. Several species, including the giants of the dung beetles, make brood balls as large as baseballs, some being lodged eight feet deep in the soil. The archaeologists who first found them thought they were cannonballs.

Egyptologists tell us that the faithful considered the scarab the embodiment of the sun god. Did not the sun cross the sky much as the scarab crosses bare ground?  The name of the god-like beetle was derived from what may loosely and liberally be translated as “come into existence.” It was the embodiment of God the Creator who invented Himself, much like Darwin’s life created itself. The business of a beetle emerging from a brood ball must have qualified as self-creation.

The ancients believed that the scarab ilk had no females. It was the injection of sperm into a ball of material that enabled life, all this from a sphere of dung molded into shape with the hind legs of a divine bug rolling the ball east to west, always looking to the east. This fount of life is buried for 28 days. On the 29th day, a water release frees the cargo.

The ancients took note of the battles over the possession of a dung ball. This they regarded as a symbol of courage among the combatants. Roman writers put sheep dung into the equation, and they described what we now call tunnelers. Gods tend to procreate in mythology, and so the sun god led to a god of the rising sun, a scarab-headed man. Thus, Osiris and Isis came into being.

Osiris endured death annually, but he also extinguished death by his annual resurrection. He was the personification of the vitality and self-renewal of Nature. Could those ancients do less than assign the same immortality to the scarab? The Book of the Dead has a pecking order for death and funerals. The descendant, the creator god, was murdered by his brother Seth and brought back from the dead by his sister and future wife Isis to be King of the Netherworld. Their son, Horus, the falcon-headed god, brought comeuppance to the murderer of his father, and then ruled Upper and Lower Egypt. Power survived even death, for which reason the dung beetle was empowered.

We are required to correct and update the ancient scribes who have deeded to us their all. Yet, in spirit, Horus, with power from Osiris, is still with us. Those ancients believed in Nature’s balance and, not least, in fecundity. The power to vanquish enemies who would destroy good order is now seated in government, the quid pro quo of the social contract.

The beetles of the world constitute the greatest animal numbers. Kings, presidents, and generals all fade away, but the dung beetle, cloaked in anonymity for all but the professional dung beetle watcher, abides.

“Where did the scarab come from and where did it go?” Back from Egypt, Phil Callahan supplied more information on tumble bugs, and he stayed on as a consultant to Acres U.S.A. There were so many corners of Nature that required exploration that dung beetles simply dropped out of sight with or without a paean to designate the event. A simple stone model of the scarab, fetched from a Cairo curio shop or a tourist trap near the Aswan Dam, I don’t remember which, held down papers on my editorial desk, but it vanished when the office was moved.

The Egyptians were not alone in worshipping beetles, albeit not necessarily dung beetles. To start with, there’s the business of Greek language, religion, and folklore being embodied in beetle nomenclature. There’s the term Cantharus, technically a vessel with handles, which is a genus in the soldier beetle family Cantharidae. This term once described dung beetles that were believed to find their conduit to life via their rectum. Ethnologists have had a field day tracing language, but I elect not to go there in this narrative.

Legend and myth are more inviting pursuits, and those of us who have dabbled in such will recall the Aristophanes play in which a dung beetle figures in ending the Peloponnesian War. The chief character wonders aloud whether the war can be stopped. He flies on the back of a dung beetle to counsel with Zeus.

J.F. Smithcors, the author of Evolution of the Veterinary Art, tells us about early farriers who believed that beetles in pasture grass were ingested as the bovine rolled its tongue across its only row of teeth seated on the lower jaw. This intake, they believed, caused the animal to balloon its belly and explode. Later, much later, researchers found that it was the blister beetle that caused this misery.

Ideas afloat in the Middle Ages are still with us today, Smithcors claimed, notably depopulation when a single bovine tuberculosis reactor is found in a herd, except that the semi-ancients killed only debilitated animals, not healthy ones in the general environment. Children today are sometimes told about the friendly bug named for the Virgin Mary. Our Lady Bug, now just “lady bug,” has graduated into nursery rhymes, however the lady bug is not a dung crawler.

