You are here: Home Education & Research In Good Tilth Magazine Articles 2008 19iv Notes from a beetle fan

Notes from a beetle fan

Observations of a beetle maniac

By Mark Sturges

June 16, 2008
Dear Andrew,

A hairy woodpecker is hammering around a big fir tree outside the window. A white wing dove just flew through the new orchard with four mourning doves. I thought white wings only lived in Arizona. Interesting times here on the Garbanzo Trail of Journalism.

Scientists are reporting on disappearing pandas and polar bears, but many are more afraid of the potential loss of dung and carrion beetles and many other bugs facing dire habitat circumstances.

Many years ago, I found that if I could keep beetles at the top of my compost food chains everything else would stay much healthier. If you have many little ones then you can have many big ones. This is true whether you are talking about Blue Lake green beans or heirloom cattle breeds like the South Poll or even the disappearing Guernsey. If the protozoa, fungi and bacteria can be fed properly their gains are exponential as we travel up the food chain.

The dung beetle has achieved rock star status. A short time ago, the Gazella and the Taurus were just another two bugs to make people squeamish.

Imagine someone waiting for a two to three pound cow pie to hit the turf. Think about a person checking their mailbox everyday hoping their government stimulus check has arrived. Dung beetles wait for the cow poop with just as much anticipation. There’s a couple of differences. You can’t smell your check in the post office, or fly over to your box even if you could. The beetle and all their friends and relatives can. They can smell those donkey donut holes faster than you or I could ever smell a dutch apple pie just out of the oven. “Yay the bakery is open let’s fly over there.”

Each year, we lose hundreds of acres of pastures due to the failure of manure to decompose in our pastures. Cows just don’t want to graze around those poop piles that only might be visited by a fly, or two, or 300. The more poop the less pasture.

At one time we didn’t have this crisis. We have a big enough problem with urban sprawl taking our pastures away.

Beetles and their entourage have the best work ethic anybody has ever seen. They are never too drunk to come to work; you don’t have to spend a lot of money on random drug testing; a rove beetle has never been busted for running a meth lab, and records of domestic violence among beetle couples don’t exist.

Every time someone worms with a chemical wormer, they are killing the best friends their farms or ranches have. For 60 years, we have have been worming our animals with non-specific poisons that kill everything. The internal parasites we have been targettting have developed an immunity to these poisons. The problem is the beneficial people we need, such as the dung beetle and their supporting creatures, don’t have the immunity. When the poop hits the ground they fly in within 20 minutes to work it, but are killed instead. Without decomposers, the manure sits there harboring bad people. Pasture loss goes on and on. The herd gets weaker and the parasites get stronger.

I get calls from all over the country. “We read about this in Chuck Walters book Dung Beetles and a Cowman’s Profit. We have no beetles. My poop just sits in the field. Can you help us? All we have are flies.”

The tide is slowly turning. People like Franklin Sanders of Tennessee are telling me that if certain animals are so prone to worms that he doesn’t want them in his herd. Using diatomaceous earth, great mineral salts and kelp have brought his herd of pigs to goats, sheep and cows to excellent health. It has also brought the beetles flying and running back to his pastures that were severely abused for many years.

Another rancher who has experienced Beetle Enlightenment is Ralph Voss of Linn, Missouri. Ralph stopped doing commercial fertilizer and woming with chemical wormers a year and one half ago. Ralph is a grass fed cattle rancher who uses the same basic kelp, DE, Great mineral salt system as Franklin. I don’t think Ralph has given any money to the Sierra Club, but since he gave up conventional ranching, beetles have raced back to his ranch in epic proportions. He has become the poster child of what can happen if you stop killing beetles with non- specific poisons.

Ralph, myself, and many others have been mentored by Walt Davis of Oklahoma. A true pasture genius who has inspired many of us for a long time. Pat Richardson is a soil ecologist from the University of Texas at Austin and has documented the rich beetle diversity at Ralph’s ranch.

I used to say that the pitchfork was the foundation of my empire. Now I’m more likely to use a stick. This important tool can be found just about anywhere.

 A ranch owner named John Sweet told me that I should be more careful waving my stick around after turning over a couple of fresh pies in his pasture along a southwestern Oregon river. Sometimes beetle people can get quite animated about who they find living in the poop in someone’s field.

Many people have beetles they don’t know they have. The first step in a beetle restoration project is to find yourself a stick, get down on your knees and start taking a inventory who it is living in the dung beetle bunk houses the horses and cows have erected in your pastures.

We’ve talked about the rock stars the dung beetles have become, but we must not forget to mention some of the amazing virtues of some other very important boys and girls.

The carrion beetle is endangered in many parts of the United States. Fortunately, the populations still appear strong in southwestern Oregon where I live. Supposedly their numbers have become pretty weak in the Portland and Salem area, but I’ve seen them in good numbers around here. Even on golf courses.

Yesterday, I accidentally stepped on a caterpillar. I believe it’s the type that become the silver tiger moth. This larvae does spend a lot of time chewing on my trees this time of year. A few hours later, I noticed a carrion beetle finishing up what was left of the carcass. 
A couple of years ago, my dog killed a large skink lizard that was at least 18 inches long and an inch and a half in circumference. As is my normal practice, I allow the animals who have perished on the premises to be taken care of by whomever happens by. This reptile had met its fate under an Italian plum tree.

Walking by, I noticed the lizard rocking back and forth, side to side. Had this day become The Morning of the Living Dead? Many scenarios flittered through my warped mind.

Partially lifting the skink’s body with a short stick, five carrion beetles could be seen in the process of burying this T-Rex. That’s how big it was in comparison.

Voles, mice, skunks, moles all have turned up dead at the farm from time to time. None of them are more than bits of fur or parts of bones after a couple of days. Hardly any flies ever show up at the death sites, probably because the rove beetles have eaten the fly larvae before they could develop into adults and become the fly air force. It’s a vicious world here where a self respecting housefly can’t get a good bite of dog poop before being thrown out of the Dog Dirt Lounge by a rove or carrion beetle bouncer.

The Garbanzo School of Journalism hopes this view of beetles will encourage readers to “walk softly, but find a short stick.”

It’s time we put our foot down. No more tired old crap. Look for beetles in the dung pile. If they’re there. It’s poop you can really believe in.

Personification is a very important tool in this desperation restoration project we find ourselves in. If we start thinking about bugs as human beings, maybe the percentages will begin the favor the valuable creatures we cannot affort to lose.

Look for the Beetles. Some sing, some don’t.

Mark Sturges’ farm Chili Nervanos in Bandon, Ore, ships organic compost and beneficials to farms far and wide. Mark is the author of The Return of the Fertilizer King and Other Tales.


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