Indigenous plants bring culture, beauty, and beneficial insects into our parks and gardens

“[Indigenous plants] tell stories about the cultural belonging of Indigenous peoples and allow a portal into the rich cultural and ecological knowledges held by Indigenous peoples.

Zena Cumpston in Indigenous plants use (Cumpston 2020)

Look closely at nature

I’ve got a rather unusual request. If you can and have a minute to spare, would you have a detailed look at the four images in the figure below?

Top left: A sweat bee (genus Lasioglossum) on a wattle (genus Acacia) at the George Street Reserve, Sandringham, City of Bayside, Victoria. Top right: The African carderbee (Pseudoanthidium repetitum) on the Cut-leaved Daisy (Brachyscome multifida) at Sheils Reserve, West Brunswick, City of Moreland, Victoria. Bottom left: A pony ant (genus Rhytidoponera) on a tea tree (genus Leptospermum) at Long Hollow Heathland, Beaumaris, City of Bayside, Victoria. Bottom right: A carrot wasp (genus Gasteruption) on the Twiggy Daisy-bush (Olearia ramulosa) at Greenlink Box Hill Indigenous Nursery, Box Hill North, City of Whitehorse, Victoria.

Spoiler alert, all but one of the species portraited are locally indigenous to the Melbourne Metropolitan Area and the four photos were taken there within the last year.

Have you had a chance to look at the photos already? Would you mind sharing which themes drew your attention the most while you’re observing the images?

Did they bring about ideas of the unique traits of Australian plant species?

Or about the dichotomy between indigenous vs non-indigenous species?

Or were your thoughts drawn to think about pollination?

Were you thinking about complex ecological interactions?

Or was your focus pulled to the images’ colours, composition, or other aesthetic elements?

In the context of Australia, perhaps the images elicited a sense of Indigenous culture?

Nowadays, when I look at these images, the latter aspect is the one that I feel most strongly. But this was not always the case. Thanks to recent professional interactions with Jade Kennedy, Maddison Miller, Zena Cumpston and other Indigenous scholars with whom I have had the pleasure and luck to work with, I have come to recognise and appreciate that all Australian indigenous species – in the context of a given community associated with a given territory – have cultural Indigenous significance. I treasure this knowledge, as now every time I appreciate an Australian indigenous plant it reminds me that I’m also appreciating a vital aspect of the one or more Indigenous communities to which that given plant is associated with. We might not have the fortune to interact with the Traditional Owners of the lands and waters where we live and work in our day to day live, but it’s great to realise that an integral part of their culture is reflected back to us each time we have a look at locally indigenous plants (or any other locally indigenous species for that matter).

If this idea sparks your interest, I invite you to have a look at Zena Cumpston’s ‘Indigenous Plant Use’ booklet (Cumpston 2020) and an article entitled ‘Bringing nature back into cities’ (Mata et al. 2020). The latter is an opinion piece I developed in close collaboration with Jade Kennedy, Maddison Miller, Zena Cumpston, and other colleagues from the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub.  The ‘Australian pan-Aboriginal world views’ section is of particular interest and draws extensively on Zena’s and Jade’s perspectives and knowledges.

Another thing I tend to do, as I encounter an insect – whether in real life or photographically – is wonder if the species is locally indigenous or is introduced, exotic, alien, invasive, or otherwise non-indigenous to the area where I’m seeing it (or where the photo was taken). In the Australian context, this is of course a pre-requisite to establish the bonds with Indigenous culture that I’ve just highlighted.

Were you able to single out the African carderbee as the sole non-indigenous species to Melbourne amongst those portrayed in the figure above? And did you noticed that she was interacting with a native Cut-leaved Daisy? In Melbourne, Australia! I’m fascinated by this type of plant-insect interactions in which a non-indigenous insect species adapts to benefit from resources provided by indigenous plant species. More generally, I’m intrigued by the idea that some insect species can use resources from many, if not all, the plant species they encounter, while others are quite specialised in the interactions they establish.

Take, for example, blue-banded bees – one of my favourite Australian insects – which in Greater Melbourne are represented by two species: Amegilla asserta and Amegilla chlorocyanea. Both species, and in general all blue-banded bees across Australia, are very charismatic and strikingly beautiful (see figure below). I saw my first blue-banded bee only about 5 years ago – literally the one seen in the left panel. It was visiting a patch of Black-anther Flax-lily. My thinking at the time was that blue-banded bees were flax-lily specialists and wouldn’t interact with the flowers of other plant species.

Left: A blue-banded bee (Amegilla asserta) flying towards a patch of Black-anther Flax-lily (Dianella revoluta) at Royal Park, Parkville, City of Melbourne, Victoria. Right: A blue-banded bee (A. chlorocyanea) on Austral Stork’s-bill (Pelargonium australe) at Westgate Park, Port Melbourne, City of Melbourne, Victoria.

