An entomologist returns to the Little Desert

AN INVITATION to participate in the IFFA camp at Dimboola at the beginning of October 2016, which included forays into the mallee-heathlands of the Little Desert, sparked in me reflections of my early years as an amateur entomologist in the Little Desert, and the role of those experiences in the course of my life as a professional entomologist, naturalist, field ecologist and taxonomist. 

My career started with a PhD on the population biology and ecology of Australian native rodents and small insectivorous marsupials, but it didn’t take long after that to realise the lure of my true calling – entomological research. A childhood and lifelong interest in the diversity of nature has been most strongly expressed in the pursuit of insects, particularly the diverse and abundant beetles. I spent many years at Museum Victoria’s Invertebrate Survey and Entomology Departments before I moved to more agriculturally oriented entomological research at what is now called the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources. I am now based at the AgriBio Building at La Trobe University campus, and my current core responsibilities are with plant-parasitic nematode diagnostics. 

Insect collecting can provide a life-long interest, and can give purpose and direction to a naturalist with an interest in the outdoors and the diversity of life. It offers an opportunity to explore the backyard, the state, the continent, and even further afield, in search of specimens. It can provide great insight into ecological processes and evolution, as well as a very good reason to learn about plants, as insects often have very specific food-plant requirements. Beetles are very suitable for collecting as they are abundant in terms of species and are found in most habitats; they are abundant in deserts just as in wet forests. Moreover, many species can be found throughout the year in Victoria, even during the winter months. 

My entomology and botany passions were teethed in the Little Desert in the late 1960s and early 1970s when, as a schoolboy on vacations, I would stay at Kiata with Keith Hateley, the then ranger of the Kiata Lowan Sanctuary. He was a keen naturalist and expert coleopterist, and became myearly mentor and role model. The beetle collection in his extensive personal museum captivated me, especially the beautiful huge multi-coloured jewel beetles he collected in the Little Desert, as well as in South Asia during the second world war years. Geographically, my interests soon expanded from the Wimmera to Mallee areas of the Big Desert and Sunset Country, and 

then to more open rangeland areas of the arid interior of our continent.And it was also Keith’s jewel beetles that helped drive me to India, a place to which I have returned almost annually for well over 30 years. But the beauty and charm of the Little Desert couldn’t be ignored, and it has often drawn me back to refresh my spirits amongst the soft elegance of its green mallee (Eucalyptus viridis), yellow mallee (E. costata murrayana= E. incrassata), broombush (Melaleuca uncinata), silky teatree (Leptospermun myrsinoides) and desert banksia (Banksia ornata), as well as the tawny crowned honeyeaters and shy heathwrens, and of course the extraordinary malleefowl. 

My first experience of the Little Desert was as a young schoolboy, after hearing talk of its insect wealth by elderly beetle enthusiasts such as Gordon Burns, Freddy Hallgarten, Peter Kelly and Zoo (Cecil) Le Soeuf, at Victorian Entomological Society meetings. I somehow persuaded my mother to permit me to travel by train to Dimboola, where I transferred to a local train which stopped for my benefit to alight at the tiny settlement of Kiata. 

My naive intention was to walk to the Little Desert, carrying an incredibly heavy suitcase packed with a sleeping bag and cans of baked beans. Fortunately, I was taken in at Kiata by Margaret Hateley until her husband came home from his working day as ranger of the Kiata Lowan Sanctuary. That evening, Keith took me the ten kilometres south to the sanctuary’s shed, where he made a cushion of broombush branches for my bed. Next morning he came to the campground shed as usual, and on that day and for the next two weeks I was his young apprentice, both of us having entomological and general natural history interests. Some days we would go off beetle collecting in his favourite and often remote spots in the desert, others I would tag along as he took visiting naturalists or photographers to see malleefowl or other desert birds, or orchids or other plant gems of the sand ridge country. My second evening, as well as for the rest of this vacation and subsequent school vacations, I was fortunate to be invited to stay with the Hateleys, since their adult children, Ron and Rhonda, had left the family home to pursue their respective careers. 

One among many reasons why Keith became well known by local entomologists, particularly lepidopterists, is for his capture near Kiata of a large series of the elusive large brown azure butterfly (Ogyris idmo halmaturia) in 1939, the last time this butterfly was seen on the wing in Victoria. Larvae are attended by or feed on the sugar ant Camponotus terebrans, as they apparently don’ t exit the ant nest to feed on plant material. But more importantly, he became well known by a broad spectrum of Victoria’s population for his tireless efforts to have the Little Desert conserved as a national park. 

