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 ' 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 ‘ 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. 

Wandering with the Plains-wanderer

This is a guest article by Daniel Nugent.

Where Melbourne’s ever-expanding western suburbs sit today, vast native grasslands full of wildflowers once stretched over sweeping plains. These colourful grasslands continued beyond the Melbourne region, extending west along Victoria’s volcanic plains to Hamilton in western Victoria. Prior to European settlement, Melbourne’s grasslands supported a spectacular array of wildlife, the likes of which would have rivalled other awe-inspiring grassland biomes around the world - such as the savannahs of Africa, home to elephants and zebras, or the prairies of North America, home to bison and prairie dogs. Large mobs of eastern grey kangaroos and emus once foraged Melbourne’s grassy landscape, and small marsupials such as bandicoots scampered between grass tussocks, digging small holes along the way in search of food.

Sadly, many of the species that once called Melbourne’s grasslands home are now rare or extinct, following a long history of grassland destruction from agriculture and urban expansion. Add to the mix introduced predators and competitors and you have an ecosystem on the edge of collapse. The eastern barred bandicoot, eastern quoll and the grassland earless dragon are just a few species that have been lost from the Melbourne region. Added to this list is another notable species - the plains-wanderer.

A small, elusive, ground-dwelling bird, the plains-wanderer is a special but rarely seen inhabitant of eastern Australia’s grasslands. Within grasslands they are often mistaken for quail, but the plains-wanderer is actually more closely related to inland shorebirds, like plovers, and is the only member of its family Pedionomidae – a distinctive and ancient lineage of Australian birds. A species found only in Australia, experts believe there are less than 1,000 individuals left today. Owing to its evolutionary distinctiveness and risk of extinction, researchers recently ranked the plains-wanderer as the most important Australian bird, and fourth most important bird in the world, in terms of conservation.

A female plains-wanderer photographed in her grassland habitat.  Image: Rowan Mott

A female plains-wanderer photographed in her grassland habitat. Image: Rowan Mott

Perhaps owing to its ancient lineage, the plains-wanderer possesses a unique and quirky set of physical and behavioural traits. For instance, unlike many other species, adult females are much larger than males, and it is the female who is more colourful, with a black neck-collar with white spots and a rufous breast plate. The female also defends a territory and calls to attract males. After laying eggs, the female leaves the male to incubate and raise the chicks on his own.

Further adding to their uniqueness, the plains-wanderer has a very deep voice for a bird of its size. Females make a low frequency “oom” call when trying to attract mates which can be heard from several hundred metres away. To locate where other birds are calling from, all plains-wanderers have a large hole through the centre of their head which allows sound to arrive at each eardrum twice, thus acting like a directional microphone. This method of hearing works very well for picking up deep-sounding noises, but it is suspected that plains-wanderers cannot hear high frequency noises like the bleating of sheep or the tweeting of other birds.

This remarkable little bird was once found in native grasslands across eastern Australia, ranging from Victoria, through South Australia and New South Wales, all the way north to Queensland. Today, however, only two areas support strong populations of plains-wanderers: one is on the natural grasslands of the Murray Valley Plains, west of Echuca, in Victoria; the other is on the semi-natural grasslands of the New South Wales Riverina, north of Deniliquin. The primary driver of their disappearance from this former range is habitat loss. Only around 1% of native grasslands remain in Victoria and, disturbingly, large areas continue to be destroyed to this day.

This unique species was once found in native grasslands across eastern Australia.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

This unique species was once found in native grasslands across eastern Australia. Image: Cathy Cavallo

While intensive agricultural practices have caused the loss of the majority of grasslands in Victoria, not all farming practices appear to be incompatible with plains-wanderers. A number of conservative livestock grazing properties in northern Victoria have supported important habitat for this species for many decades. These properties show that with sustainable management, plains-wanderers can be supported in agricultural landscapes.

However, there is no home for the plains-wanderer in the new housing and industrial developments on the plains west of Melbourne. In the early 1900s, plains-wanderers were frequently sighted in this area, but observations dwindled over time. There have been a handful of plains-wanderer sightings over the past few years, including a number of interesting and somewhat bizarre encounters in the western suburbs. For example, an adult female was captured at a Melton shopping centre in 2011 (this bird was taken to Melbourne Zoo and later released). In 2013, a male bird was seen by a CFA member whilst fighting a grass fire in Little River. These observations suggest that plains-wanderers may still be persisting in Melbourne’s Western Plains, but at very low numbers.

Unfortunately, it is only going to get harder for plains-wanderers to find suitable habitat as this landscape becomes increasingly modified and fragmented. However, there is hope on the horizon. Melbourne’s western grasslands could be saved from further destruction by a proposal to create two new, large grassland reserves, together called the Western Grassland Reserves.

Plains-wanderers are likely to find it even more difficult to locate suitable habitat into the future.   Image: Cathy Cavallo

Plains-wanderers are likely to find it even more difficult to locate suitable habitat into the future. Image: Cathy Cavallo

The Western Grassland Reserves will protect 15,000 hectares of critically endangered native grassland near the outer western suburb of Werribee. This reserve system is being established to offset the loss of native grassland from new housing and industrial developments on Melbourne’s fringe. The acquisition of land for the reserve is underway but is far from completion, with only around 12% currently acquired and being managed. The Western Grassland Reserves represent a fantastic opportunity to support the recovery of the plains-wanderer and other grassland species. However, we won’t see the full effects until the reserve system is protected in its entirety.

It’s exciting to think that if this reserve is protected and managed appropriately, we may again see this globally significant species wandering the grassy plains at Melbourne’s doorstep.

Daniel Nugent is currently undertaking a PhD at La Trobe University investigating the importance of food availability for the plains-wanderer and other grassland birds in Victoria’s Northern Plains Grasslands.

Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

Not As We Know It: Down Frankston Way

Just as so many native trees, shrubs, birds and mammals love the sea air, we humans are particularly fond of it too. Unfortunately, this means that if you’re a coastal habitat, you’re almost destined to be disturbed, dug up or built on. When Europeans arrived in Victoria, they were particularly destructive, and from Brighton to Beaumaris, through to Aspendale and Frankston, the native coastal habitat was etched away, replaced with roads, shopping centres, coffee shops, impressive houses, and a particularly pretty bike route along the coast. When I find time to head to the Mornington Peninsula, I always make my way down along the coast, sweeping along the road and taking in the ocean views. While there’s some coastal scrub hanging on along the coastline, it’s only a glimmer of what would have been almost 300 years ago, before Europeans arrived.

Around Brighton and through to Beaumaris, the gentle slopes opened the area up to grassy and herb-rich woodlands. In some areas, the sandy soils became more infertile, with sedges and shrubs such as common heath and prickly tea-tree dominating the area. Where the soil had a few more nutrients, eucalyptus and sheoak species were able to grow, and were subsequently scattered through the landscape. There was a thick understory of species such as tall sundew, weeping grass and cranberry heath surrounding them. While you’re much more likely to see trendy dog breeds like French bulldogs and spaniels bounding through the area now, hundreds of years ago kangaroo and wallaby would have bounded around instead. The red-bellied pademelon, now restricted to Tasmania, would also have been prevalent. Hundreds of years ago, they were free from the predation of foxes and the habitat destruction that later wiped them out on the mainland, and they happily roamed around Port Phillip Bay.

This beautiful grassy woodland habitat would have stretched out through to Bentleigh. Reaching up to ten metres high, species such as Jimmy’s shining peppermint and messmate stringybark would have sprouted up across the landscape. In some places, shrubs grew in thick, dense thickets, with swamp paperbark and woolly tea-tree outcompeting most species. In the areas where light could pass through the thick shrubs, moss, lichen and liverwort tried their hand at survival, drinking up the sun and spreading through the understory. This interesting concoction of environments continued through Mordialloc, Parkdale and Braeside.

