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Kara Jensen-Mackinnon on what happened to Australia’s Christmas beetles.

The mystery of the vanishing Christmas beetles

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Every year, in the lead up to Christmas, thousands and thousands of native flying insects, known as Christmas beetles, would emerge from the soil and attach themselves to trees, street lights and crawl into homes across Australia.

Or at least that’s what used to happen.

In recent years Christmas beetles have disappeared, concerning scientists who are worried climate change is to blame.

Today, producer for 7am Kara Jensen-Mackinnon on what happened to Australia’s Christmas beetles.

 

Guest: Producer for 7am, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon.

 

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Every year, in the lead up to Christmas, thousands and thousands of native flying insects, known as Christmas Beetles, would emerge from the soil and attach themselves to trees, street lights and crawl into homes across Australia.

Or at least that’s what used to happen.

In recent years Christmas beetles have largely disappeared, concerning scientists who are worried that climate change is to blame.

Today, producer for 7am Kara Jensen-Mackinnon on what happened to Australia’s Christmas beetles.

Its Thursday, December 9

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
So Kara, you’ve been on a search for this particular Australian insect - the Christmas Beetle. I didn’t grow up on the east coast, so I’m not that familiar with them. Can you tell me a bit about them and why you’re looking for them?

KARA:
So Christmas beetles are these silly little beetles, they're mostly brown and they're shiny, some gold and some are copper. 

And where I grew up on the east coast of Australia in Sydney, there used to be hundreds of thousands. 

They'd come out of their little Christmas houses. I didn't know where they were in November, but in December they would emerge and they would wreak havoc. 

They would fly into walls, they would fly around the house. Eventually they’d like smash into something and fall onto their little back. They couldn't flip themself over. And when you did pick them up, they have these like crispy little gross bug legs and they would cling onto your hand. And it kind of felt like a bottle cap on your skin. And I just remember seeing them, all over the pavement. They were always drowning in the pool. 

In fact, they were so prolific this time of year in December that when I was a kid in primary school, there were three things that meant Christmas time was coming. The jacaranda trees were flowering. We had very ripe mangoes that were very cheap, that we ate over the sink and Christmas beetles arrived.

But lately, the last five or 10 years, I actually haven't seen one at all.

RUBY:
Right, so that explains you’re now looking for them now - because you haven’t seen a Christmas Beetle for years…so the vanishing Christmas Beetle, is this something other people are noticing as well? 

KARA:
At first I thought, maybe it’s because I am spending less time in the bush and just more time looking at my phone, that I’m not really attuned to Christmas beetle populations as much as I used to be. 

Then I started talking to some of my friends and they said they noticed the same thing, so I thought it mustn't just be me… 

I just started thinking, you know surely it couldn't  be possible that in my own lifetime Christmas beetles could have gone from populations of thousands and thousands to virtually zero… so to find out whether Christmas beetles had actually disappeared, I decided to embark on a Christmas journey. 

Archival tape -- Kara:
“Hello, testing. OK. This is day one of me searching the bush looking for beetles.”

Archival tape -- Kara:
“So this is the second day of my search.” 

KARA:
I started pretty small, just kind of walking aimlessly around the bush, around my house.

Archival tape -- Kara:
“It's just day three, still pretty wet outside, so I haven't really seen anything yet.” 

KARA:
And didn't find anything. And then after a few days, I just became pretty obsessed actually with looking for them. 

Archival tape -- Kara:
“So this is day five of my search. Um, and it's really starting to feel like I'm in some like weird true crime podcast show.”

RUBY:
And so did you find any Christmas beetles Kara?

KARA:
This is the sad thing. I was looking really hard too and I didn't find any. I did find plenty of other beetles and have a lot of bites on my legs from other beetles, but I found not one Christmas beetle. And so rather than give up, I decided to elicit the help of an actual expert. I found a guy online called Chris Reid, who is an actual Christmas Beetle expert from the Australia Museum.  

Archival tape -- Kara:
“If you could just give me an introduction, hi I’m Chris…” 

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“Hi, this is Chris Reid. I'm a research scientist at the Australian Museum, and my position here is all about research on beetles.”

KARA:
And so I went to the museum and I paid him a visit.

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“Certainly when I first came to Australia, it was end of November 1984, it was very hot. I came from winter in the UK, of course, but it was very hot. It was also the end of a drought. And yet, uh, on the hot summer evenings, there were Christmas beetles all around the lights And Christmas Beetles compared to British beetle fauna are huge and spectacular.” 

KARA:
And so I asked Chris about the Christmas beetle populations, and he actually confirmed my suspicions.

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“I used to run an insect class in primary school 12 years ago. It was not difficult to fill a bucket with Christmas beetles from the local lights and just use those for the kids to to handle because they're quite robust. And now I would be struggling to find more than 10.” 

KARA:
He told me about these historical texts that they have at the museum, which detail, you know, 100 years ago, how many beetles there were. And he told me this crazy story.

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“Where these two ladies recounted the Christmas beetles feeding on branches of eucalypts next to Sydney Harbour being so numerous that the branches dipped into the water. So, I mean, that's certainly not occurring now.”

KARA:
He says. You know, since then, there's been a marked decline in these Christmas beetle populations, and it's actually pretty rare to see one or two a year these days if you're lucky.

And you know, obviously he's an expert in this area, so he's walking around looking for them pretty seriously, and he only saw his first beetle just the other day at the train station. 

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“Well, I think I'm recorded on all the cameras at night, crawling about sort of late at night about 9:30 or 10 a crawl around and visit all the lights in the car park nearby.” 

