HomeTalent ManagementDung beetles, the Milky Way and the world of work

Dung beetles, the Milky Way and the world of work

By Carol Butcher

Most people have a story about a visit to one of our national parks or private game reserves that really stands out – it usually has to do with the sighting of one of our “big five.” Mine is a little different, it has to do with the sighting of a humble dung beetle.

If I was the driver, I would have waited for the dung beetle to cross out of harm’s way before driving off. Our ranger stopped, waited patiently, repositioned the Landrover and then waxed lyrical about the humble dung beetle.

I’d never given her role any thought – dung beetles were simply insects that shifted or ate dung. They were not exotic, they did not have a great presence and they weren’t the reason I was visiting the game reserve.

I had got it all wrong, I had never given the dung beetle’s role any thought. I had never understood the importance of her role and the issues we might have to contend with if it weren’t for her wonderful work.

Dung beetles eat dung excreted by herbivores and omnivores. They play a critical role in nutrient cycling and also increase nitrogen mineralisation. They keep the environment clean and prevent the spread of disease to other animals.

We would have serious issues if there weren’t dung beetles. In fact, the Australians learnt the hard way. Dung beetles were accustomed to cleaning up after kangaroos. When the Australians introduced cattle and sheep, dung beetles did not clean up after these animals. This compelled the Australians to import another type of dung beetle that would get the job done.

Dung beetles got me thinking about support staff in our organisations. Their role is critical, they ensure that the workforce’s basic needs are met – the facilities are clean, tea and coffee is served, our guests are offered biltong or biscuits, and our toilets are clean. These are things that we often take for granted.

These tasks do not have a high profile and they do not carry impressive job titles. They have much in common with the title “dung beetle,” which lacks the ring and the respect conjured up by titles such as “King of the Jungle,” or in the workplace, CEO, Director, Manager.

The question that we need to ask is whether we value and show our appreciation for individuals who complete humble, routine, low profile tasks within our organisation. We should. Here, we can learn from the Egyptians. They venerated the humble dung beetle, and often referred to it as the sacred scarab. We need to do more to revere the wonderful contribution that support staff make in our organisation.

I was also struck by the fact that very similar to our own world of work, dung beetles have different roles. There are tunnellers, rollers and dwellers. Just as the composition of skills within the workplace contributes to organisational outcomes, so the composition of dung beetle communities impacts on the ecosystem.

However, the aspect about dung beetles that impressed me most of all, was the fact dung beetles use the stars to orientate themselves – they are the only insect to do so. This begs the question: “Do your staff, including staff at the lowest levels, have a Milky Way to guide them? Have you spent time ensuring that all of your staff know the organisation’s values and Mission? Whether in the world of work or in nature, everyone needs a Milky Way to guide and orientate them.

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Carol has nineteen years’ experience as a professional writer, editor and case study writer. Her writing experience includes a stint as the resident Case Study Writer at the Wits Business School.


  • Love your article, Carol. And what a beautiful photo. Leadership lessons all around us.

    October 26, 2017

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