Country diary: the sacred giants of the dung-beetle world


The year seemed finely balanced as we ambled down to the pond at Little Barbrook in the evening sunshine. Bracken was crisping to bronze and the birch leaves were turning, yet it had been the warmest day in weeks and heat was still radiating off the dusty track. So slipping into the chocolate-coloured water to cool off was a pleasure, knowing all the while that this might be the last swim of summer, a valediction of sorts and a reminder that the seasons still roll along, even in these strange and stressful times.

Back on shore and half-dry, we had just started for home when I noticed something shimmering in the dirt. I scooped it up and marvelled: a dor beetle, counted among the dung beetles, its elytra, or wing cases, divided and the wings outspread, as though it had met its end in flight, perhaps taking off too late from the warm earth to escape a bicycle wheel. When I tilted my palm, its black body glittered purplish blue in the long rays of the setting sun, as though I’d discovered a jewel. No wonder the Egyptians thought scarabs divine.

Broadly oval in shape, dors are the giants of the British dung-beetle world, and while there are only a handful of species, telling them apart can be difficult. This one was particularly big, being 26mm in length, and the markings on those glittering wing cases suggested Geotrupes stercorarius.

We think of dung beetles as rolling balls of dung across the ground, but they are divided into “rollers” and “burrowers”. The genus – Geotrupes, “earth-borer” – gives the game away. This beetle digs, or rather dug, deep shafts under a nourishing pile of dung, and side chambers where the female lays a single egg, bringing small packets of dung for larvae to eat before sealing them inside. Some pupate in the autumn; others wait until spring.

Flipping the beetle on its back, I studied its iridescent abdomen, fringed with violet and green, as well as a stronger version of the metallic blue that was a feature of its wing cases. I wanted to keep it, so I nestled my treasure in some damp clothes. But before we even reached the car the brilliance of its colours had faded.


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