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Dung beetles

Posted: Friday 14 September 2012
by Kate Bradbury

I can’t describe how excited I was to have a dung beetle in my garden. I’d only ever seen them in the Lake District, where, presumably, they have a lovely existence breaking down sheep pellets.


Dung beetle

Back in April, I described an experiment I was conducting to see if I could encourage dung-flies and hoverflies to breed in my garden, using a bucket of foul-smelling nettle feed.

The experiment was an enormous success, despite the fact that no dung flies laid any eggs. I learned a lot about the process of decomposition and observed the different insects the nettle feed attracted at the various stages of its decomposition. It was fascinating and fun, and incredibly smelly.

At first, my little home-made rot hole stank to high heaven. I expected it to. I worried about the neighbours and made half-hearted attempts to conceal the bucket so I could blame the stench on cats or foxes, should anyone come knocking (no-one did). On rare sunny evenings I would sit outside and take in the occasional waft of ‘eau de stinking nettle’, which intermingled almost pleasantly with that of the honeysuckle and jasmine.

And then the insects came.

As predicted, hoards of dung files descended on the garden. I watched them gather on the edges of the nettle bucket, and mate, precariously, on the surface of the water. There seemed to be a lot of partner swapping and hustle and bustle, but (as far as I could tell) no egg laying. It made sense that the dung flies would use my nettle feed as a mating site, then go in search of real dung to lay their eggs. I was glad to be of service.

The dung fly activity lasted for a few weeks, as the smell of the nettle feed intensified. But I hadn’t noticed any rat-tailed maggots. Surely the myathropa and eristalis hoverflies that like to breed in stagnant water and damp, decaying matter would like my bucket of sludge? I waited. And then, one day, I found a large, brown beetle in the bucket. It was a dung beetle.

I can’t describe how excited I was to have a dung beetle in my garden. I’d only ever seen them in the mountains of the Lake District, where, presumably, they have a lovely existence breaking down sheep pellets. Rather than the purple, shiny ones I’ve seen before, this dung beetle was brown. It was beautiful; a little bedraggled, from its ordeal in a bucket of nettle feed, but otherwise unharmed. I picked it up and watched it clean itself off, before it took refuge under a pot of tomato seedlings.

Some days later, another, smaller dung beetle arrived. This nettle feed was magic. What would turn up next? Rat-tailed maggots, of course: four of them. And, after that, thousands of mosquito and midge larvae.

The bucket of sludge is still in the garden. The smell has almost entirely diminished, along with the insect activity that accompanied it. The dung flies, beetles, hoverflies, midges and mosquitoes it attracted are long gone, but their progeny remain, in dung, on our plants, in the bellies of house martins and bats.

A bucket of nettle sludge is perhaps not the most attractive way to do your bit for wildlife, and it doesn’t half stink. But it’s fun. Isn’t that what life’s about?



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oldchippy 14/09/2012 at 18:18

Poor Kate your life must be one round of flies and Dung beetles,It must be time to redecorate your flat now that the smell has subsided,With two dogs I should have Dung beetles in my garden but as soon as there is a deposit it is clear up and put down the manhole,All we have is brown patches where the boys relieve them selves on the grass(lawn)!!,

Oldchippy.