City of Melbourne

Discover our waterway warriors

In Melbourne’s bustling inner CBD, sometimes it’s hard to comprehend the diversity of the nature around us - we can often feel disconnected. There are many hidden opportunities for us to engage with our rich flora, fauna and green spaces at a local scale and reconnect with the natural world.

Green spaces, wetlands and the biodiversity within them contribute to the livability of Melbourne as well as play a vital role in maintaining people’s health and wellbeing – healthy environments, healthy people. Melbourne is home to many wetland environments, from extensive natural waterways such as the Tarago River in Werribee and the Yarra River, to the constructed wetlands of Trin Warren Tam-boore in Royal Park.

Australia’s first nationwide waterway monitoring event, the National Waterbug Blitz, is the perfect opportunity to engage with Victoria’s unique freshwater ecology and learn about the health of our waterways.

Trin Warren Tam-boore Wetland in Royal Park.  Image:    City of Melbourne

Trin Warren Tam-boore Wetland in Royal Park. Image: City of Melbourne

Wetlands are biodiversity hotspots which provide community spaces and habitat for wildlife, filter stormwater, reduce riverbank erosion, and support many other functions essential to urban and rural life.

Every puddle and river you step past or in contains miniature worlds with intricate networks of food webs and species with multi-stage lifecycles. Pick up any stone or submerged piece of wood from your nearest waterway, turn it over and you will reveal a variety of scattering creatures under a thin film of water – these are freshwater macroinvertebrates, more commonly known as waterbugs.

Waterbugs are a diverse group of critters that lack a backbone (they’re invertebrates!). They are large enough for humans to see with the naked eye, and include leeches, worms, jellyfish, dragonfly larva, water boatmen and even freshwater sponges, each with their own unique way of life. Waterbugs perform various functions within waterway ecosystems, including sediment mixing, nutrient cycling, energy flow through food webs and the breakdown of organic matter, which releases nutrients into the water - some species contributing more than others. These actions all contribute to and determine the condition of the waterway system.

Macroinvertebrates can live in all kinds of freshwater environments, but which species are present in a particular wetland is highly dependent on the water quality, each individual species differing in its pollutant sensitivity. This means that waterbugs can be used all around the world as direct bioindicators for environmental health and pollutant impact within our waterways.

Water Boatman Nymph.  Image: Larah McElro /    Flickr    [CC BY-NC 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode)].

Water Boatman Nymph. Image: Larah McElro / Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode)].

In healthy ecosystems, there will be as many as if not more pollutant-sensitive macroinvertebrates than those more tolerant of bad conditions. The release of pollutants creates an unstable environment that disrupts the species balance in an ecosystem, allowing tolerant species to thrive whilst essential, sensitive species suffer and decline in number.

As well as being easy to sample using simple tools, anybody can observe this diverse array of creatures. Waterbugs are abundant within all aquatic ecosystems; every river, lake and wetland is home to a plethora of different types. They have relatively short lifespans and thus show the effects of environmental conditions over a short period of time – weeks to months. Any change in the waterbug community will be indicative of recent changes to environmental quality, giving a robust picture of the ecosystem’s current state.

That’s not to say there aren’t difficulties when monitoring waterbugs. Although there is a menagerie of diverse species, there are many species that are yet to be properly described. It can also be difficult for the average environmentalist to identify waterbugs to a species level without formal training.

A gradient of the pollution sensitivity or tolerance levels of various waterbugs.  Image:    National Waterbug Blitz

A gradient of the pollution sensitivity or tolerance levels of various waterbugs. Image: National Waterbug Blitz

Considering each waterbug warrior has a job to perform, with declining numbers we may begin to lose their functions within ecosystems. Digging deeper, each of these species arguably has an intrinsic value, no matter how small they might be.

With more research being done every day into our wonderful waterbugs, we can hopefully begin to better understand their relevance in the larger, complex ecosystems that they inhabit. The good news is that anyone can get involved in the City of Melbourne’s free Melbourne Waterbug Blitz events this October. Make sure you come along to one or more of the following events if you’d like to contribute to our understanding of Melbourne’s incredible waterbugs. It’s a great way to connect to nature in the middle of the city.

