Currently in quarantine, the workers consist of 11 species of dung beetles, which are to become part of a mass-breeding programme before the insects are released on to farms to clean up the dung produced by about 10-million cattle.
The species — others were imported from France and Spain — were chosen according to their preferred work conditions. These include climate, soils, temperature and seasons. There’s also a mix of foragers to cover day and night shifts. The idea is to have a workforce that toils in New Zealand soil 24/7 all year round.
Dung beetles, I discovered, have been successfully employed on Australian farms since the 1960s, where they are considered nature’s most efficient recyclers. Not only do they significantly reduce contamination of surface water and advance fertilisation of pastures by quickly burying pats, thereby releasing nutrients into the soil, but they also control pests by getting rid of potential parasite breeding sites.
Although “roller” dung beetles turn dung into spherical balls, which are used as a food source or breeding chamber, “tunneller” species, which bury the droppings wherever they find it, are more widely employed for agricultural purposes. They can dispose of a pat within 24 hours. The decision to release dung beetles in New Zealand follows almost two decades of environmental studies; the introduction of any new species isn’t taken lightly.
Aside from enjoying the humour of coincidentally reading about the burrowing beetles while also listening to a radio discussion about the bunkers allegedly being dug beneath the homes of President Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, I found this eco-technology story interesting for a number of reasons. I like the fact that South African goggas are in high demand in New Zealand and that the country is relying on our little creatures to get them out of the pooh. The ancient Egyptians considered several species of the dung beetle, including the Scarabaeus sacer (or “sacred scarab”), sacred. Perhaps it’s time we revered our insects more.
I also like the idea of SA being able to add “dung beetles” to its list of exports. I do, however, hope — particularly since the insects are in the business of “mining” in a sense — they’re not also included on the African National Congress Youth League’s list of resources to nationalise. Moreover, as the daughter of a farmer and the mother of teenager with a thriving business breeding mice for people who keep reptiles, I like an animal husbandry story with a happy ending, especially where nature benefits nature. You might even say I dig it.
(This article was first published as my column on the Business Life page of Business Day in November 2011.)