My Life in Bugs

I’m walking through a forest of scribbly gums, eucalypts iconic in Australia because of the scribbles on their trunks that fascinate children and adults. May Gibbs used scribbly gums, among other iconic images, to illustrate the children’s classic, “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie”.

Scribbly gum in”Snugglepot and Cuddlepie Meet Mr Lizard”, May Gibbs

The scribbles are caused by the meandering path of the larvae of the scribbly gum moth through the bark of its host.

Scribbles on a scribbly gum, J C Trotter Memorial Park, Burbank

I’m not an entomologist or an arachnologist, but you can’t spend your life in Queensland, or indeed Australia, without coming in personal contact with insects and spiders.

I’ve been stung by bees and wasps, bitten by bull ants and green ants, had my blood sucked by leeches, ticks and march flies, and been irritated by mosquitoes, mites, fleas and cockroaches.

Mosquitoes like blood. As a child I slept under a mosquito net, and I’d put my finger against the net just to feel the sting, then squash the mozzie through the net. Mozzies carry Ross River fever. Con and our Lizzie have both had it and suffered for months with fatigue, fevers, and muscular aches and pains, missing weeks of work and feeling miserable.

Keeping the mozzies away

In Burketown we were plagued by flying ants. Nothing would stop them: they’d come under the doors and round the edges of the screens. We would turn off the lights, but they’d still get in.

Flying ants don’t bite; but under the house and out in the yard were nests of biting meat ants. Our little kids would wander on to a nest of meat ants and stand there howling to be rescued. Meat ant bites hurt like a burn.

Green ants are tasty. If you pinch them on the thorax and bite off the abdomen you get a burst of delicious lemon liquid. They can bite, if you annoy them, as we would when we shook down mandarines from Con’s mother’s fine Innisfail tree, full of green ants and their nests.

Green ant nest

March flies are merciless. In a beautiful rainforest creek one summer, we stayed under water up to our chins and pulled our hats down low to avoid their bites. From Stradbroke Island to Fraser Island and all the way up the coast, at certain times of the year, march flies can ruin your day wherever you are. They’re slow and easy to swat; but unless your house has insect screens the floor will soon be littered with dead flies and you’ll have to get the vacuum cleaner out.

Locals of western Queensland ignore the little sticky flies that get into eyes, nose and mouth and settle in hundreds on shirts, but they drive me mad. My dad swallowed one once, at the church in Jandowae, in the middle of giving a sermon. Prince Charles once had the same problem, on a visit to Central Australia. Queensland doesn’t have a monopoly on annoying insects.

Handy Australian tool

After a day of walking in the Bunya Mountains with my brothers, I found a tick high on my thigh and quite fat with my blood. The Bunyas are famous for ticks. My brother pulled it off for me, and I returned the favour the next morning when he found one on the back of his neck.

Another story about my dad: in going over our female dog Lassie for ticks, he was about to get his tweezers on to a pale, tick-looking lump on her belly when he noticed that she had two rows of identical lumps nearby. Poor Lassie nearly had a bad day.

I’ve been frightened of huntsman spiders since I was a child in Nambour. We used to call them tarantulas. Playing dress-ups one day, I had one leg in a pair of cowboy costume pants when a huntsman ran out of them and up my arm. My mother heard me screaming and came running.

“All that fuss over a tarantula!” she said, unsympathetically. “They won’t bite you!”

Huntsmen can grow almost as big as my hand, and they don’t stay in a web. They hide behind picture frames or under clothes on the floor, then run around the house at night, hunting cockroaches.

Huntsmen love to run around the house

One night I was woken by the feel of something running lightly across my face. I’m sure it was a huntsman. I’d rather have the cockroaches that disappear under the bench when I turn on the kitchen light, or crunch under my feet in the dark.

Redback spiders do have a dangerous bite. They don’t run around the house, though, like huntsmen. Redbacks hide away in cracks and dark places.

Redback spider

One Easter, leaving our house in Burketown for the holidays, I sprayed a can of strong insect killer around before closing the door. When we came back, dead redbacks were dangling in their webs from under our dining room table. We’d had our knees under that table every night for years.

It seems a redback can kill a huntsman many times its size:

Con tells me an insect story.

“A bee stung me when I was driving north over the Isis River bridge. It flew in the window, landed on my neck and stung me.