Withal, it was Greek culture that made dung beetle lore a staple in stage plays that permitted lots of scatological humor. Down track a ways, Dante’s Divine Comedy perfectly portrayed the theology of the day, and is said to have coined the word “shit.” In today’s discourse, it would be the “S” word, a device invented by F. Lee Bailey during the O.J. Simpson trial. In the era of St. Thomas Aquinas, the dung beetle was believed to be the alter ego of the tainted sinner. The business of rolling dung came to mean foul deeds and debauchery. The step to making the scarab a symbol of bad luck followed. My forebears from Bavaria called it the witch beetle, and certainly associated it with the devil, albeit with no particular one. On the other hand, rescuing an upturned beetle by setting it aright again might save a crop from pestilence or a home from storm and fire. Some of that lore made it to Western Kansas where it was bad luck among some Volga Germans and Hungarians to kill the little skinless hard-shelled critter. This devil connection was no more fanciful than the Egyptian’s worship of Osiris, Isis, and the scarab. Also called the coffin beetle, the scarab was supposedly a colleague of Beelzebub, who was assigned the chore of consuming the bodies of sinners.

These few facts may be useful if the reader gets on a quiz show, but they are hardly conversation material outside of Ireland, Britain, and Europe.

As we meet a few of the thousands of species, we will get to know them for what they are and perhaps solve some of the riddles that attend their propagation, incubation, and colonization. Some few years had to intervene before I met George Truman Fincher at a San Antonio seminar. Truman opened his lecture with a slide blown up to approximately the size of a small billboard. It was a gigantic “cow platter,” as we called it during my Kansas High Plains youth. Truman Fincher had his laconic comment. “This may look like a cow pie to you, but to me, it’s my bread and butter.”

In fact, it wasn’t really his bread and butter any longer. The word had come down from the United States Department of Agriculture’s ARS (Agriculture Research Service) to destroy the dung beetles that he’d been propagating, rearing, and colonizing for cattle producers in Texas and parts of the South. You’ll meet Truman in these pages, as well as Walt Davis and some few of the human actors in the dung beetle drama.

Most of the papers used to background this story deal with the kind of things that command the attention of entomologists. The details are so clinical that one sees them as extrapolated from that ancient British text, Grey’s Anatomy (1858). There are excellent manuals that furnish these details replete with Latinate names, genus, species, and orders, most of which can’t claim U.S. citizenship, jus soil or jus blood. Ninety species represent dung beetles, not all of which are members of the family Scarabaeidae.

When a subject has so much literature that it could fill a large Carnegie library, it is always risky to generalize, but to the best of my knowledge, Truman Fincher and his associates are almost alone in computing the economic value of dung beetles. Walt Davis has assured me that his Texas cattle operation never tasted real solvency until he colonized dung beetles and was required by that act to reject toxic genetic chemicals for his ranch.

Most of my readers know that agriculture in general was made a public utility. The agency of that transformation was 7 U.S.C. 601-602, the original Roosevelt-era parity bill. Under its provision, producers of basic storable commodities from 82% of the harvested acres were to be treated the same as labor, business, and even politicians. It was assumed that producers of hogs, cattle, goats, fruits, nuts, and vegetables would rise with the supported commodities the way a rowboat rises with the ocean liner when the tide comes in. Everyone knows that this scenario took a bad turn with the Aiken Bill in 1948. Parity has been scaled downward by Congress via its five-year-interval Farm Bills until now the storable commodity producer receives hardly 20% of the income based on the parity formula.

I recite this in order to make the point that absconders failed to consider the gold in grass called animal manure. All the farmer has to do is treat those unpaid workers well. This treasure trove is detailed in Chapter 13. The bottom line can be governed by the down under denizens we call dung beetles. Let’s meet these fellows in all their diversity. Let’s watch them turn a disposal problem into hard cash, as if they’ve discovered how to turn base metals into gold. Those who do not resonate with the lessons offered here might as well compute the values they are missing and add them to the cost of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and other chemicals of organic synthesis.

