Got a bush fly problem? Consider it dung

By Andrea Wild

6 November 2015

dung beetle, a solution to bush fly outbreaks

Controlling flies, fertilising and aerating the soil and allowing water into the soil – there are multiple benefits from dung beetles.

You might have noticed bush flies are especially pesky this year, getting in your face, your house, your food – it seems like they’re everywhere.

According to David Yeates, from our Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra, we have a few weeks to wait before summer’s dung beetles bury the problem.

“It’s been a warm, wet spring in parts of Australia and that means perfect breeding conditions for flies,” says David. “I’m happy to tell you that by early summer dung beetle populations will reach sufficient numbers to clean up the bush flies’ favourite breeding ground: cow dung.”

George Bornemissza introduced dung beetles into Australia from 1967 onwards to deal with cow pads, which covered valuable grazing land and was a breeding ground for flies. Dung beetles break up the pads and bury rolled dung balls after laying their eggs in them. The work controlled the bush fly nuisance and improved soil fertility.

George Bornemissza introduced dung beetles into Australia from 1967 onwards to deal with cow pats, which covered valuable grazing land and were a breeding ground for flies.

Nearly 50 years ago we began importing dung beetles to fix our fly problem. If the purpose of science is to solve everyday problems, then we think these little critters are up there with Aerogard and WiFi. We don’t want to imagine life without them.

Throughout the world many different species of insects recycle the poo of other animals, eating it and using it as a cosy place to lay their eggs. Dung beetles do this most spectacularly of all, packing dung into tunnels or even rolling the poo into balls and burying it underground with their eggs laid inside the balls.

Australia has its own native dung beetles that clean up after our native marsupials. But the poo of our native mammals is hard, dry and fibrous – very different from cow poo – and our native beetles are not so keen on cleaning up huge, wet, sticky cow pats.

By the 1960s, millions of cow pats had become a huge problem in our paddocks. Cow dung can take months or years to break down, preventing plants from growing and providing prime breeding grounds for buffalo flies, native bush flies and four species of biting midges, some of which are known vectors of diseases. Some of you may remember flies so thick that outdoor cafes were an impossible dream.

Enter the dung beetles of Africa and the Mediterranean. From the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, we collected, reared and introduced 53 dung beetle species to Australia. Of these, 23 species survived and thrived in their new home. The work was continued by Landcare groups, farmers and other individuals, who reared and released dung beetles each season to control dung on agricultural lands.

Our work on dung beetles was recently revived in an effort to address the spring gap in dung burial, which is allowing flies to breed in greater numbers at this time of year. Our hopes rest on some French and Spanish dung beetle species that are active during spring.

Find out more about out work with dung beetles on our website.