“The funny thing is, though – when we were driving back south, a couple of weeks later, it happened again. At the exact same spot – the Isis River bridge! Another bee flew in the window and stung me!”

“I don’t remember that. Sounds a bit unlikely to me.”

“Well, maybe it didn’t actually sting me the second time. But it flew in the window. The Isis River bridge, south of Childers.”

Perhaps there were beehives in the bush near the river. Beekeepers set out their hives near flowering eucalypts.

Native bees also exist, in their many varieties, throughout bushland and gardens, playing a vital role in fertilisation.

Native blue-banded bee

Native bees don’t sting. My brother Mike Fox, local expert, gave me a native beehive in a paint can for my birthday one year. Sadly, it was soon ruined by an invasion of sawflies, a kind of fly or wasp.

Queensland has beautiful insects as well as annoying ones. Christmas beetles are rare now, but they were common in my childhood. We would hold them in our hands and enjoy the tickle of their claws.  

Christmas beetle

There are jewel bugs – beautiful but stinking when disturbed.

Jewel bugs

There are dragon flies; and there are some wonderful moths and butterflies, especially in the tropics.

Looking out from our Yarrabah FNQ verandah one morning, I saw something moving strangely on the ground. It was brown, as big as a bird, but fluttering like a butterfly. It turned out to be an astonishing tropical insect: a Hercules moth, the largest moth in the world. They commonly grown to 27cms in wingspan, and sometimes larger. I feel privileged to have seen one.

Hercules moth

At Bingil Bay, near Mission Beach, I saw my first Cairns Birdwing butterfly – a gorgeous sight.

Cairns Birdwing butterfly

Ulysses butterflies, sadly listed as endangered, flit like bright blue lights through the rainforests of Tully Gorge.

Ulysses butterfly

At Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory, within Flecker Botanical Gardens in Cairns, they breed many varieties of Queensland butterflies. You can see them in all stages, from eggs to adult butterflies, among the gorgeous orchids and flowering plants. 

Looking at butterflies, Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory

In South Queensland, my favourite butterfly is the Evening Brown that I sometimes see at dusk, fluttering around close to the ground and blending in with the leaf litter on bushland tracks.

Evening Brown butterfly

Yesterday I finally worked out what has been eating my callistemon plants down to bare branches.

Sawfly larvae on my callistemon bush

Dozens of disgusting-looking, squirming grubs were grouped together among the poor, chewed leaves, waving their ugly heads.

Mike identified them as the larvae of sawflies.

“They won’t sting you,” he said.

“I don’t care. They’re ugly, they killed my bees, and now they’re killing my callistemons. I’m going to turn the hose on them, hard. Let the ants have them.”

So I did.

You can tell I’m not an entomologist.

Main picture: J C Trotter Memorial Park, Burbank

Romancing the Bunya

A king parrot is standing on my battered old Simpson and Day bird book. Not on the parrot page, either. He looks as if he’s researching the rufous fantails we’ve been watching in the forest.

68064807-6927-4AFB-9C9B-9D34996E7B99 King parrot

“I remember the day Mum put the bunya pine down her bra,” says my brother Rick. He and my other brother Mike and I are in the Bunyas Mountains together, on a nostalgic visit, sitting on the verandah of a small but comfortable cottage and reminiscing. King parrots and crimson rosellas cluster round us, pecking at bird seed.

I can’t imagine putting anything as prickly as a bunya pine down my bra.

We’re discussing a trip to the Bunyas we went on years ago, camping with our parents. Dad had pitched the old canvas tent on what was then known as the Lucerne Patch, a camping field running down to the edge of the rainforest. That evening there was a sudden storm, with heavy rain threatening to swamp the tent. Mum and we three kids held on to the tent poles while Dad frantically dug a trench along the uphill side to divert the flood.

Dad’s trench saved us from a night spent in wet bedding, and next day the sun was out. We walked along the forest tracks, under majestic pines and enormous fig trees laden with ferns and orchids.

Along the way, our mother spotted a baby bunya pine. The ground was soft after the rainstorm, and so in spite of signs that said not to interfere with vegetation or wildlife in a National Park she carefully dug it out. Because she didn’t want to be caught doing the wrong thing, so the family story goes, she hid it in her bra.

