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Bogong moths

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Bogong moths

In the migratory route of bogong moths

Visitors to the National Museum of Australia on Acton Peninsula are, whether they realise it or not, materially and ecologically embedded in the migratory routes of bogong moths (Agrostis infusa). These insects annually migrate from the fertile black soil plains of southern Queensland and western New South Wales to the Australian Alps in Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

Bogong moth larvae hatch in early spring across regions now renowned for agricultural production. As the weather warms and storms build, millions of bogong moths begin their migration south to avoid summer heat inside cool, dark mountain crevices. The moths travel at night and descend at first light to rest and feed. Lights of Canberra and other major centres convince bogong moths that dawn is near. Moths seeking dark places in which to escape the heat of the sun sometimes swarm Canberra buildings. During the later months of the year, workers and visitors at the National Museum regularly encounter these insects outside, and sometimes inside, buildings on Acton Peninsula. Occasionally the moths try to find a dark place inside a shirt, even down an earhole!

People have engaged with bogong moths in various ways in different places along the pathways defined by their migration. Since the agricultural colonisation of southern Queensland and western New South Wales, feeding by moth larvae on crops and pastures has caused problems for farmers, who apply pesticides to control the insects. Until the middle of the 19th century, Aboriginal groups travelled into the high country each summer to feast on the moths. The Mungabareena Ngan Girra Festival in Albury each November honours the traditional annual gathering by Aboriginal groups from throughout southeast Australia to collect bogong moths and hold ceremonies.

Recently, scientists have documented the widespread death of plants in Kosciuszko National Park downhill from crevices in which bogong moths shelter each year. In 2000, heavy rains washed debris rich in arsenic from the rocks. Scientists think bogong moths carried the arsenic to the rock crevices from distant agricultural regions where the residues of DDT pesticide and other arsenic poisons used in the 1950s and 1960s remain, and from urban industrial sites where the creatures sheltered during their journeys south.1

Intertwined histories of people, places and moths

The various dimensions of the intertwined histories of people, places and bogong moths suggest opportunities for a fresh mode of generating stories at the National Museum of Australia, one that fosters embodied understandings and transcends familiar boundaries between urban and rural, settler and indigenous, visitor and resident, nature and culture, past and future. Millions of bogong moths — and their extraordinary efforts to travel vast distances from hot inland plains to southern mountains, then back again — open such storytelling possibilities.

1 ‘Solving the moth mystery’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 October 2007; and ‘Earthbeat’, Radio National, 3 March 2001.

Written by George Main, Curator, People and the Environment, National Museum of Australia.