Science Seminar – Wednesday 10th October, 5:30pm-8:00pm at the Hellenic Museum (280 William St)

This will cover the importance of waterbugs, freshwater ecosystems and waterway health in urban areas. Speeches from waterbug experts, freshwater ecologists and urban ecologists.

Waterbug Collection – Saturday 20th October, 10:00am-11:30am at various locations

Join expert survey leaders in Melbourne’s beautiful parks and help collect samples of the living waterbugs in our waterways. Choose from Carlton Gardens, Domain Parklands, Fitzroy Gardens or Royal Park.

Dragonfly Festival – Saturday 20th October, 12:30pm-4:00pm at the State Netball and Hockey Centre, Royal Park

Get to know the local waterbugs a little better – take a closer look at the samples gathered from the morning sessions and uncover the secrets about Melbourne’s waterways. There will be food, refreshments, activities and family fun.

You can also download The Waterbug App and conduct a survey yourself.

The Waterbug Blitz is a great opportunity to get involved and put waterways under the magnifying glass by collecting valuable data and assessing the wellbeing of our freshwater ecosystems. This will help both the environment and our management of it, but it’s also a great way to engage with nature and have some fun with your local community.

So grab a net, a magnifying glass and a small container and let’s get surveying!

For more information about the National Waterbug Blitz and associated events head to www.waterbugblitz.org.au.


Johanna Tachas is a third year undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne studying ecology and evolutionary biology. She has a passion for science communication and is currently completing an internship at Remember The Wild.


Banner image of a Blue Skimmer (Orthetrum caledonicum) courtesy of Richard Higgins from Wollongong, Australia (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Finding the little things that make our city special

…the true treasure of the City of Melbourne, metropolitan Melbourne, and any other city across Australia and the world is its nature.

A good children’s book is often seen as one that can either inspire or educate. A better one will do both. Such is the case with The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!. Co-authored by Kate Cranney, Sarah Bekessy and Luis Mata, and published in partnership with the City of Melbourne, this exceptional book provides children with the opportunity to discover some of Melbourne’s most wonderful insects – some well-known and others less so – and will also inspire them to seek out the world of ‘little things’ that goes largely unnoticed.

Image: City of Melbourne

Image: City of Melbourne

Luis Mata describes how the inspiration to write the book came while conducting fieldwork with co-author, Kate Cranney, for the original The Little Things that Run the City project. While outside observing some of the incredible insects of Melbourne, both Kate and Luis were questioned by children and their parents passing by about what they were up to. He explains that ‘Kate and I really enjoyed the opportunity to take a break and explain to both the kids and their parents some of the fascinating things we we’re learning by observing the amazing insects that call the City of Melbourne home.’ It was these ‘…enthusiastic children and their supportive parents [who] were a true inspiration to develop the ideas that led to The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!’.

Kate describes how '...kids love insects: spotting butterflies in the park, the sideways sway of a praying mantis, or a huddle of sawfly larvae, all rearing their heads. It’s no accident that Bugs Alive! is one of Museum Victoria's most popular exhibitions.' This is indeed something that can be easily forgotten by us adults - kids love discovering these little things in the garden or the local park, and are invigorated by the opportunity to learn more about them in an outdoor setting. 

In this special publication, Luis’ up-close photographs and Kate’s stunning illustrations provide a rare opportunity for readers to learn about and admire some of Melbourne’s wonderful insect life through both a photographer’s and illustrator’s lens. Moving from page to page, children will find themselves learning fantastic facts about the little things of our city. From the mesmerising hunting techniques of the Garden Praying Mantis and the ability of Long-tailed Sawfly larvae to turn leaves into skeletons, to the unassuming beauty of the Bush Cockroach and, my personal favourite, the sneaky breeding tactics of the alluring Checkered Cuckoo Bee, this book is packed with information that’s presented in an incredibly digestible format.

