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. 

Our Home in the Wilderness

The wind outside comes and goes in fits of undirected rage. It hurtles past my window and drowns out the calls of the fledgling raven in the tree outside. Squat and downy, it grips swaying branches with fresh, uncertain claws. Yesterday it was marvellously sunny outside, and now… well, it isn’t. Such variable weather is an oft-cited trademark of Melbourne and surrounds, and is something Melbournians enjoy brandishing as a testament to the fact that we live in a land of extremes. Yet, for the young raven outside, Melbourne’s weather is perhaps one of the least extreme of the forces that influence its daily life. 

Indeed, all cities – not just Melbourne  – are places of stark contrasts. Worlds of conflict and polarity, where squat and downy lives must eke out an existence. As Associate Professor Kirsten Parris writes in her new book Ecology of Urban Environments, cities are ‘where the best and worst of human existence can be found, and where habitats constructed for people can complement or obliterate the habitats of other species.’ To study these contrasts and complements is to study urban ecology: a relatively young discipline and one that Parris defines as ‘the ecology of all organisms – including humans – in urban environments’.

Few fields of study could be more relevant to the life of the young raven outside my window, and fewer still could hold such timely pertinence for the contemporary hominid that sits at his computer writing about it from within warm walls. For, the world around us is changing and if we are to preserve ourselves, as well as our squat and downy friends, we must have knowledge. Parris captures the essence of our transformation of the planet – no more obvious than in urban environments – with a preface in the form of a poem by Mark Knopfler:

A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a sack on his back
And he put down his load where he thought it was best
Made a home in the wilderness

And so goes the story across the planet. A story that began some twelve thousand years ago in the Middle East and one that has been repeated and reenacted at an ever-increasing rate across the globe. ‘Globally,’ writes Parris, ‘there were 740 urban areas with a human population >500,000 in 2008, including 22 with a population >10 million’.

In some regard, I’ve come to treat my copy of this text in the same manner my parents regarded our family medical book. We once saw that book as an essential tool for diagnosing illness and subsequently, treated it in accordance with the expert advice contained therein. Yet, in many ways what Parris has written is far more relevant to my life than such a medical text. That old, dusty book had information on any number of illnesses likely and unlikely to occur to the average human. Meanwhile, the issues and processes Parris describes are almost all relevant to any one of us, and at any given time. It is accessible too and while perfect for students, researchers, and policy-makers, I can’t help but feel it belongs on the shelf of the “average” family. What is written here can be seen, and heard, out my window: the construction of urban infrastructure including many surfaces impervious to rainfall, the removal of native vegetation and the planting of exotics, the hum of road traffic, the streets lights, the runoff, the waste, the dogs and the cats and the net-entangled fruit bats. This is a book about you and me and the community in which we are apart.

That community is shaped by our own actions – something we are often naive to. I can recall receiving noise complaints from neighbours whilst living in an apartment building – perhaps I was reading too loud – but the complaints of the natural world are often less obvious without the adequate training. Parris goes some way to highlighting our subtler but no less significant impacts, and provides some serious food for thought: ‘Human preferences … influence patterns of activity in different parts of a city, such as which places are visited, when, by how many people, and what they do there.’ For example: ‘Nature enthusiasts may be most likely to walk through parks of remnant patches of native vegetation in spring and summer, potentially trampling plants or disturbing breeding birds.’

The ever-hungry, black shape huddled in the tree outside is testament to the unequal impacts of urbanisation on our native biodiversity. Ravens cope well in urban environments– hell, they cope well under most circumstances – but many species do not, and as Parris notes, ‘The particular characteristics of urban habitats can result in the formation of novel ecological communities, some of which have no obvious analogues in natural environments.’

This inequality of the urban realm extends to our species also, and Parris dedicates an entire chapter to this subject. As Knopfler puts it:

Then came the mines, then came the ore
Then there was the hard times, then there was a war…
I used to like to go to work but they shut it down
I got a right to go to work but there’s no work here to be found

Parris highlights several relatable issues, such as access to urban parks and open spaces, the unequal distribution of noise and air pollution, and the dependence those of us living towards the edges of urban sprawl have on cars for transportation.

