11 December 2023

Are Christmas Beetles back or are tiny imposters taking over the Illawarra?

| Keeli Royle
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Christmas Beetle

Christmas Beetle populations are believed to be in decline, but researchers need help from the community to collect data. Photo: iStock/DMVPhotography.

The colourful critters that emerge in the lead up to the festive season have been seemingly disappearing for years and while a recent increase in potential Christmas Beetle sightings around the Illawarra might seem to signal a resurgence, it could actually be a different tiny pest that’s giving locals false hope.

The Christmas Beetle season should now be in full swing and although research into the local populations is only just beginning, entomologist Associate Professor Tanya Latty from the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences said that appearances are becoming rare.

“It’s anecdotal data, so it’s just what we’ve heard from people, but everyone I’ve talked to remembers there being lots of Christmas Beetles when they were younger and now they don’t seem to be there,” Associate Professor Latty said.

There are 35 species of Christmas Beetles, which are generally concentrated around the country’s eastern coast and despite the decline, community members have been spotting the insects for months.

“What we have noticed this year is that it seems that Christmas Beetles came out much earlier than we were expecting. So normally we would start to see them in November with a real peak in December and January, but this year we saw them as early as October, which is probably due to the warm weather that we had.”

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Sightings have even varied between local suburbs – some Illawarra residents reported being inundated by the bugs in recent weeks, while others are yet to see a beetle.

“We don’t know necessarily why one neighbourhood might be seeing heaps of Christmas Beetles, but then not much further there are none,” Associate Professor Latty said.

“And you may have one species that you see a lot of, but maybe you’re not getting a lot of a different species.”

But many of these reports might not actually even be Christmas Beetles at all, as a lookalike bug is becoming even more prevalent.

“The other thing that we’ve noticed recently is that a lot of people are misidentifying things as Christmas Beetles,” Associate Professor Latty said.

“There’s a small beetle called an Argentinian Lawn Scarab that’s sort of a brown-mottled species that really like turf grass; those are in pretty high numbers at the moment.”

“It’s not surprising at all that there are a lot of lawn scarabs because they’re an invasive pest species.”

Although there are plenty of resources and comparisons online, it can still be difficult to compare the pair to an untrained eye.

“The first is to look at the back leg, weirdly enough, Christmas Beetles have pretty chunky back legs compared to something like a lawn scarab.”

“Lawn scarabs are also considerably smaller than most of our Christmas Beetles – Christmas Beetles are big and they more often than not have an iridescent sheen, but again that’s not all species.”

Identifying the location of actual Christmas Beetles is something researchers like Associate Professor Latty are very interested in, with the teams at Invertebrates Australia and the University of Sydney launching the Christmas Beetle Count for the second year in a row.

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The project calls on community members to photograph and record any sightings, or potential sightings through an app or website, with an algorithm and experts helping determine the genuine beetles from the imposters.

“This data is absolutely crucial to figuring out what is going on and for identifying threats and potential declines because there hasn’t been any long-term data previously, which means now we’re really on the back foot of trying to figure out where we should be seeing Christmas Beetles, what species are in more trouble than others.”

“It’s entirely possible that some species in some places are doing okay and may not need any extra help but there may be others that are potentially close to being in really big trouble.”

But if you haven’t seen any just yet, that doesn’t mean you won’t – in fact, researchers want you to be on alert all year round.

“They still might pop up. We’re not late in the season yet so we expect to keep seeing them for the next month and a bit, so definitely keep your eyes open.”

“Some of those sightings that are at funny times are actually really valuable for us because they give us more information about what is actually happening.”

Find out more or report observations through the iNaturalist website.

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