26 June 2014 10:06

When I tell people I’m doing research into British dung beetles most are genuinely surprised. Indeed about 85% of the time their response is “I didn’t know we had any here”. The simple answer that I tend to give is that if we didn’t have them feeding in our fields, a pleasant stroll through a sheep or cow field would involve wading through knee-deep manure...

I’ll admit, this isn’t completely accurate, as there are other organisms like dung flies, earthworms and fungi that also help to breakdown dung, but it gets my point across. It also partly answers the follow-up question of why do I study dung beetles: because they have an important role to play in the biological system of our countryside. The other part of the answer is that studying changes in the dung beetle population can give an indication of what is happening in the wider landscape.

In fact both of these statements are true of insects in general. For example caterpillars are a crucial source of food for young birds, so an amazing year for butterfly and moth breeding could mean a good year for the garden favourite; the blue tit. A particularly well-publicised case is of course bees, where changes in the landscape and the farm have been seen to cause population declines, resulting in potential problems for the production of fruit crops through a lack of pollination. Then there’s the dragonfly species, amongst others, that are moving northward in response to changing air temperatures. I could go on…

With regards to my work, a key part is looking at why a particular species of beetle has moved uphill over the last 50 years. Because it is generally considered to be a cold-loving species, I’m investigating whether this may have been caused by the changing climate at the site. Even if I’ve got you sold on the importance of insects in general, even perhaps of families of insects like butterflies or bees, you may be wondering why I’m focusing some of my work on a particular species. Well a personal answer to that for me is how can we expect to be able to talk about the bigger picture if we don’t have an understanding of the small? The more scientific answer however is because what’s happening to this one species can be indicative of what’s happening to the whole community.

For example if my cold-loving species is retreating uphill with the warming climate, it’s likely that other warm-loving species could also be moving uphill and taking its place. Again this may not seem important in principal, but what if the expanding and retreating species play different roles in the ecosystem? Will the processes occurring at a particular location be altered? This is a genuine possibility as some of the warm-loving species currently found at the bottom of the hill are from a different group of dung beetles to my cold-loving ones at the top. This means they have a different way of life, with a different way of processing dung and interacting with the soil. Therefore it may be the case that the presence or absence of an individual species could really matter to the system as a whole.

So you see, to quote the tagline of this year’s National Insect Week (23rd to 29th June 2014), insects really are the “little things that run the world”.

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