Arrival of the dung beetles
By Lucy Stofberg

With the long-awaited arrival of the rains, life burst from the seams here at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in the early months of the year. New shoots emerging overnight from the seemingly lifeless ground, terrapins popping up in almost every puddle in the road, cicadas deafening out the afternoons. Birds by all appearances were singing louder at dawn chorus and in the evening frogs were composing a symphony. The bush in all its glory was in full swing as the earth vibrated with movement. And too much excitement there was the return of the dung beetles, ending their winter state of torpor, and quite literally moving the earth below our feet.

These beetles have for hundreds of years captivated the hearts and imaginations of civilizations throughout the world. I have recently read and been inspired by the book “The Dance of the Dung Beetles”, which is beautifully written and gives one a glimpse into this fascinating species. From ancient Egyptian gods to the Victorian ladies of the West, libraries of both science and spirituality have an immense amount of literature dedicated to these insects. So one learns you are far from alone in your fascination with them!

In South Africa we have around 800 species of dung beetles, of the 6000 worldwide. So you can imagine the task of trying to identify some of the species we now have tirelessly traversing the reserve after the rains. We have seen the endemic Addo Flightless Dung Beetle, the bright Little Green and the Bronze to name a few. The ones most likely to catch your eye are the ball rolling species, the ‘telecoprids’, working hard on an array (or should I say buffet) of dung on the wet soils.

We stopped the cruiser on one particular day to watch two dung beetles at work. A pair of beetles will use their amazing sense of smell to detect the perfect dung pile and quickly make their way over. They will choose a piece of their liking and with world class mastery roll a perfect dung ball. But the hard work is not over, as dung balls are in high demand they are often ‘stolen’ by other dung beetles known as ‘kleptocoprids’. They must leave the feeding site without being pirated. Success! The ball is then maneouvered with hind-legs, in a very straight line, to their nest to bury the prize. During this journey, the beetle will stop often, climb onto the ball, look around, and continue on. Once there, they will bury the ball and the female will lay often just a single egg within. After which the ball is enjoyed as a meal by the hatching young.

Watching them is humorous and fascinating, but also a testament to the research about them. What has grabbed the particular attention of scientists is the fact that they walk in a perfectly straight line back to their nest every time. Which begs the question of ‘how do they navigate?’. The research results have been no less than astonishing. Dung beetles use celestial cues. Meaning they will use the sun, moon and stars to navigate their way across the vast African landscapes. Marcus Byrne, along with his team have shown evidence of how they will orientate themselves using the polarized light of the moon, the stars in the milky way and the position of the sun to get home. This means, along with birds, seals and humans they are the only animals to use the milky way to navigate!

There is much more to be said about these beetles, in ancient folklore and scientific discoveries. But as we start to understand the complexities of the land, the animals and the infinite skies – we feel we are but a thread in the tapestry. On your next visit to Kwandwe, whilst enjoying the lions roaring and elephants splashing in the river, keep an eye out for the little dung beetle, looking up into the heavens to find his way home.