The iconic bunya pines, Araucaria bidwilli, endemic to the Blackall Range and Bunya Mountains National Park, command respect. Straight and rough-barked, bunya pines can grow close to fifty metres tall and a metre in diameter.

3CA28F0E-E113-476C-8BCC-0E5DBD82E71E Bunya pines

For thousands of years, great bunya festivals were held here. This was a meeting place for local Aboriginal groups and those from further away, travelling here every three years for ritual and ceremony, resolving of disputes, feasting, dance, song, trading, socialising and above all harvesting the bunya nuts.

bunya 4 daleys fruitAraucaria-bidwilli-Bunya-Nut-146 Bunya leaves, cones and fruit


Development of surrounding lands by white farmers, and the relocation of Indigenous people to reserves, tragically put a stop to the bunya festivals by 1902.

According to Tom Petrie, his father Andrew Petrie “discovered” the bunya pine and “gave some specimens to a Mr. Bidwill, who forwarded them to the old country, and hence the tree was named after him, not after the true discoverer.”[1]

These trees had been known and celebrated in this place for centuries before the Petries came along.

In the mid-1800s, Tom Petrie himself as a boy was the first free (i.e. not an escaped convict) white person to attend a bunya festival. As an old man, he described it in detail to his daughter, who wrote out his memoirs. Many of the bunya pines have what seem to be notches in them and some believe that they were cut to help the young men who, with the aid of a loop of strong vine around the tree, would climb up to get the big cones that hold the nuts; but according to Tom Petrie they would never cut a bunya because it would hurt the tree. They would climb using just the vine, aided by the roughness of the bark. It would take great skill and courage to climb so high that way.

By the 1850s, an avenue of bunya pines had been planted in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, where they’re still standing today, along the path above the river.

bunya bris bot g Avenue of bunya pines in the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens  Image: Monuments Australia

My brothers and I have been walking those same soft forest tracks again today, and we worked out which leaves belong to the bunya pines, and which to the equally mighty hoop pines, Araucaria cunninghamii, that grow here too. They were first collected by Alan Cunningham, botanist and explorer, in the 1820s.

bunya hoop Araucaria-cunninghamii-MF-13333-large Hoop pine

It’s easy to tell the trees apart, if you crane your neck upwards. The mature bunyas have a dome-shaped top, while the hoops have a pointed top. The leaves are different too. Hoop pine leaves are smooth and closely woven, and bunya leaves are twisted and prickly. Maybe Mum wrapped that little bunya tree in a hanky.

“She put the tree in a pot, and it grew,” says Rick. “For years we used it as a Christmas tree.”

“That’s right – I’d forgotten the Christmas tree! Didn’t she eventually plant it behind the house at Ashgrove, down by the creek?”

“Yes, she did. I wonder if it’s still there.”

This year, the forest is in drought, like most of Queensland. Dry leaves are lying thick on the ground. Many trees are suffering, and some of the tracks are closed. As we sit on the cottage verandah that evening, we hear a menacing cracking sound in the distance, then a deep, booming thump. The sound of a forest giant falling.

20B8EC51-12F1-48BE-9E11-6F689326DBC0 Bunya leaves

“When we get back to Brisbane, let’s go and look for Mum’s bunya pine,” said Mike.

That’s what we do. We drive out to the old house in Joffre Street, Ashgrove, and there it is, towering over the houses, down near the creek.

Only it doesn’t have a dome shape. It has a point. After all these years of family legend, is it actually a bunya pine at all? It’s not a full-grown tree yet – too young to have a dome, perhaps.

Maybe it’s a hoop pine. Much less prickly to put in a bra. We knock on the door to ask if we can go out in the back yard and check the leaves, but there’s no one home.

Hoop pines are beautiful too, with their rough bark and hoop-like stripes. They’re everywhere in Brisbane, standing like sentinels on hilltops, in parks and suburban gardens and motorway plantings.

The bunya pine, though, is the iconic one; and its home forest, now suffering from drought, is an ancient and spiritual place. This year, Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral burned down and the world mourned. The Cathedral will be rebuilt – just as it was. It won’t be so easy to rebuild the old, old forests of the Bunya Mountains.

[1] “Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland”, Constance Campbell Petrie. First published 1904. This edition 2014: Watson Ferguson and Company, Brisbane. Page 9

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