The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey.  Image: Luis Mata

The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey. Image: Luis Mata

The book has already been used by schools and children’s outdoor education groups like Leap into Nature, as detailed in a recent Wild Melbourne article by founder Christina Renowden. Kate tells me that ‘...kids are taking the book outdoors, into parks and gardens, and using it as a mini-field guide. We think that’s wonderful! Kids are using the book as part of ‘bug detective’ games – running about, trying to find the 30 insects in the book, and drawing other insects that they find. For Sarah, Luis and I, getting more kids into nature is a fantastic outcome!’

When I asked Luis if the book could also be enjoyed by adults, he assured me that they had ‘…planned the longer stories that go alongside Kate’s illustrations with both children and adults in mind.’ All three authors ‘…are thoroughly convinced that the amazing insects that live in Melbourne have something to say to everyone regardless of their age.’

But appreciating Melbourne’s insect biodiversity isn’t just about admiring their looks and behaviour. Luis explains how ‘insects are a fundamental component of nature in our cities’, especially when it comes to ecosystem services such as pollinating flowers and keeping plant pests at bay. Arguably, these insects are part of what makes Melbourne such an impressive city and allow both visitors and those that live here the chance to appreciate life on a smaller level.

I think Melburnians and Australians should consider themselves incredibly lucky to live amongst such a beautiful variety of amazing, unique insects. I’m particularly captivated by the rich connections that Indigenous people in Melbourne and Australia have with insects and other non-human animals – I treasure every Boon wurrung insect word that the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages provided for the book.

We often hear of children already being fascinated by the little things from a young age, such as the insects in their own backyards. This is an interest that sometimes seems to dissipate with age, and so a book like this will hopefully do wonders for those kids who want to retain that interest, or motivate those who are yet to develop it. Luis believes that as parents, it’s important to ‘keep providing… opportunities to remain in contact with nature and to keep highlighting the positive aspects of insects…’ throughout children’s lives. Adults are often guilty of dismissing native insects as nuisances, but it’s important to remember that for children, these animals can be the most fascinating part of enjoying the outdoors and that what we may see as pests are actually vital role-players in our local ecosystems.

This book is really the first of its kind and will hopefully result in other, similar children’s books with a focus not just on Australian wildlife in general, but local wildlife. As co-author Sarah Bekessy explains, we need to do more to make our Australian cities ‘unique’. Cities around the world are becoming more and more alike, and embracing local biodiversity ensures that we don’t lose what is special about Australian places.

The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities.  Image: City of Melbourne

The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities. Image: City of Melbourne

This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch.  Image: Sarah Bekessy

This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch. Image: Sarah Bekessy

As demonstrated by the minuscule Melburnians described in this book, there is much to love about our insect biodiversity alone. Imagine the possibilities if we extended this to all groups of animals, plants, fungi and made it clear to both residents and visitors that these are what make our home extraordinary. Sarah hopes that readers see the book as ‘a beautiful, compelling piece of work’ and describes the feeling of readers declaring their excitement when spotting the illustrated insects with their own eyes. As she tells me, ‘it’s all stuff that you can actually see yourself’ – again, the idea of what’s local is ever-important.

Finally, I asked Luis whether he had a favourite insect featured in the book. For him, it was the Blue-banded Bee. The photograph used to illustrate this species in fact marks the moment when Luis first saw this unusual bee during the Melbourne Bioblitz in 2016. He tells me that he will ‘…never forget how exciting that moment was, seeing those extraordinary, beautiful blue bands contrasting sharply with the alternate black ones. And the agile, graceful way the bee flew from one flax-lily to the other – a truly amazing experience!’ This is hopefully a joy that more Melburnians will share after learning to recognise our city’s distinctive insects using this remarkable book.

Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'.  Image: Luis Mata

Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'. Image: Luis Mata

You can download the eBook edition of The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne! at this link, or purchase a hard copy edition at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens gift shop or the Melbourne Museum gift shop


Rachel Fetherston - headshot.png

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.


Banner image of a Brown Darkling Beetle courtesy of Luis Mata.