Sunday, May 19, 2013

Heroes of the Pasture: Dung Beetles

            Somewhere I saw this quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” I agree  and add you’ll meet interesting creatures along the way. Sometimes those new acquaintances look like something from an intergalactic space bar.

            Several years ago, Big Yellow Dog and I began our morning with a ramble. These journeys not only began our day right, but sometimes we also enjoyed the strangest sights. What I saw that day exceeded every other unusual observation ever experienced during jaunts down that sandy road.

            We’d noted the usual: a killdeer racing ahead of us, a sparrow hawk proclaiming territorial rights, and neighboring cows wondering why Big Yellow Dog bounced up and down as a mouse ran under his paws. A ribbon of blue horizon contrasting against green pastures and nearly ripe wheat fields backdropped these familiar scenarios. 

            A bit into our walk, we crossed the section road into what I consider the “wilderness.” The only reason humans come this way is to go somewhere else. No one lives on this route.

This is the area where I once spotted a bobcat leaping playfully above waving big blue stem and brome grasses that border walk-in-hunting acreage.  This is where on damp mornings I spy prints of a doe and her fawn crossing from the WIHA to the creek for a morning drink. This is where I see trails of   wriggling snakes as they maneuver from one grassy ditch to the other before a big redtail flying overhead dives for dinner.

I look forward to the surprises I find in the “wilderness.” The unexpected keeps me walking that direction day after day. That morning provided another “stop to put this in your memory bank” moment. 

Tucker ran through the ditches, analyzing scents of everything that had happened since he last sampled the air. I trailed him, admiring morning clouds, relishing cool air rippling over skin, sensing the roll of gravel under walking shoes, and letting my eyes sweep the road close--then far, close--then far.

Suddenly, I thought I’d ended up at the space bar mentioned earlier. Two semi-gloss black bugs were rolling a shooter marble-sized ball of brown gunk from the north side of the road to the south. 

My first thought was “dung beetle.” I recalled watching such bugs on Discovery Channel, but these weren’t large enough to compare to those I saw on TV.  Of course, I’d watched African dung beetles that dealt with elephant-sized poo piles, but keep in mind I hadn’t analyzed that far yet. 

I looked around for the nearest pile of … dung.  It lay far away in relation to the size and stride of these beetles.  Could it be?  Were they ambitious enough to march on short legs to collect and form a rollable ball of cow caca several hundred feet to the south?

Stopping to observe these diligent creatures, I noted their system enabled them to simultaneously push and roll that poop globe. One stood on top of the orb as one envisions lumbermen who roll logs down a river might. The other rose on hind legs and used upper legs to lever the sphere forward.

After returning home, I cruised the Internet. Dung beetles do live in Kansas.  In fact, 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 witness the “roller” type.

Ancient Egyptians knew the importance of these insects and deified them. That may be extreme, but consider that one expert said dung beetles keep “land livable by reducing flies, foul odors, and the ruination of pastureland.” Another proponent claimed more efficient use of them “could save farmers $2 billion a year by restoring grazing land.” One agriculturist explained, “Once the cattle have vacated the paddock, within 48 hours, there is no manure left.” Maybe Hays Research Station needs additional dung beetles to address odors that waft through Hays when south winds blow.

My newly discovered neighbors are good partners in life’s journey. I look forward to seeing them again.

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