In reviewing a great deal of literature on the dung beetle subject, it seems to me that a preponderance of work has been dedicated to the anatomy of the insect, and less to the way it can contribute to the cowman’s bottom line. Indeed, many schoolmen seem to study Nature for its esoteric minutiae and for the ability to communicate with insects, with enough Latinate names to baffle any rancher and destroy the cadence of any sentence. The roster of genus and species runs into the thousands.

In contrast, weed manuals have an easy time of it reaching the layman. For instance, Astragalus mollisimus is simply woolly loco, or loco weed. The common names of almost all weeds are colorful, Japanese brome-grass, chess, Oregon grape, broadleaf signal grass, et cetera. Not so with the families, genera, and species of those that savor fresh dung. Almost all are simply “dung beetles.” Only rarely do farmers turn a Linnaean Latinate designation into a word for daily conversation, as they do with a Texas favorite, “gazella” from Onthophagus gazella.

Dung beetles ask for the positive manager’s attention. They are of the order Coleoptera, and belong to the family Scarabaeidae. Zoologists figure that there are more than 90 species in the United States, but hardly more than a dozen are the workhorses of the local tribe. Their reason for being, as far as the cowman is concerned, is to bury dung, to interdict the proliferation of face flies and the equally sinister horn fly. They perform this service with ritualistic dung burial, out of sight, usually out of mind.

But now the plot thickens. Those “cow platters” that youngsters of an earlier era assiduously avoided while playing pasture baseball contain values often left uncalculated. The nitrogen lost by inattention to this unpaid worker turns the bottom line from figurative red to black. The phosphorus available from buried dung makes the paltry uptake generally achieved from NPK fertilizers pale into insignificance. Factories attempt to make those salt fertilizers soluble, but Nature says, “No!” Microbial workers assisted by dung beetles best hold phosphorus in a soluble form for cafeteria-style uptake.

A very astute observer, less an oracle than an analyst, once predicted that the next civilization-shaking invention will be accurate accounting. If so, it will discern the values delivered by Nature’s denizens of down under. Chapter 1 sets the stage. All that follows is elaboration, albeit elaboration with a purpose. In the last chapters, the lessons contained herein become morphed into appropriate public policy conclusions.

I rediscovered that stone scarab paperweight on the day that I closed down the research phase of this book. I now see why the insect was sacred to the Egyptians. Data developed by the Environmental Protection Agency reveal that animals in confinement-feeding situations produce three times the amount of excreta of the human population. Little of this used animal feed becomes food for dung beetles because the dung is too concentrated, it is desiccated by the sun and trampled brick-hard, and it is also laced with toxicity. Dung in the pasture is another story.

It is this story I sing!

Want more? Buy this book here.

About Charles Walters

Charles Walters is the founder of Acres U.S.A., and completed more than a dozen books as he edited Acres U.S.A., while co-authoring several others. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others to travel to this then-mysterious society. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

How to Establish Dung Beetles in Pastures

By Spencer Smith

I only recently became interested in dung beetles, largely because it has only been recently that we have had any to become interested in. As a rancher, I must create the conditions for dung beetles to thrive, and they will come.

The first time I saw dung beetles completely bury a manure pat in a number of hours, I was hooked. I wanted to learn all about them: what they do, how to help them establish in pastures, how they work, etc. My continued observations and research has led our family to develop a deep appreciation of these hard-working creatures. So much so that we created our updated business logo in honor of them.

Our daughter art directed the logo and our neighbor, Brian Taylor, created it. We get a lot of stares when people see our logo on the side of our truck, but we hope it piques their curiosity enough to learn more about dung beetles and the vital role they can play on a healthy farm or ranch.

Mark Sturges, Meet the Beetles, from the 2007 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (51 minutes, 28 seconds.) Listen in as Mark Sturges, professional grower and input provider, talk about how and why beetles can help you grow your crops.

Dung beetles in pastures is a sign of a healthy and productive land base. However, to the alarm of entomologists and ranchers worldwide there has been a decline in the population of dung beetles on industrially farmed land.

Recent studies of nature’s “pooper scoopers” have indicated that these amazing creatures are important to the health of the soil and to the farmer and rancher’s bottom line.

