Mosquitoes are the musical lovers of the insect world. That hum you hear by your ear is the sound of tiny wings beating with passion.
Male mosquitoes spend their short lives searching for a partner whose wings work at a similar speed, so that their coupling creates a high-frequency harmony. What seems like a bothersome buzz is two mosquitoes making beautiful music together.
Having mozzies singing together is a pretty romantic notion.
“Having mozzies singing together is a pretty romantic notion,” says mosquito researcher Cameron Webb, at the University of Sydney. His favourite mosquito is the Hexham Grey, which is sandy-cream in colour and produces offspring that are bloodthirsty cannibals, with a taste for other mosquito larvae. “They are the Jaws of the mosquito world,” he says, smiling.
Critters lurk in every kitchen, backyard and bird bath over summer. Cockroaches, cicadas, mosquitoes, flies, beetles, ants and spiders swarm about Sydney, feeding and reproducing in the hot air. But we know little about them – beyond how they make us jump, cringe or scream.
The secret lives of Sydney’s biggest summer pests might surprise many people. “Most of them play a secret role that we are not really aware of,” says Taronga Zoo keeper Kristal Thomson. “Because they all live in the undergrowth or the background, doing amazing work, we take them for granted.”
Huntsman spiders, for example, have insecurity issues. The huge and hairy arachnid is actually terribly shy, Thomson says. “They feel their way around the world by using the hair on their body. Anything they haven’t touched before they get quite scared about and move quite quickly away,” she says.”People misinterpret this as them chasing us around and trying to attack us.”
Huntsman spiders are “nature’s own pest controllers”, she adds, by gobbling cockroaches, mosquitoes and flies. “If people knew how important they are for the environment, they might happily have one in their home. But there’s a stigma attached to them, which is passed on through generations.”
Perhaps that’s because of the way they loiter high in the kitchen corner, staring at me as I make a sandwich. Reaching into the cutlery drawer, I often find a cockroach sitting on the teaspoons.
Now there’s a critter with an image problem. “People are scared of them. My wife will run a mile when she sees a roach,” says entomologist Bryce Peters, at the University of Technology, Sydney. “The mosquito is the most dangerous animal on earth but cockroaches seem to have a worse reputation.”
There are about 3500 species of cockroach but only four in Sydney that might be considered pests. Among them is the Australian cockroach, which doesn’t come from Australia. It’s silky-brown with yellow-striped wings. “It is certainly the most handsome roach,” Peters says.
Our only native is the giant burrowing cockroach (Macropanesthia rhinoceros), which lives in forests and plays a key role in the ecosystem by consuming dead leaves and litter. Pest roaches are also more useful than you might imagine, by providing fodder for other species up the foodchain.
Peters respects roaches. They’re survivors, he says. “They are omnivorous, they are gregarious. I think a cockroach can live without its head for up to 10 days,” he says. “We have higher and higher-tech insecticides but roaches keep going. They are a worthy adversary.”
Every pest has a purpose in the ecosystem. Hoppy Joe bull ants, an aggressive blighter with black-and-green bands on an orange body, help control populations of flies and cockroaches.
Christmas beetles recycle nutrients in the soil. Cicadas are ripe pickings for birds. The males are like suicidal lovers, singing loudly to attract a mate – which makes them more vulnerable to predators. Some cicadas have evolved to emerge from underground only at prime number intervals – every seven years, 13 years and 17 years – to evade predators with shorter lives.
Mosquitoes are fast food for birds, bats, fish and frogs. “Mosquitoes are essentially the snack food of the Australian environment – they have about as much nutritional value as a fingernail,” Webb says.
“They are an Australian native animal and can be just as important to the local environment as koalas and kangaroos. I completely understand the annoyance, frustration and fear of some of these insect pests, but that’s part of living in Australia, unfortunately.”
Perhaps the most prevalent pests over summer are bush flies, which breed in animal dung and are blown by westerly winds into the city. They want to drink your sweat and tears, sucking on the moisture around the eyeball as a source of energy.
But even they have a valuable role to play. “I don’t like them as much as roaches but they’re an important part of the ecosystem in the natural environment, because maggots will break down rubbish and waste,” Peters says.
The fact that they arrive in such hordes over summer, cloaking your back and drinking your tears, is your own fault, in a way. Flies thrive in human food waste and among farm livestock.
“We’ve created the environment that they’ve adapted to,” Peters says. “We are entirely to blame for just about everything, from mosquito-born diseases to the fleas that do well on domestic animals.”
The greatest pest, you see, is not an insect, arachnid or critter scuttling under the fridge. It’s us. “We’re causing more damage ecologically than any other animal,” Peters says. “We’re the greatest pest on earth.”