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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dung Beetles Combat Aussie Salute

JERRABOMBERRA, Australia -- Flies in Australia have driven the country mad every summer for generations.

The winged pests outnumber the nation's 19 million people by an estimated 2.4 million to one at the height of the season. Like flies the world over, they get everywhere; whether food or faces, nothing is sacred.

But that could be changing -- thanks to the humble dung beetle.

The fly has left its mark on the national character in more ways than one.

It is the inspiration behind the trademark hat with corks dangling from its brim and the "Australian salute" -- that now-ritual brush of the hand that keeps the insect at bay.

The annual battle between man and fly has spawned an industry of its own.

Shops sell a range of repellents and swatters of all shapes and sizes. Houses across the nation have mesh screens across the windows and doors.

"They're flying vermin and God knows the country would be a better place without them," said John Feehan, a former government scientist who is now one of the country's leading fly-busters. Feehan spent 31 years up to 1993 working with beetles at the nation's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

Now he breeds Spanish and African dung beetles for a growing number of customers keen to enlist beetle regiments to do battle with swarming populations of flies.

Feehan, based in the capital, Canberra, now spends 36 weeks a year travelling around rural properties to plant beetles in cow dung, the favored breeding ground for flies. The beetles burrow through the dung within hours and tunnel into the ground, killing any fly eggs in the process. Each dung pad can shelter and rear up to 3,000 flies a week.

With Australia's 28 million cows dropping about 300 million pads of dung a day -- which could breed up to 900 billion flies in one week -- the beetles have their work cut out. Australia's 350 native species of beetles shun cow dung, preferring harder kangaroo droppings to the softer cow pad, which has forced scientists to look outside the country.

Feehan said 22 species of dung beetle have been successfully introduced to Australia from Mexico, Spain and South Africa over the past 30 years, and they were starting to make some headway into the piles of cow dung.

"It's hard to imagine, but we have less flies buzzing about now and their numbers are still falling," Feehan said in an interview on a dairy farm in Jerrabomberra, 250 kilometers southwest of Sydney. "Thirty years ago we had to fly to Paris to eat outside and escape the 5,000 flies fighting for our food."

Feehan, wearing thin medical-style rubber gloves, has no qualms about flies or picking up handfuls of beetles out of a teeming bucket and folding them into a fresh cow pad.

He happily admits that he loves his job and his beetles. "These beetles are God's gift to Australia," he enthused.

But while dung baiting may not be a career that many would shout about -- Feehan's wife bans him from telling anyone what his job is -- he is not alone in doing what he does. Similar projects are under way year round in the states of Western Australia and Queensland.

Scientist Penny Edward from Queensland's agriculture agency, Agforce, says a government-funded beetle-planting program began in the north of the state at the start of 2001 after watching the success of other projects.

"The beetles up here are just going crazy right now, which is great because they're knocking the fly breeding season on the head," she said. "At this rate we may even lose our national salute."

Feehan is more cautious. He said it will be impossible to make a serious dent in the nation's fly population until flies come under attack over a wide area of the winter breeding ground in Australia's tropical north.

"Once we get enough beetles up north, we will have a real grip on finally closing the lid on their breeding," he said. "But at the moment, hot winds blow thick black clouds of flies south across the country and they keep breeding on the way."