And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles
They can always fly away from this rain and this cold

And there’s the rub. Just like the poem’s narrator, we have but one home and ‘We’re gonna have to reap from some seed that’s been sowed’. Knopfler’s poem is an ominous tale of socio-economic downfall in big cities, and Parris does well to include it in her text. The impacts we are having on the natural world spin a no less foreboding yarn, and this book is an essential start to crafting a happier ending.  

Maybe my squat and downy friend outside will one day fly away, but there seem fewer and fewer places left for it to go where it won’t be touched by an urban world.   

This book belongs on your bookshelf if... you care to understand the processes at play around you and your home. 

Head to the Wiley website to purchase your copy. 

Chris McCormack
Chris recently graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master's of Science in Zoology. He is the current Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication. 

You can find him on Twitter @Chris_M_McC

Review: Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes

The quintessential farm usually consists of large expanses of cleared land, primarily dominated by exotic crop species or pastoral grass for livestock. The clearing of land for agricultural practices is often accompanied by a reduction in biodiversity, and consequently a decrease in the ecological processes that a healthy ecosystem performs.

Ecologically sustainable farming practices can help mitigate some of the impacts on biodiversity due to agriculture. Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes is a guide to these practices, discussing which are the most effective in restoring ecological processes on farmland. Across six main chapters, the authors ask ‘how can we maintain or even increase food production without undermining the productive capability of farms and without significantly eroding biodiversity?’

Birds, the most diverse group of vertebrates found on farmland, can be beneficial to farmers, as they contribute to natural pest control, plant pollination and even seed dispersal. The chapter dedicated to birds discusses whether implementing nestboxes really affects the number of bird species at a location, as well as the importance of paddock trees and remnant vegetation. Native mammals are discussed in a similar fashion, although invasive species such as the red fox, European rabbit and black rat are also examined.

One great aspect of this book is the way that the authors explain the processes behind the science. For example, the chapter on reptiles includes topics such as ‘How are reptiles surveyed in agricultural landscapes?’, ‘A way of categorising reptiles’ and ‘How are lizards measured?’. These insights allow the reader to better understand each topic, and the practices they are discussing.

The text also discusses the important role that invertebrates play in agricultural landscapes, as they contribute to many crucial ecological processes, including pollination, seed dispersal, and the recycling of organic matter, as well as being food source for other animals. The role of ants on farms is a particular focus of this section, as is the effect that plantations have on butterfly species.

Farmland vegetation is also covered, including how vegetation cover and attributes change with time, and how this change can affect the animal species found at planting sites. The effect of livestock on vegetation cover and condition is also discussed, and the importance of large logs and native grasses for biodiversity touched on.

Of particular interest to me was Chapter Seven: ‘Managing wildlife friendly farms’. This chapter ties together the previous topics, and explains the do’s and don’ts of managing an ecologically sustainable farm. Habitat protection and restoration is discussed, as is the importance of evidence-based farm planning.

Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes explores ecologically sustainable farming in short and concise chapters, but manages to do so without sparing the science or importance of each topic. The authors explain the science behind the findings, allowing the reader to better understand the text, and also manage to slip small snippets of interest into each chapter. This book will prove valuable to anyone managing agricultural land, but is also an excellent read just for interest’s sake. The authors’ book dedication to ‘the many farmers…doing outstanding restoration and management’ also highlights some of the important work being done by farmers in the fight to protect and enhance our nation’s biodiversity.

 This book belongs on your bookshelf if... You’re interested in agricultural ecology, you manage a rural or agricultural property or you want to learn more about the biodiversity found on farms.

Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy. 

Emma Walsh

Emma Walsh is a science graduate who enjoys sharing her love of nature with others. In the past, she has worked as a wildlife presenter, and enjoys teaching children about our native wildlife and its conservation. Her other interests include gardening and bushwalking.

Cover image via Wiki Commons/Nick Pitsas (CSIRO).

National Biodiversity Month

Across September, Australia celebrated the biodiversity that makes our island continent so unique. Here at Wild Melbourne, we don't think our Victorian species get enough coverage, so we decided to showcase just how diverse our state is! A species for every day of September, collected here in case you missed it. 

Thank you so much to all the photographers that contributed images to our National Biodiversity Month campaign.