As well as the thicket of swamp scrub, herb-rich, heathy and grassy woodlands occurred in patches throughout the areas. Some river red gum, swamp gum, and rough-barked manna gum would have been scattered around, but generally speaking, it was the understory of grasses, reeds, and bracken that reigned supreme. The beautifully named stinking pennywort and variable stinkweed made up a good portion of the understory, along with the more endearingly named swamp billy-button and tiny water-milfoll.

From Aspendale through to Seaford, which have some of my favourite ocean views as you drive towards Frankston, the area was wetter than the surrounding habitats and as a result was mainly treeless. While some swamp gum may have popped up here and there, it was shrubs and grasses that loved this environment the most. White purslane and wattle mat-rush were widespread, bringing bursts of white and yellow into the green landscape. These grasses would have continued through to Carrum Downs, with kangaroo grass and reed bent-grass sweeping through the area, until swampy riparian woodland emerged around Lyndhurst, snaking through parts of Carrum Downs, Cranbourne, and Dandenong South. Swamp paperbark, blackwood and woolly tea-tree made up the majority of the habitat. Birds would have loved this environment, with the flowers of the swamp paperbark beautifully fragrant to our native species. Native butterflies such as the imperial hairstreak and tailed emperor love blackwood, as it is a host plant for their larvae until they become adults. 

In Frankston, heathy woodland began to emerge again. Eucalypts reached up to ten metres tall, shrubs such as the common heath, prickly tea-tree, and prickly broom-heath dominating the understory. The bright colours of the flowers of common heath, combined with the beautiful soft whites of the prickly species, would have made a wonderful sight. No doubt honeyeaters and native bees could have been heard throughout the area, happily pollinating our shrubs and heath. Moving through to Mount Eliza, we once again meet grassy woodland, with sheoaks and eucalypts emerging and kangaroo grass and wattle mat-rush sprouting up in the understory. Lovely natives such as feathertail gliders, echidnas, and bandicoots would have made themselves at home between the trees and shrubs, gobbling up beetles, ants and other crawling creatures.

On the drive along the coast from Brighton to Frankston, it’s difficult to imagine the diversity that would have once been. It’s particularly difficult in Frankston, which is now almost a city in its own right. A train station, shopping centre, movie theatre, and many delicious fish and chip shops now stand where trees, shrubs, animals, and birds used to be abundant. But nature is resilient in the strangest of ways, and native shorebirds such as pelicans, gulls and cormorants can still be seen on the beaches throughout the bay. Ringtails have managed to survive despite the presence of cats and foxes. Rosellas, cockatoos, and even birds of prey like falcons aren’t unfamiliar sights, soaring above our suburbs, searching for places to roost and feed. In the last few years there has been an increase in planting along the coast of Port Philip, to stabilise our beaches and help to conserve our native species. While too late for our once wide-spread pademelon, it may be enough to help birds and other mammals increase in number. Maybe one day we will even be able to get a glimpse of what it would have been like all those years ago. 

Mary Shuttleworth

Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.

Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.

The Wild Melbourne Journey: A Case Study in Science Communication

The Wild Melbourne team are pleased to announce that we've been fortunate enough to be invited by Australian Science Communicators' Victorian Branch to present our story.

Australian Science Communicators is a group dedicated to fostering the successful communication of science to the public, in all formats. This aligns incredibly well with Wild Melbourne's mission of increasing the Victorian public's understanding and appreciation of nature. 

Come along to LOOP Bar on Thursday 21st July to hear us talk a little about the Wild Melbourne story, what we've learnt, and to see a range of our unreleased video footage from around Victoria (similar to the Science Short shown below!).

For those interested, there will also be an opportunity to network with us, as well as with many other Australian Science Communicators after the event. 

The event is free, so please head to the EventBrite page and register to attend. We hope to see you there!