“So this is Christmas”

Where were you the day they shot John Lennon? For those younger than a certain age the answer is probably, “A twinkle in my father’s eye,” but for the rest of us it seemed like one of those seminal moments in life when history is written.

I have a memory of that warm December afternoon in Melbourne. School had finished for the summer and I was in the garden at the family home in Rosanna when my father came outside with the news he had just heard broadcast on the radio.

“Hey. You there.”
“What?”
“No, no, no,” he chanted, using a metre borrowed from The Beatles.
“What?”
“That bug. You know, Lennon, the Beatle. They just shot him in New York.”
“What, who?”
“I dunno. Probably some sort of music lover I guess. I heard it on the wireless just now.”

I remember the sense of disbelief. Lennon, the man who wrote the double entendre “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Dead at 40. With a bullet. Forty sounded old.

To put that day into its era and within the context of the Yallambie narrative, the ex-Beatle died 37 years ago this week on December 8th, (a day later in Australia). It was a time when Ethel Temby was still living at Yallambie Homestead and the last of the vacant blocks from the original AV Jennings sub division were fast disappearing into the suburban landscape, giving Santa more work to do it seems with every passing year.

Lennon’s old band mate Paul is in Melbourne to play some shows today and tomorrow and the circumstance got my mind to wandering. When I opened a box at home containing some shiny natural history specimen beetles collected at Yallambie in Christmas times now past, it got it wandering off in a fairly random direction. It’s a direction entirely appropriate for this, the silly season, and a better line to travel than dwelling on an historic, senseless murder. My old dad’s words about bugs seemed to come back like a blast from the past, along with a flood of lines from a poem you may have heard.

When Christmas comes the Christmas heat’ll
bring once more the Christmas Beetle
The first inflammatory breeze’ll
set him buzzing like a diesel.
(Leon Gellert)

So with apologies to lovers of the British ’60s beat who, like me, thought at the start this post was shaping up to be about the walrus, or beetles spelled with an “A”, think again. The question is, just where have all those Christmas Beetles gone?

Jewel Beetles found at Yallambie.

It’s an oft asked question these days. When I was a kid it seemed that Christmas was the time when shining Christmas beetles were a common thing in the garden. Maybe I was just more observant then or maybe it was the plastic toy “Bug Catcher” that arrived from Father Christmas one Christmas morning, but finding anything like a Christmas Beetle now is something of a rarity and the fact is, I haven’t seen an actual Christmas Beetle at Yallambie for several years. The photograph above is of some wood boring, Jewel Beetles which were collected at Yallambie, but I’m afraid they weren’t found in a single day, or in a single year for that matter.

Parure crafted for the Countess of Granville from real scarabs by Phillips of Cockspur Street, London, c1884. (Source: Gray & Davis)

The beauty of Jewel Beetles has long been recognized by jewellery makers who prized them and in the latter half of 19th century incorporated real beetles into everything from hatpins to bracelets, an expression of the Victorian fascination with the natural world, even while their other behaviour did everything to destroy it.

Christmas Beetle (Porter’s)

True Christmas Beetles by comparison are a type of scarab and are a fairly chunky, sometimes large insect that come in a variety of metallic colours. They are quite harmless to touch and if you’ve ever had one to hold it’s something to feel the determination of the little fellow as it pushes through your fingers.

It leaves me wondering, what goes on in a beetle mind as he sits there, snug as a bug in a rug in the palm of your hand. Does he have a name? Something scientific probably. Latin sounding, no doubt. Maybe his friends call him Ringo?

Adult Christmas Beetles feed on eucalyptus leaves and it was claimed in our Colonial past that the quintessential gum tree could sometimes be seen to bend under the sheer weight of the numbers of massed beetles. No more.

Jewel Scarabs from around the world, (National Geographic).

I don’t know if this has a relevance, but it has been reported in Germany that the flying beetle population in Germany has crashed by more than 75% over a 30-year study period. Reasons for this remain uncertain but if the results of the German survey into this phenomenon correlate into a worldwide trend, then we likely have a problem. The German report concludes that, “Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services.”

80% of wild plants rely on insects for pollination and 60% of birds rely on insects as a food source. The fact is that only 10% of the world’s insect population have been identified and it is believed that many are going extinct before they can even be named.

Butterfly Collector, (unidentified), Daguerreotype. (Source: George Eastman House Collection).

Yallambee’s Robert Bakewell, an amateur entomologist of some standing, would have been most disturbed by this statistic, even as his net descended down upon the last Pussycat Swallowtail or his pin pierced an increasingly rare Christmas Beetle.

The search for the ever elusive Pussycat Swallowtail.

Comment has already been made in the pages of this blog about the decline in bee populations but apparently the decline is not limited to bees and is linked to a general loss of bio diversity worldwide. The evidence for a beetle decline in parts of Australia is anecdotal but undeniable. Climate change, loss of insect habitats and the use of pesticides have all been suggested as possible causes of this beetle malaise but the general consensus is that it has been a combination of factors without any one single cause. The plastic Bug Catcher of my childhood is in the clear after all.

The Herald Sun reported today that a recent La Trobe University study had found that human disturbance to ecosystems such as clearing forest for farmland has led to profound changes in the diversity of ant species world wide. Professor Heloise Gibb was quoted saying that, “The disappearing ant species are more likely to be predators, increasing the chances that pest populations might explode.”

In the case of the old Christmas Beetle, it’s unclear what if any effect a decline in the population will cause. The belief is that the “dual life history” of the insect is at the heart of the problem. The larvae feed on the roots of grasses, the adults on eucalypt leaves and with both environments in short supply around urban Melbourne these days the decline is understandable. It’s one explanation of why Christmas just isn’t what it used to be, at least for beetles.

Meanwhile, over in Melbourne tonight, that other rare Beatle is making his appearance stage left, some might say in the style of “Dame Nellie Melba’s Farewell”. The weather has been a trifle inclement of late but here’s hoping there’s still a chance for a fine night, a warm summer, and to the truth of those words:

“…the Christmas heat’ll
bring once more the Christmas Beetle”

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

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