Beetle mania

By Kathy Riley July 6, 2009
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Australian pastoralists owe a great debt to this Hungarian-born, beetle-mad scientist.

George Bornemissza always believed he was destined to achieve something big, and he knew Australia was the country in which he would do it. “I felt that I had a kind of mission to find something important,” he says. “I had no idea what it was, but I thought I would just expose myself to every experience and impression and see what was waiting for me.”

As it turned out, the entomologist’s destiny lay in an old cow pat in a small paddock near Wooroloo, 60 km north-east of Perth. It was June, 1951. The Hungarian-born scientist had arrived in Perth six months earlier, seeking refuge from the repressive Soviet communist regime that gripped eastern Europe after World War II. He brought with him a doctorate in natural history from the University of Innsbrück, Austria, and a formidable knowledge of beetles, amassed from the age of seven, when he began scouring the forest near his hometown of Baja for “anything creepy-crawly”. He spoke little English and was yet to find a use for his scientific expertise, but the instant he saw the cow pat, he knew he’d found his mission.

“It rushed up on me like a cascade of water,” the 84-year-old says, his voice heavy with accent and memory. His blue eyes gleam behind thick, gold-rimmed glasses, and his cheeks glow as if he’d made the discovery only yesterday. “I knew,” he says. “I just knew.”

There was nothing particularly special about the cow pat. Dropped the previous spring, they were hardened by age and winter winds and overgrown with grass. What intrigued George was the fact that they were still there. “That was most odd to me,” he says. In Europe, he explains, they would have been demolished long ago by bovine dung beetles. George knew he was onto something, but his scientific mind urged him to be patient. For the next six years he quietly researched his idea, and in 1957 put his case to CSIRO. Australia, he said, needed bovine dung beetles. While there are more than 300 species of native dung beetles in the country, they specialise in breaking down the small, hard and dry droppings of endemic animals. Only a few species are able to tackle the comparatively enormous, wet droppings of cattle and sheep, and then only at certain times of the year.

In the 1950s, the Australian pastoral industry was drowning in dung. One cow drops an average of 10 pats a day – which reduces the effective grazing area of pasture by one-fifth of a hectare a year. Not only that, but dung provides an incredibly fertile breeding ground for parasitic worms, which can infest livestock, and flies. Blood-sucking bovine flies, in particular, harassed Top End cattle in their thousands and were costing farmers millions of dollars annually to control.

George argued that these problems could be solved cheaply and effectively with the introduction of bovine dung beetles. Their rapid breakdown of droppings would release vital nutrients into the soil, reduce the incidence of parasitic worms and flies, and improve the friability (crumbliness), permeability and water-holding capacity of the soil.

CSIRO approved the project, but it was another 10 years of painstaking research into more than 160 species across 20 countries before the first introduced dung-beetle eggs were hatched in Australian soil. George was determined that the species chosen would prosper without harming the country’s natural ecology, and he implemented a number of world-first quarantining procedures to ensure the eggs arrived clean and safe. “I’m very tenacious,” he says. “I don’t like cutting corners.”

Since 1967, 26 dung beetle species, most of them from Africa and Europe, have been spectacularly successful in Australia under George’s watch. As a result, not only has the pastoral industry been made more productive and prosperous, but Australians have been rescued from the clouds of flies that were closing in on cities and towns.

“In Canberra, you can have coffee tables outside and on the pavement,” George says. “You couldn’t do that in my time.” In short, George’s dung beetle project is one of the most successful agricultural programs ever conducted in Australia.

Now retired and living in Hobart, George is channelling his unstinting enthusiasm and passion into the creation of one of the world’s most extensive display collections of beetles – more than 100 trays containing 6000 specimens – which he will donate to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. He hopes the collection will not only ignite in younger generations the fire that’s burned in his belly for nearly 80 years, but also educate the public about the devastating effect of worldwide habitat destruction on insect diversity.

George has received a number of accolades for his service to Australia, including a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2000 and a Britannica Australia Award gold medal. He’s not what he calls a “brag bag”, but admits he’s particularly proud of the citation for his Britannica medal for “the application of ecology for human benefit.”

“That’s exactly what it is I set out to do,” he says. “Something that benefited mankind.”

Australian Geographic Oct – Dec 2008