Monday, June 4, 2012

Dung Beetles

            Somewhere I read a quote stating, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”  I buy into this philosophy and add you meet some interesting creatures while you’re on the road of life.  Sometimes those creatures look like the characters hanging out in the intergalactic space bar in the original Star Wars movie.

            Recently the big yellow dog and I headed off on our morning walk.  These little journeys not only start our day right, but sometimes we see the strangest sights.  I’ve mentioned a few of those in past columns.  Our recent walk beat the heck out of all the other strange sights I’ve come across in that two-mile jaunt on a sandy Trego County road.

            We’d seen the usual that morning—a killdeer racing ahead of us, a sparrow hawk proclaiming territorial rights, neighboring cows trying to figure out why that big yellow dog kept bouncing straight up and down as a mouse ran under his paws, and a ribbon of robin egg blue horizon line looping above lush green pastures and nearly ripe wheat fields. 

            Then we crossed the section line road into what I consider the “wilderness.” The only reason humans come this way is to go someplace else.  No one lives on this road.

This is the area where last year I spotted a bobcat leaping playfully above big blue stem and brome grasses waving in the walk-in-hunting area.  This is where on damp mornings I often spot prints of a doe and her fawn crossing from the walk-in-hunting to amble to the creek for their morning drink.  This is where I occasionally spy the track of a wriggling snake as it tries to make it from one grassy ditch to the other before one of the big redtails flying overhead eyeballs it and dives for dinner.

Over time I have come to look forward to the surprises I find just often enough in the “wilderness” to keep me walking that direction day after day.  That particular Tuesday morning offered another one of those “stop and put this in your memory bank” moments. 

Tucker ran through the ditches, analyzing the scent of everything that had happened since he last sampled the air.  I trailed after him, admiring the early morning sky, the feel of cool air rippling over my skin, the roll of gravel under my walking shoes, and letting my eyes sweep the road close--then far, close--then far.
Suddenly I thought I had ended up at the intergalactic space bar I mentioned earlier.  Two semi-gloss black bugs were rolling a shooter-sized ball of brown stuff from the north side of the road to the south. 
My first thought was “dung beetle,” but for some reason I recalled watching dung beetles on the Discovery Channel, and these weren’t nearly large enough to compare to what I saw on TV.  Of course, I had watched African dung beetles that had to deal with elephant-sized dung piles, but I hadn’t gotten that far in my analysis yet. 

I looked around for the nearest pile of … dung.  It lay far away in terms of the size and stride of these two beetles.  Could it be?  Could they have been so ambitious as to have marched their short insect legs to that pasture to collect and form a rollable ball of cow dung several hundred feet to the south?

Obviously, I had to stop my walk to observe these diligent creatures.  They had quite a system set up to enable them to simultaneously push and roll that poo ball.  One stood on top of the ball as one envisions those lumbermen who roll logs down a river.  The other one rose up on its hind legs and used its upper legs to lever the ball forward.

When I got home, I hit the Internet.  Sure enough, we do have dung beetles in Kansas.  In fact, I discovered, they live everywhere except the Antarctic. If we didn’t have them, we’d be up to our eyeballs in, well…use your imagination.  Several varieties of these necessary but unappreciated creatures exist, and I happened to spy “rollers.” 

Ancient Egyptians knew the importance of these little guys and deified them.  That may have carried things too far, but consider that one Internet site said they keep “the land livable by reducing flies, foul odors, and the ruination of pastureland.”  Another site claimed more efficient use of these guys “could save farmers $2 billion a year by restoring grazing land.” One farmer stated, “Once the cattle have vacated the paddock, within 48 hours, there is no manure left.”

Maybe the Hays Research Station needs to add a few dung beetles to keep up with the stuff causing the odors wafting through Hays when the south wind blows.  These beetles are good guys with whom to share life’s journey.  I look forward to seeing them again.

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