Local school children release dung beetles on Mahia Peninsula

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:26 pm on 25 February 2020.

A large number of dung beetles were set loose on the Māhia Peninsula on Tuesday as part of a community initiative to improve the soil quality and manage run off from farm paddocks. 

Local Māhia school children participated as part of the Hills Country Futures project citizen science initiative, run by Whangawehi a group formed to raise awareness of the health of water catchment in the area.  Mahia school children assist with the release of Dung beetles on Mahia Peninsula

Mahia school children assist with the release of Dung beetles on Mahia Peninsula Photo:

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Otago University emeritus Henrik Moller is one of the scientists who was there today and explains why the beetles are so good for the soil and the water.

He told Jesse Mulligan they released 5000 beetles.

“It was amazing fun, the kids really got into it, there was a fair bit of mayhem and poo flying around.”

The students made “really big poo sandwiches” he said and sealed the beetles between two layers of dung.

The beetles will do vital work, Moller says.

“We need dung beetles, we brought cattle and goats and sheep out here, but we didn’t bring with them the dung beetle fauna that existed where we brought them from, and that means we haven’t had this army of insects to bury and disperse the dung.”

He says the goal is for every farm to have the busy beetles in the paddock.

“Just like earth worms, they build the soil, they put carbon in the soil, the dung beetles build tunnels and then those tunnels act as tubes, build water, and improves the ability of the soil to hold water when drought comes so that’s good for farmers.         “

But most importantly the beetles bury the dung, he says.

“Most of all we’re worried about dung staying in the soil rather than washing off into waterways. Dung beetles attack the problem in the paddocks and reduce the amount that’s reaching those riparian strips. The two systems work really well together.”

Moller says there is little chance of a plague of beetles doing more harm than good.  

“We do have fifteen species of native dung beetle, but they all live in forest and they don’t fly. These introduced species don’t venture into the forest, so we’re really certain there won’t be any unintended consequences.”

He’s calling for a People’s Poo Beetle Movement to have these busy creatures all over Aotearoa, but says despite them breeding quickly we’ll need a lot of them.  

“We need millions upon millions of these things around New Zealand.”

Moller says he saw the beneficial effects of the beetles on a farm in Kaipara just last week.

“I think over 70 percent of the dung, even the fresh ones, had beetles in already, you roll them over and there’d be tunnels underneath it where the beetles have drilled down into the soil and they’ve kind of bulldozed the dung down into it sometimes, there’s be five even eight of these tunnels under each individual pat.”

That farm introduced the beetles five years ago, he says.

“It took five years to build up those numbers on that farm. We need billions of them out there.”

Te Mahia school releases Dung Beetles on Tuesday the 25th of February

Kia ora koutou

We will be releasing a large number of beetles with the aid of the local school children at Mahia Peninsula (Hawkes Bay) next Tuesday, late morning.  This is part of the Whangawehi Catchment Management Group initiative (https://whangawehi.com/), a farmer and Marae led collective, supported in part by Beef & Lamb NZ. School children will be involved in the release as part of our Hill Country Futures project’s citizen science initiative.

Dung beetles are game changers.  They will build and retain soils, integrate nutrients into the soil profile and cut off run-off at source (within the paddocks).  Releasing them complements all the hard work done by regional council and the Whangawehi Catchment Management Group to plant riparian margins to reduce run-off reaching the streams.  Dung beetles will also help farm productivity by building healthy soils and disrupting nematode transmission between stock, so reduction in the need for fertilizer and drenches are likely in the long run.

We have written to several Ministers to come to help the children release the beetles – basically by making a series of pooh sandwiches – pooh is piled up, a teeming mass of beetles are dunked on top, and a bucket of extra pooh is then dumped on their heads to prevent them flying away.   We expect that the involvement of school children up to their elbows in pooh will help spread the message.

It’s a national interest story with a fresh angle that shows farmers and locals teeming up to help each other. The school kids are also setting up a terrarium in their classroom to watch the way they devour the pooh and bury it in dung balls.

We have invited the following Ministers and await their response:

  • Damien O’Connor as Agriculture Minister – he has repeatedly spoken in support of funding dung beetles.
  • Eugenie Sage as Minister of Conservation – the beetles will be release directly alongside community plantings along the Whangawehi River where the community group are creating a public walkway.
  • James Shaw as Climate Change and Associate Finance Minister – the beetles are ‘ecosystem engineers’ that will build resilience and support the farming economy.

Mahia farmers welcome Dung Beetles trial

Our community has been offered thousands of tiny new farm workers – they’ll work 24/7… and they are paid in dung!  We are talking about three species of dung beetles that have been introduced to New Zealand to improve our farm environments.  Large drums at an Auckland nursery are now teeming with beetles that are ready for release in New Zealand paddocks – and the Mahia farms have been selected for a first mass release trial if we want them. 

Dung beetles are everyone’s friends.  They mix sheep and cow manure into the soil.  Some are “tunnellers” that act like miniature bulldozers: they shove dung down tunnels that they have dug directly under the dung pat.  Others are “rollers”: they shape the dung into neat balls and roll them away from the pat to bury them. And there are “dwellers”: they live entirely within the dung pat.  Together they make the dung pats disappear faster and become blended into the soil profile. All the beetles feed on and lay their eggs on the dung.

If the beetles catch on and build to large enough numbers, they will:

  • Help soil to build up carbon
  • Create soil that can hold more water and nutrients
  • Increase pasture growth and animal production
  • Reduce run-off of nutrients, sediment and pathogens to help clean up the waterways
  • Reduce worm transmission between stock and reduce the need for drenching.

You can think of all the hard work we have done to plant along the Whangawehi streams as a final line of defence of the waterways; whereas dung beetles head off the problems at their source – in the paddocks themselves.  You can read a lot more about the beetles at https://dungbeetles.co.nz/

A lot of research and risk assessments by independent panels has concluded that dung beetles will be safe additions to our ecosystems.  They’ll stay in the paddocks, don’t eat or compete with other species already there, and probably will increase the number of our other best farm biodiversity friends – the earthworms.

Any dung beetle releases at Mahia would be a real team effort. If the farmers wants to go ahead, we would be looking for some volunteer farmers to host the first releases and to have traps set out in surrounding paddocks for two-week periods in each season.  Farmers would need to adjust grazing and drenching near the time of release to give the beetles a leg-up.  Manaaki Whenua (Landcare Research) are combining with Beef+Lamb’s Regenerating Hill Country project to release and monitor outcomes.  Even the Aussies will help – Meat & Livestock Australia would provide the beetles free of charge and our monitoring results would be combined with theirs from the other side of the ditch so a bigger picture emerges.  And the beetles themselves have been mass reared by the Dung Beetle Innovations team in Auckland.

We all want to see if the beetles take hold.  We’d also like to combine it with some school exercises and some publicity to show that the farmers and community are taking action to improve the whole catchment including soil and water quality. We will keep you posted