Types of Dung Beetles

There are three main types of dung beetle, identified by brooding or nesting behavior. The three types include: tunnelers (paracoprids), dwellers (endocoprids) and rollers (telecoprids).


The tunnelers are the most common vartiety on our ranch in Northern California. These amazing workers zip around looking for manure and dive right in. Once the dung beetle finds a fresh pat of manure it begins to eat and tunnel underneath the manure pat. It does this so that it can move the fresh, tiniest pieces of manure down into the soil, where it lays its eggs. The eggs then hatch into larvae that eat the buried manure until they metamorphize into adult beetles.


The dwellers find their ideal homes and set up residence there. These beetles occupy a manure pat, consume massive amounts of manure and lay their eggs in the aboveground manure pat. Some varieties of these dwellers’ larvae are known to eat fly eggs and larvae as well. Establishing a healthy population of dwellers on your farm or ranch will help deter the presence of horn and heel flies, which are livestock pests.


The rollers are the most famous of all the dung beetle varieties with much fanfare surrounding how they work and how they use the stars to locate their home using celestial cues. This type of dung beetle only makes up about 10 percent of all dung beetles, but they do amazing work. Scientists and farmers alike have noticed for decades that when there are dung beetles present there is a dramatic decrease in the fly population.

Fly Control

A recent article in Progressive Rancher reveals that the cost of flies to U.S. producers is more than $1.5 billion. Given this staggering cost of managing the impact of flies on livestock, dung beetles could really help producers who are losing livestock production to horn, heel and face flies.

Will Winter: Pasture, the Profit Maker, from the 2006 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show (53 minutes, 51 seconds). Listen in as professional livestock consultant Will Winter discusses ways to manage pasture profitably.

Dung beetles affect the flies in a variety of ways. Dung beetles that roll their prized possessions, or “brood balls,” excrete a chemical on the ball of dung that will repel flies from trying to lay their own eggs on the piece of dung. Other varieties of the dweller beetle larva will prey on the larvae of the flies.

I think the main impact of dung beetles is the fact that they can consume and bury massive amounts of manure each day. In fact, it is estimated that a single dung beetle will bury 250 times its own weight in dung per day. Dung beetles move flies’ eggs and brooding sites below the soil, thus breaking the life cycle of the flies. Livestock producers in the United States could collectively save more than $1 billion, simply by putting dung beetles to work.

Improved Pasture Fertility

The next essential point in the conversation on these amazing creatures is their impact on pasture fertility. If you have ever taken the time to analyze the manure in your pastures you may notice a couple of different things, if you have dung beetles. The first thing you may see is that the manure in question looks like Swiss cheese, there are no big pieces of dry manure left, but only the high-fiber chaff that is broken into many small pieces.

What is happening here? The answer is quite impactful to pasture health. Dung beetles search for the best, most nutritious manure in the pile. This is what they ball up and roll away, or bury directly under the manure pat.

The manure that falls from behind your cattle (or other livestock) typically has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 24:1. The dung beetle’s ideal diet, and best material for their brooding sites, is around 5 or 7:1 carbon to nitrogen. The implications of this are significant because dung beetles search out and bury the highest nitrogen portions of the dung and move that manure to the rhizosphere (root zone) in the soil. This means less nitrogen is leaching back into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the beetle larvae only consume about 40 to 50 percent of the buried nitrogen-filled dung, leaving the rest to feed the roots of the plants in the pasture.

Soil Aeration & Water Management

What is the effect of dung beetles on the water cycle in fields? We refer to the dung beetles on our ranch in Northern California as the hardest workers on our team. Not only are they working non-stop to add fertility and break fly and parasite cycles, they are also tunneling loads of holes into the rhizosphere (root zone of the soil). This tunneling aerates the soil, which increases how quickly water can infiltrate the soil. A healthy water cycle means healthier plants and more photosynthesis, which means more feed for livestock.

One of the biggest issues facing agriculture today is water. Water-related issues dominate the news (at least in California): chemical runoff from farms, droughts, floods. Luckily for farmers and ranchers everywhere, the mighty dung beetles can help out (for free!), when it comes to dealing with symptoms of a broken water cycle.

