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

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