It turns out that blue-banded bees are indeed very selective in the species they visit and are attracted to only a few other indigenous plants. As I understand, in the Melbourne Metropolitan Area, A. asserta and A. chlorocyanea are only attracted to flax-lilies (genus Dianella), Hop Goodenia (Goodenia ovata), Showy Isotome (Isotoma axillaris), Small Crowea (Crowea exalata), Bulbine Lily (Bulbine bulbosa), and bluebells (genus Wahlenbergia). If you live in Melbourne, these plants can help you attract blue-banded bees to your garden and, most importantly, support them by providing floral resources throughout the year.

Blue-banded bees, as well as many of our indigenous bees and butterflies across Australia, are also attracted to the flowers of non-indigenous plant species. In Melbourne, I’ve observed them on Australian native plants that are not indigenous to Victoria. These include species of emu-bush (genus Eremophila) and rice-flower (Genus Pimelea). I’ve also observed them or seen photographs of them on plants that are non-indigenous to Australia, including Purple-top Verbena (Verbena bonariensis), Chinese Plumbago (Ceratostigma willmottianum), Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum), tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), and several species of sage (genus Salvia). We don’t fully understand if the novel resources provided by non-indigenous plants to indigenous insects are beneficial or if, on the contrary, they may cause risks that we are not currently aware of (Valentine et al. 2020).

The Little Things that Run the City

The ecological interactions established between blue-banded bees and flax-lilies, Hop Goodenia, Showy Isotome, Small Crowea, Bulbine Lily, and bluebells highlight the exciting possibility of using indigenous plant species to bring indigenous nature back into our cities and towns (Mata et al. 2020). But what about ants, leafcutter and masked bees, ladybugs, hoverflies, assassin and damsel bugs, and parasitoid wasps, amongst many other beneficial insect groups? Can they be attracted to our parks and gardens with indigenous plants?

My colleagues and I first explored this question in ‘The Little Things that Run the City’ (Mata et al. 2016), a research project we did in the City of Melbourne across 15 public parks. In the study, we recorded the interactions between over 550 insect species – 97% were indigenous to Melbourne – and over 130 plant species (a mix of species indigenous to Melbourne, indigenous to Australia but not to Victoria, and non-indigenous to Australia), including forbs, lilioids, graminoids (both lawn and tussock species), shrubs, and trees.

The plant group associated with the largest number of insect species were neither lawns (no surprises here) nor trees (quite unexpected). As it happened, it was indigenous graminoids, a group represented by five species of tussock grasses. The champion amongst these was Common Tussock-grass (Poa labillardierei), on which we documented over 100 indigenous insect species. On the other side of the spectrum, lawns were associated with less than 10 insect species. We hope our findings – which we recently reported in an article entitled ‘Indigenous plants promote insect biodiversity in urban greenspaces’ (Mata et al. 2021) – will encourage architects, engineers, developers, planners, designers, and other built-environment professionals, to incorporate into their practice indigenous plant palettes that foster a larger presence of indigenous insects in our parks and gardens.

Wildlife gardening

Speaking of gardens, I would like to dedicate some words to wildlife gardening. While I have been unknowingly doing ‘wildlife gardening’ for many years now, I have had the good fortune to be introduced to wildlife gardening research through my colleague Laura Mumaw. Last year, we joined forces to write an opinion article in which we reviewed the wellbeing benefits of wildlife gardening and outlined how positive ecological outcomes may be reached by providing new, and improving existing, habitat for biodiversity in gardens (Mumaw and Mata 2021).

In the piece, we argue that wildlife gardening is an integrated ethic and practice to simultaneously care for one’s human and ecological community. As part of a follow-up component of this collaboration (funded by Gardens for Wildlife Victoria), we have documented over 800 interactions between over 30 native midstorey plant species (forbs, climbers, shrubs, and groundcovers) and over 40 insect pollinators and other flower-visiting insects (from bees, butterflies, and hoverflies to ants, wasps, and beetles). The plants we selected for surveying were representative of those offered to Melbournian gardeners by indigenous nurseries affiliated with the Gardens for Wildlife Victoria network.

We will be making our findings available via the Gardens for Wildlife Victoria website soon. The information provided will include a summary of the indigenous plant species that were associated with the largest number of indigenous pollinator and flower-visiting insects, but also a detailed account of the interactions established between each plant and insect species. Whether you consider yourself to be a traditional or a wildlife gardener, we hope you may find this knowledge useful and that it will assist you in making informed decisions about which indigenous species you could plant to support local indigenous insect pollinators and other flower-visiting insects in your garden.


