Dung beetles belong to the scarab beetle family which also includes the rhinoceros beetle (buqarn kbir), the barbary bugs (busuf) and the emerald chafer (għawwar dehbi).
About 33 species of scarabs are found locally. One species is the dung roller, known in Maltese as the ħanfusa tad-demel. This species makes a ball out of dung and then rolls it in a straight line to a spot where it will bury it in the soil.
Watching a dung beetle travelling with a dung ball can be quite entertaining. The journey starts with the beetle head down on its two front legs and then walking backwards while rolling the ball with its hind legs.
The journey usually takes the form of an obstacle race that can include seemingly insurmountable vegetation, pools of rainwater and large stones. To make the journey even more hazardous, other dung beetles start appearing on the scene as if out of nowhere, all trying to take away the ball from the original owner.
This species is said to be scarce in the Maltese countryside but while photographing one recently, another five appeared, showing that at least in some parts of the countryside they can be relatively common.
Dung beetles play an important role in the countryside. They help to recycle nutrients and make them available for plants. They also clear cattle-grazing areas of dung which would otherwise attract flies that can carry disease.
Several species of dung beetle from South Africa and Europe were introduced in Australia to improve cattle pastures.
Other species of dung beetle can be found in the Maltese countryside. The horned dung beetle, known in Maltese as ħanfusa barri tad-demel, is smaller and has a pair of long horns on its head.
This article was published in The Times on 20 March 2013.