RUBY:
Okay, so it sounds like it's definitely not just you correct, Christmas beetles really seem to be vanishing, and I suppose if that is the case, the big question is why is that happening? What has happened to the Christmas beetle?

KARA:
I asked Chris and he says, You know, when you drill down into it, the underlying factor is climate change.

We all know climate change is happening. We're seeing devastating floods and fires more and more every year. But a lot of the shifts, especially in weather patterns and things, are so intangible that you can kind of ignore it a little bit, which is why I think that, you know, now when I'm walking around and I notice little things like jacaranda trees are blooming in October instead of November, and I can't see beetles anymore. 

These are all really clear and tangible signs of climate change happening in my lifetime.

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Kara, you've spent the last couple of weeks looking for Christmas beetles without much success, it sounds like they are actually disappearing, and the underlying reason here is to do with climate change. So can you unpack that for me and tell me exactly what it is that's occurring here?

KARA:
Yes. So I would try my best to answer this because I'm not a beetle expert like Chris. But he says that beetle populations need multiple consecutive wet years in a row in order to thrive because the soil needs to be soft enough for them to lay their eggs. 

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“I think what I'm seeing is just the effect of prolonged drought and particularly drought in winter because we are now getting winter after winter with no rain.” 

KARA:
And then it needs to be soft enough the following year for those eggs to, well, the little baby insects to burrow out to the surface.

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“It needs to be two wet summers, because your first wet summer is only going to lead to a hatch of the very poor previous year, so you need two in a row.” 

KARA:
And he says, because we've had so many hot summers lately, the ground is really hot and compacted and all of the leaves are dry, so they don't really have a lot to eat anyway, which is why it's been really difficult for those beetles to lay eggs and those eggs just aren't hatching. 

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“The females are laying eggs in the late summer. Those eggs are hatching into larvae that which then feed late Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Some larvae could emerge as adults the next Spring/Summer season. But some adult larvae may suspend the development and stay in the soil for another year or so.”

KARA:
He says there's also fewer trees around fewer young saplings because of fires and droughts again. So climate change has a massive impact on the beetles population. But he said, You know, there's a lot of things that we actually do ourselves that are exacerbating the decline in their population as well. 

RUBY:
Right OK, so as temperatures rise, the heat is making it difficult for the beetles to reproduce. But on top of that, there are some other things that are happening that are making the situation worse. Can you tell me what they are?

KARA:
Yes, so one of the biggest issues is actually land clearing for housing developments.  Because the beetles are kind of picky eaters, they all have one specific tree that they like to eat. 

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“The area that’s under the greatest pressure in Sydney is Western Sydney and the Southwest. It's also full of rare vegetation types which are based around eucalypt woodland.” 

KARA:
And so they tend to find themselves in those environments. Some of the beetles like eucalyptus trees, some like tea tree and some, like acacia.

Archival tape -- Chris Reid:
“So that's my assumption that there's a link between loss of numbers of Christmas beetles that people are saying, and the housing.”

KARA:
And Chris estimates that there's probably only about 10 percent of their natural habitat left in those areas. 

RUBY:
Right so it sounds like things are getting pretty urgent for the Christmas Beetle - soon there won’t be many places left for it to live. So what are the consequences of something like this happening though because Christmas Beetles don’t exist in isolation - if they disappear then what else happens? 

KARA:
So Christmas beetles are a really important part of natural ecosystems. They are the tasty little lunch of magpies and cockatoos and kookaburras. And so to see a decrease in their population, we're seeing huge repercussions for these little micro ecosystems. 

We're seeing huge shifts in other species because of these climate impacts, too.  And so we're seeing these populations of other insects like bogong moths and cicadas also in decline.

And because there's obviously not a lot of funding in beetle research, it will take years and years for scientists to collect all of the data and information that they need, by which time it might actually be too late. 

RUBY:
Hmm. OK. And Kara, in the meantime, are you still searching for Christmas beetles? Are you still hoping to find one?

KARA:
Yeah, climate change is obviously making it pretty hard for me to find the beetles, but I was telling Chris about my fruitless search and he actually gave me some tips.

He said that it's really important that if you have access to a garden or green space, that you plant native Australian trees in those areas to encourage native wildlife and insects to return. 

He said that because they'd like to congregate around large kind of urban lights around, you know, train stations, that sort of thing because they think it's the Moon and they use the Moon to navigate. There's usually a lot in those areas. And so he thinks that I'd have a better chance if I looked in those areas. And so the other night with this new information, I decided to start searching again. 

Archival tape -- Kara:
“So I’ve come back to my bushwalk at night time and there’s definitely a lot more bugs, but it’s dark - so maybe one of these is a Christmas beetle - I’m not sure. I don’t want to put my hand in a dark bush. Not really any beetles near the street lights. I might actually have to call it a night…” 

RUBY:
I really hope that you find a Christmas beetle Kara.

KARA:
Thanks, there’s still two weeks to Christmas - so I still have time. 

 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which are due to take place early next year.

 

Morrison said that Australian athletes would compete at the games but Australian officials would not attend the event due to ongoing concerns about human rights abuses in China.

 

The move comes after the US announced a diplomatic boycott earlier in the week.

 

And Australian Olympic swimmer Madeline Groves has accused leading swimming coaches of sexual harrassment and misconduct.

 

On Wednesday, the Olympic medalist said she was sexually abused from the age of 13 and spoke out against a culture of ‘misogyny’ and ‘perversion’ within the sport.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

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Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest