Australia’s bogong moth invasion turns even yawning into a potential health hazard

 

Sydney

A week before Australian politicians reconvene after a lengthy spring break, Parliament House in Canberra has been invaded by a different kind of pest: swarms of large bogong moths, breaking their journey on their annual flight south.

The native moths, which have a wingspan of up to 5cm, have occupied both parliamentary chambers, carpeting ceilings, walls and windows. Political journalists, already installed in their offices, complain of the brown, furry insects crawling up their trouser legs and drowning in cups of tea. According to one report, “even an inadvertent morning yawn can become a health hazard”.

Bogongs fly south in search of the cooler climes of New South Wales’s Snowy Mountains and the Victorian Alps. On their way, they encounter the bright lights of Sydney and Canberra. And while they regularly gatecrash barbecues at this time of year, the moths have appeared earlier than usual, stoking fears of a bumper bogong year.

With its floodlit flagpole, night-time illumination and hilltop setting, Parliament House – Canberra’s largest building – has been a favourite bogong haunt since it opened in 1988. The moths even prompted an official report in 2005, which described Capital Hill as “a giant light trap”.

This year, the moths have been setting off fire alarms, prompting several false emergency responses. They have also been pursued along the corridors of power by ravenous birds.

Bogongs appear to have been causing havoc ever since Europeans arrived in Australia. Records show that they invaded a Sydney church in 1865, forcing a service to be abandoned. In the mid-1970s, they swarmed into a new, brightly lit building in Canberra in such numbers that the lifts stopped working. More recently, the moths were uninvited guests at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where they  dive-bombed performers and athletes, even perching on Yvonne Kenny, the celebrated soprano, as she sang during the closing ceremony.

The moths, which breed in the plains of southern Queensland and western New South Wales, migrate up to 625 miles during spring. Warm weather, which caused the larvae to hatch early, and strong winds, which helped propel the insects south, are blamed for their unseasonably early appearance this year. Linda Broome, a New South Wales threatened-species officer, said it was the earliest the bogongs had been spotted since 1986, when she began monitoring them. “It’s certainly going to be a very big year,” she told ABC radio.

Managers have tried to “moth proof” Parliament Hosue but the bogongs have reached plague proportions.

“You open the door to your office and they’re sort of falling from the ceiling,” one parliamentary journalist, Ben Packham, told the ABC. “You go and get your cup of tea in the morning, and you’ll see three or four dead ones… drowned in a saucer.”

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