Keith taught me about the flora and fauna of the Little Desert. He showed me the value of collecting night-flying insects with an outdoor light and white sheet, which we employed on occasion in the large patch of natural vegetation behind his house at Kiata. He also showed me that interesting beetles could be obtained by turning decaying carcases of animals such as sheep and kangaroos. On one occasion he took me to Pink Lake, a salt lake by the Western Highway, about 8 km out of Dimboola. Like many other salt lakes in the west and north-west of Victoria, as well across the Australian arid zone, Pink Lake supports a beetle fauna adapted to a life on the salt. This includes the voracious and beautiful tiger beetle Megacephala australis, a predator that hunts on or around the open salt layer (when dry). A significant part of our collecting was from flowering mallees, especially dumosa mallee (Eucalyptus dumosa), and shrubs such as broom baeckea (Baeckea behrii= Hysterobaeckea behrii), prickly tea-tree (Leptospermum continentale), and common fringe-myrtle (Calytrix tetragona). Keith had a particular interest in the jewel beetles (Family: Buprestidae) of the Little Desert, and the more spectacular forms we found on dumosa mallee included Calotemognatha yarelli, Castiarina thomsoni, C. ignea, C. castelnaudii, C. helenae, C. mustelamajor, C. piliventris, C. amphichroa, C. scalarisand Neocuris pauperata. On flowers of broom baeckea we found beautiful jewels such as C. gibbicollis, C. iospilota, C. picta, C. octomaculata, C. octospilota, C. pallidiventris, C. truncata, C. vitatta, and Neospades simplex. Of the foliage-feeding jewel beetles, Keith introduced me to the smallest of the lot, Germarica liliputana, a thin black beetle under two mm long, 

on the cladodes of buloke (Allocasuarina luehmannii), as well as to a host of species that feed on the phyllodes of wallowa (Acacia euthycarpa = A. calamifolia) such as Agrilus australasiae, Diphucrania leucosticta, D. nebeculosa, D. notulata, Melobasis simplex, and M. gratiosissima. 

My recent revisit to the Little Desert elicited numerous and varied recollections of my youthful days with Keith. For example, I remember occasions when we would hear the buzz of an approaching enormous robberfly, Phellus glaucus (Family: Asilidae), whereupon Keith in high excitement would rush for his net and into the scrub in pursuit of the giant predatory fly. 

He had stories of seeing this fly capture, while on the wing, specimens of Victorias largest jewel beetle Temognatha heros, up to a full 5–6 cm long. Although we often looked for it, I didn’t have the good fortune to encounter this renowned beetle in the Little Desert, as they are on the wing only once every few years, as was noted in 1920 by the distinguished beetle collector John Charles Goudie from the Mallee at Sea Lake: some seasons they appear in considerable numbers, then for two or three years none will be seen. I also fondly recall lunchtimes in the heat of the middle of January, when we would find some shade under a tall mallee and relish our black billy tea and home-packed sandwiches, as we discussed out morning catch of jewel beetles and other flower-frequenting forms, and Keith described where in the desert we should spend the afternoon. 

My early experiences in the Little Desert helped as a starting point for the development of my passion for the diversity of animals and plants of Australias arid and semi-arid lands, and ultimately for the whole natural world. For me one of the attractions of the Little Desert is to walk off the track with a compass for a few kilometres and feel the exhilaration of the remoteness and isolation, being in a sea of mallee and heath on the waves of jumbled sand-ridges. My aim and joy are in part to understand the Little Desert as a complex ecosystem, as well as to attempt absorbing its spirit as part of me. 

The theme of the recent IFFA camp at the Little Desert was people connecting to nature, and at the camp the Association’s president Graeme Lorimer asked me what the Little Desert meant to me. I was confused for a moment before I responded that it is part of me, that its yellow sands are flowing through my veins. It is an important if not somewhat difficult question to try to address and untangle, and I noticed that I wasnt the only one at the camp given the challenge. Our connection with nature is a matter of human perceptions and the aesthetic senses such as beauty, desires such as curiosity, and feelings such as interest, familiarity, joy and ultimately love. These issues are subjective and can seem fairly nebulous, but are very important for all of us to question ourselves about, as we must be clear about our purposes for conservation. And after all, beauty, joy and love of the natural world are simple and straightforward ideas, and perhaps unavoidable consequences of the human condition. 

I would like to close these notes with the first few lines from what I think is one of the most perceptive, meaningful and beautiful descriptions of the significance of nature to people. It was written by Chief Seattle to the President of the United States in 1852, in response to the President’s suggestion to buy Indian land, and I would encourage everyone to look it up and savour the complete message: 

The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you sell them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people. We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of a pony, and man, all belong to the same family. 

– John Wainer