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Fly times when the dry comes

By Julian Cribb - posted Monday, 16 October 2006

The millions of Australians who enjoy a latte outdoors - or a barbecue or restaurant meal - may be in for an unpleasant shock. Cafe society could fall victim to climate change if, as seems likely, Australia continues to get drier.

Aussies under 30 are probably unaware that, once, it was hardly possible to eat outdoors in this country without consuming a quantity of insects or having the back of one's shirt adorned by a glittering mass of flies. There was even a world-famous gesture called "the Australian salute", now largely absent from the national repertoire. In Canberra, footpath cafes were banned due to the health risk.

The relative scarcity of the once-prolific bush fly is the result of one of the world's most spectacular successes in applied entomology: the use of specialised beetles to bury the 270 million daily dollops of cattle dung before flies can breed in them.


But the soil has to be moist and soft enough for the beetles to bury the dung. When it dries out, the beetles tend to down tools to await the next good shower. Trouble is, Australia appears to be entering a drying phase, in which rainfall may be lower and more erratic, and some entomologists fear the dung beetles are liable to spend a lot more time on smoko.

The average cow pat is capable of producing 3,000 flies in a fortnight. If you're bored enough, you can probably calculate how many flies will be available to invade our cafes, restaurants, barbecues and tourist destinations if the dung beetles go on strike or die out under climate change. Or, given that bullshit covers an estimated 20,000sqkm a year, how long it will be before Australia is knee-deep in it. Or, if you have an epidemiological bent, how many new cases of fly-borne eye disease we can expect.

Without question, the dung beetle program, developed by a gifted Hungarian-born coleopterist named George Bornemissza at the CSIRO in the 1960s, has improved life for every Australian. It is, in all probability, the greatest recycling enterprise in our national history, turning over a vast tonnage of nutrients every year.

But, given our short memory span, it's not one that gets a lot of press nowadays. Not only did it check serious pests but it significantly improved the fertility of pastures and the yields of meat, milk and wool obtained from them, and thus increased export income and living standards for all through a paltry outlay.

The program of importing and testing new species of dung beetles in different environments was axed in the mid-'80s due to changing priorities and it is unlikely to start again.

This is because it costs money and doesn't generate intellectual property; because Australia is far more risk-averse when it comes to importing new species (apart from the ornamental plants that pour in every year); and finally because it is the kind of strategic, public benefit science we don't much go in for nowadays.


The dung beetle program demonstrates the connectedness of things: actions taken way out in the bush can transform life in Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra, just as the economic demands of urban Australia can drain the Murray-Darling without the metropolites being aware of it.

But it also highlights an important principle in science: once you have gained precious knowledge in a certain field, you ought never to abandon it entirely and lose your expertise, as you will probably need it again one day. It is a fresh example of the short-termism and lack of strategic foresight that characterise our science planning.

Another reason we may want dung beetle science is the cane toad custom of squatting on cow pats to dine on dung beetles. There is one outsize beetle - still confined to Africa - that, if swallowed by the toad, would calmly bore its way out again. Can this be the elusive biological control for the devastating cane toad?

Bornemissza's dung beetles continue to labour away silently, protecting cafe-goers across the continent, unheeded by all except the landcare groups who value a fertile landscape, and a tiny handful of scientists who are anxiously trying to figure out what will happen as the climate changes.

For all the benefit it has brought to tens of millions of Australian lives and vast areas of the country, dung beetle science here is as dead as the proverbial dodo and likely to remain so until the espresso set begins screaming (because their favourite haunt has been closed down by the health authorities) and waving their arms about in the time-honoured Australian salute. Then we may have to reinvent the wheel.

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First published in The Australian on October 11, 2006.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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