As farmers, our primary objective must be to ensure effective rainfall and irrigation management. Whether we live in the foothills of California where it is common to get up to 60 inches of rain per year, or if we live in the Great Basin and only receive 6 inches, farmers typically have the same complaints. Either it is too dry or too wet, oftentimes this happens in the same year!

Flood and drought cycles are a part of business for farmers everywhere. We must get better at dealing with them if we are going to stay competitive in the face of future erratic weather patterns, spurred on by climate change.

Effective water cycle refers to not how much rain or irrigation is added to a given acre, but how much of that water will actually enter the soil for plant use. Dung beetles are keenly equipped to assist in improving our water cycle as the brooding burrows that they create, either under the dung pat or rolled to the root zone, improve water infiltration. Not only can the water infiltrate better, but as it mixes with residual manure left over from the larvae, the water will lock into the rhizosphere like a sponge. This gives plants perfect access to water right where they need it most — at their roots.

With this aeration, the soil can clean the water and improve water quality for downstream users. Healthy soil means clean water, and a big part of healthy soil is a robust dung beetle population.

Managing for Dung Beetles

Our family’s ranch, Springs Ranch, became certified organic about seven years ago. With this transition to becoming certified, we no longer dewormed our own cattle or any of the pasture cattle we graze on the ranch.

After a few years of being certified organic, we noticed that we did not have the fly or parasite issues in our livestock that we once did.

After careful observation of many piles of poop, we observed that the dung piles where decomposing quite quickly. We noticed that we had some dung beetles moving in to assist in our pasture cleanup. Over the last few years our population has increased dramatically. We are at a point now that a dung pile can be completely dismantled in as little as a couple of hours.

dung beetles in field
A pair of beetles roll away a squirrel pellet at Springs Ranch in Fort Bidwell, California.

If you are interested in these amazing critters moving into your fields all you have to do is stop killing them with livestock wormers.

It has been shown that if you worm your livestock you will negatively impact dung beetle populations for up to a month. This is a function of some residue of the medication in the manure where the dung beetles lay their eggs. As the eggs hatch and the larvae eat the poisoned manure, the larvae are killed and never make it to adulthood. Thus, they are not around to do the job you need them to do.

This does not mean that you have to stop worming your livestock altogether if you want to increase beetle populations. Dung beetles become active in the late spring and hot summer. If you are in a situation where you need to worm your livestock, research the beetle life cycle in your environment, and then worm your cattle when the beetles are dormant. For us in California, this would be in the late fall or winter.

Recent research examines which grazing techniques are best for luring dung beetles into your pastures. It turns out that utilizing a higher stock density, short duration grazing strategy works best.

This leaves ample food for the beetles in a relatively small area; making food, as well as members of the opposite sex, easy to find. This means that food and reproduction opportunity are abundant, and thus the conditions are right for significant population growth.

Financial Impact

With face, horn and heel flies costing ranchers between $30 and $50 dollars per head of cattle, the impact of parasites on livestock is clearly significant. In a paper by Adam Byk and Jacek Pietka, “Dung Beetles and Their Role in the Nature,” it was discovered that dung beetles have the potential to reduce fly populations by 95 percent.

Dung beetles reduce flies and parasites, increase fertility in pastures and allow for more effective water cycling. Managing for these hard little workers is a no-brainer (at least for our family).

Ask yourself: What would your farm financials look like if you could increase production through better fertility and water management with less pressure from flies and parasites?

I believe every farmer is seeking increased soil fertility, effective use of rainfall and fewer parasites. This is true wealth! Dung beetles will do the work to create this for you. The job of the farmer or rancher is simply to create the conditions for dung beetles to thrive

About Spencer Smith

Spencer Smith is a Savory Field Professional and a huge fan of dung beetles. Savory Global Network hubs provide accredited Holistic Management and regenerative agriculture training and support across the world. Abbey and Spencer Smith manage the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, the Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada. Learn more and contact the Smiths with your grazing and dung beetle-related questions. This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.magazine.