Book of the Week: Dung Beetles by Charles Walters

Editor’s Note: This is the prologue from Charles Walters’ book, Dung Beetles, which was published by Acres U.S.A. Copyright 2008.

By Charles Walters

“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.

Dung Beetles, by Charles Walters.

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.

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.

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!

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.

Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →

Farm Smarter: Time Management Tips

Even if we don’t expect to get paid for all the hours we work on the farm, tracking how we spend our time, in order to employ smart time management strategies,  provides incredibly valuable information on the viability and efficiency of our production models and helps us and other sustainable farmers innovate the methods and infrastructure that will be needed to bring about a new and sustainable food system.

Sustainable farming is by definition a model that can continue for the long-term and that stewards finite resources that are often neglected or taken for granted.

There’s a myth that permeates the community of sustainable farmers, especially among those that are new, young and passionate. It started innocuously, but it has the potential to jeopardize the long-term viability of the new sustainable food system.

The myth is that sustainable farming is above all a way of life characterized by a devotion to the land, and that those who are focused on making money are missing the point and bound to be disappointed.

This sort of thinking is dangerous because the stories we tell ourselves matter. When we half-jokingly remark after having a tough year or working an 18-hour day that we “aren’t in it for the money” or when we let another season go by without seriously tracking the time we spend working on the farm because it would “be depressing” or because “everything is going to turn around anyway next year,” it undermines the future of sustainable farming by perpetuating the deleterious myth that as farmers, where we put our time doesn’t matter so long as we’re busy.

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Windbreak Benefits on the Farm

Windbreak benefits extend beyond reducing wind erosion. Research reveals windbreaks can also be customized to meet your farm management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

Windbreak benefits extend beyond controlling wind to include soil moisture retention and additional wildlife habitat options.

A “national menace” is what Congress called wind erosion during the Dust Bowl. This menace caused an estimated loss of 850,000,000 tons of topsoil and spurred President Roosevelt’s large-scale Shelterbelt Project of planting tree windbreaks across the Great Plains to reduce future wind erosion.

Research shows that reducing wind erosion isn’t the only benefit provided by these windbreaks, and they can be customized to meet your farm’s management goals, whether it’s increasing wildlife habitat or benefiting visiting pollinators.

In a field adjacent to a windbreak, there is an area where a crop yield of 110 percent isn’t uncommon; it’s the area which Charles Barden, professor of forestry with Kansas State University and principal investigator of the Great Plains Crop Yield Study, dubs the “sweet spot in the field.” In this sweet spot, usually found in an area about two times the height of the trees and extending out 12-15 times the height of the windbreak trees, research has found an increase in yield of 23 percent for winter wheat, 15 percent for soybeans and 12 percent for corn.

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Grow Native Plants for Bees

The moment you get your first honeybees, you start noticing all the flowers around you and begin to ponder the potential plants you could grow to support pollinator health.

Great plants for bees include blazing star.

Blazing star (Liatris) blooms late in the season when few other nectar sources are available.

You become acutely aware of hives’ surroundings for a mile in every direction. This is the effective flight range of the bee—the distance she is prepared to travel to collect nectar, pollen, water and other necessities for her colony. This represents three square miles—2,000 acres of terrain—that the bees have at their disposal.

The Omniscient Bee

Using hundreds of scouts, the colony’s collective intelligence tracks in real time the location of all significant sources of nectar and pollen, their abundance, the exact times of day when a particular plant secretes nectar, and even its nutritional value. They know there’s a single basswood tree in bloom three-quarters of a mile south-southwest of their nest. They know the location of a small patch of buckwheat that you planted as a cover crop in your garden, and that they better get to it in the morning before the afternoon heat cuts the nectar flow. Foraging maps are updated daily, new blooms are promptly discovered, and fading flowers immediately abandoned.

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Taking on Food Justice with Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

As a creative educator, regenerative farmer, writer and activist, Leah Penniman is an exceptional leader for food justice. She is best known for her work at Soul Fire Farm, which she and husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff started as an organic family farm committed to “the dismantling of oppressive structures that misguide our food system.”

Soul Fire Farm is entering its ninth year of growing healthy food for the couple’s former urban neighbors in Albany and Troy, New York. Since coming to the land over a decade ago, they have transformed a patch of marginal mountain ground into rich topsoil, faithfully provisioned a sliding-scale CSA whose members often lack access to fresh produce and created a vibrant, welcoming community of learning and admirable influence.

Nurtured by her childhood connection with the natural world, Penniman got hooked on agriculture as a teenager at a summer job with the Boston-based Food Project and has never looked back. Before graduating from college, she worked at the Farm School, co-managed Many Hands Organic Farm and co-founded the YouthGROW urban farming program. Until this year, she has been a full-time environmental science and biology teacher for which she received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.

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