A touch of light: flower, bee, lynx spider and jackal flies



Photos © Mike Gillam

At our place the first baby dragons, Gowidon longirostris (Ta Ta lizards), hatched in mid January, perfectly timed to take advantage of the abundant insects. Yet the same week I observed a heavily gravid female of a related species in the Sandover region, so the breeding period is quite extended.

The tail of the Ta Ta is incredibly long, about twice the snout to vent measurement. This attribute is especially relevant when the lizard runs on its hind legs and the counterbalancing tail seems to flail about drawing loose cone shapes and frequently contacting the ground. I really must film this so I can slow down the action and better describe the rhythm.

Chasing storms and ripening grass seeds the budgerigars are sallying back and forth to all points of the compass. I often sit on my roof at daybreak as the clouds turn a lurid pink or orange and that’s when I see the first flocks. I hear the chirruping approach well before their dimly lit shapes appear, a streak of silhouettes, shape-shifting as they go. 

They pass overhead in small groups, mostly fewer than fifty birds, occasionally smaller family groups or pairs and rarely, a lone budgerigar circling repeatedly and calling in distress for its family dissolved in the clouds. Papunya in the northwest, northeast to the Sandover, and the well watered creeks and rockholes of the MacDonnell Ranges are among the favoured destinations this month.

A flicker of movement at ground level catches my eye. Arrethe (Eremophila freelingi), an important bush medicine plant, had been flowering for weeks in response to summer rain. Predictably the gorgeous mauve flowers are attracting large numbers of butterflies and bees.

Spinning in the breeze, attached to a single strand of web, was an abseiling lynx spider firmly clutching a dying honey bee. I ran for my camera and by the time I returned the bee had stopped struggling. Little more than a few minutes had passed since the spider had lunged at the bee, a testament to the toxicity of its venom, the luck of delivery or a combination of both.

Now as I fiddled with the camera settings a swarm of tiny flies joined this surreal tableau and I thought immediately of a high stakes drama played out on the African plain, of herbivores and predators locked together in life and death struggles and of course, the omnipresent scavengers.

Such associations stem from childhood when many of us were first introduced to the notion of wilderness through an African and North American lens. Clearly I’m not alone as evidenced by the common names adopted in the literature.

This ‘lynx’ spider sitting among the flowering Eremophila does not build a web and relies instead on ambush and speed. Most of the  tiny flies attracted to its kill (there are two species in the image) are called ‘jackal’ flies. They are not parasitic flies attempting to lay eggs but are simply feeding on the carrion. Like the spider, I’m still amazed at the speed of their appearance. 

Arrethe is one of my favourite desert plants, in part because I associate it with certain longtime Arrernte friends, one of whom presented me with a billy can of leaves she’d collected. This followed a visit to the local pharmacy, not for medical reasons, just to say hello to my wife, the pharmacist on duty.

In conversation our old Arrernte friend asked Maria for news on my wellbeing and was concerned to hear that I had a particularly savage dose of the flu. It may or may not have occurred to the senior Arrernte woman that she was in a shop full of medication. She simply pulled rank and informed the pharmacist that bush medicine would be provided that same afternoon and I’d get much better if I followed her instructions to the letter.

The woman, in her late sixties, climbed a hill just north of town to get the best leaves so I always think of her when the Arrethe is plumped up after rain and flowering. Crushed between my fingers the leaves do have that astringent smell, slightly reminiscent of camphor and yes, it worked very well as a steam inhalation. Nowadays locally produced ‘bush balm’, a bush medicine based on this common plant, is manufactured and sold by various Aboriginal organisations.


Recently in this series:

A touch of light: bee totemic

For the complete series of “A touch of light” go to the Features button on the home page menu bar.


  1. Great photo Mike, amazing to get them all at that moment! It’s always terrific seeing what you have in the Alice Springs News, it’s a welcome relief from all the official news.


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