George Bornemissza 1924-2014


George Bornemissza, portrait painted by Kristen Headlam.


Dr George Bornemissza’s visionary work will benefit Australia forever. The ‘‘Aussie Salute’’ to shoo away the pesky bushfly is largely a dying custom, thanks to the importation of dung beetles, a project initiated by Bornemissza, a former CSIRO entomologist.
These small exotic additions have also changed the landscape in other beneficial ways, including improved nutrient cycling and pasture quality.

Gyorgy Bornemissza was born in 1924 in Baja, Hungary, and his childhood was steeped in nature, collecting and studying insects in the nearby forests. He studied science at the University of Budapest but completed his doctorate on dung beetle ecology at Innsbruck University, Austria in 1950 after fleeing Hungary’s emerging communist regime in 1948. Bornemissza moved to Fremantle, Australia in December 1950. Bornemissza realized that Australia’s diverse native dung fauna was ill-suited to burying cow and horse pats. European-based agriculture had created an ecological imbalance in Australian pastures. His mission was to redress this imbalance.
He joined the CSIRO’s entomology division in 1955, and his ideas came to fruition in 1965 when his chief, Dr Doug Waterhouse, marshaled government and industry funds to launch the “Australian Dung Beetle Project”. Bornemissza established a laboratory in apartheid South Africa in 1970 to select and safely export dung beetles from Africa, Europe and Asia. His search for suitable species took him far and wide, but especially to Africa, which boasts a rich and diverse dung beetle fauna that evolved to exploit the droppings of large herbivores. By 1985, when the project ended, 53 dung beetle species had been imported to Australia – 43 species were released and 23 were successfully established.
He took early retirement in 1983. Then followed 30 years of dedicated activity crafting two magnificent collections of beetles to illustrate the wonder of evolution and biodiversity, and to link art with science. One collection is housed in the CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection and the later, even more ambitious, collection resides in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
Today, many Landcare programs are taking dung beetles into new areas. Additional species from Australia are being released in New Zealand. The environmental, economic and social role of dung beetles is now widely recognized, and Bornemissza was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 2001 for service to science and entomology, an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship, and a Britannica Australia Award gold medal. He received honorable mention in the global Rolex Awards for Enterprise, and the CSIRO Service from Science Award. He was the inaugural Australian Geographic Conservationist of the Year in 2008. 
Bornemissza discovered many new animals in Africa and Australia during his fieldwork, and more than 20 species of beetles and other creatures are named after him. Among his favourites was Bornemissza’s stag beetle – one of Tasmania’s rarest and most spectacular insects – discovered near Pyengana, in north-eastern Tasmania. It was here, among his beloved beetles, that Bornemissza's ashes were scattered. 

George Bornemissza on dung beetle safari in South Africa in the early 1970s. Photo CSIRO

Whitten, M. 2014. How one man’s beetle-mania lorded it over the flies. The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 2014.

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln State Museum - Division of Entomology