The author acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways on which the projects described in this article took place, the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nations. I pay my respects to their Elders, past, present, and emerging, and honour their deep spiritual, cultural, and customary connections to the land on which I work and live. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Zena Cumpston, Maddison Miller, and Jade Kennedy for sharing with me their passion and knowledge of Australian Indigenous culture and for helping me recognise and appreciate the cultural significance of all Australian indigenous plant species. I would also like to sincerely thanks Laura Mumaw for inviting me to be part of her wildlife gardening journey and to Tina Bell for kindly inviting me to write this article. Special thanks to Ken Walker, Steve Sinclair, and members of the iNaturalist community for providing identifications to some of the plant and insect species that illustrate this article.


Cumpston Z (2020) Indigenous plant use: a booklet on the medicinal, nutritional and technological use of indigenous plants. Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, The University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. 

Mata L, Andersen A, Morán-Ordóñez A, Hahs A, Backstrom A, Ives C, Bickel D, Duncan D, Palma E, Thomas F, Cranney K, Walker K, Shears I, Semeraro L, Malipatil M, Moir M, Plein M, Porch N, Vesk P, Smith T, Lynch Y.  (2021 ) Indigenous plants promote insect biodiversity in urban greenspaces. Ecological Applications 31: e02309.

Mata L, Ives C, Morán-Ordóñez A, Garrard G, Gordon A, Cranney K, Smith T, Backstrom A, Bickel D, Hahs A, Malipatil M, Moir M, Plein M, Porch N, Semeraro L, Walker K, Vesk P, Parris K, Bekessy S. (2016) The Little Things that Run the City – Insect ecology, biodiversity and conservation in the City of Melbourne

Mata L, Ramalho C, Kennedy J, Parris K, Valentine L, Miller M, Bekessy S, Hurley S, Cumpston Z. (2020) Bringing nature back into cities. People and Nature 2: 350-368.

Mumaw L, Mata L. (Accepted) Wildlife gardening: an urban nexus of social and ecological relationships. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. [EcoEvoRxiv]

Valentine L, Ramalho C, Mata L, Craig M, Kennedy P, Hobbs R. (2020) Novel resources: opportunities for and risks to species conservation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18: 558-566.

This post is reproduced with permission from a piece I originally wrote for Research Matters – Newsletter of the Australian Flora Foundation.


Some photos that have left the cradle!

1. Amegilla sp. on Pelargonium australe

Westgate Park, City of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Our backyard frontier | Gardens for Wildlife Victoria

2. Dajaca monilicornis

Similajau National Park, Borneo, Sarawak, Malaysia

Büscher TH, Buckley TR, Grohmann C, Gorb SN, Bradler S. (2018) The evolution of tarsal adhesive microstructures in stick and leaf insects (Phasmatodea). Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 6: 69.

3. Dindymus versicolor mating

Dights Falls, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Ives C, Lynch Y | Untapping the potential of science-government partnerships to benefit urban nature | The Nature of Cities, 31 August 2014

4. Apis mellifera on Foeniculum vulgare

Westgate Park, City of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Seeing the coloured light: Bee brains open way for better cameras | Scimex, 4 July 2017

Honey bees see a world of colour through five eyes | Herald Sun, 3 July 2017

5. Amegilla sp. on Pelargonium australe

Westgate Park, City of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Indigenous knowledge and nature in our cities | MPavilion

MPavilion: February | Assemble Papers

6. Apis mellifera on Scaevola calendulacea

Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, Cranbourne, City of Casey, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Flowers get clever, combining fragrance and colour to attract just the right bee | ABC News, 12 September 2017

How flowers use colour to signal their scent | RMIT News, 12 September 2017

7. Megachile sp. on nonnative daisy

Systems Garden, The University of Melbourne Parkville Campus, City of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Artwork paired with a symposium at the Ecological Society of Australia conference 2015 | Artefact

8. Gminatus australis on nonnative Senecio

Razorback ridge, Alpine National Park, Victoria, Australia

Artwork paired with a symposium at the Ecological Society of Australia conference 2015 | Artefact

9. Westgate Park’s freshwater lake

Westgate Park, City of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

City of Melbourne. (2017) Nature in the City – Thriving biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. City of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.

10. Ants inside a pumpkin flower

El Pinar, El Hierro, Canary Islands, Spain

Wolf G, Miranda A, eds. (2011) Construcción Colaborativa del Conocimiento. Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Coyoacán, México.

11. Hoverfly on Bulbine bulbosa

Knox Environment Society Indigenous Nursery, Wally Tew Reserve, Ferntree Gully, City of Knox, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Kwak M | Ditch the Daffodils and grow this native bulb instead | Remeber the Wild, 1 July 2020.

Conserving herbivorous and predatory insects in urban green spaces

This post is about a paper entitled Conserving herbivorous and predatory insects in urban green spaces that my colleagues Caragh Threlfall, Nick Williams, Amy Hahs, Mali Malipatil, Nigel Stork, Steve Livesley and I published in Scientific Report.

All species in this planet are delicately interlinked to each other in a beautifully complex network of ecological interactions. In cities, insects are key components of urban ecological networks and are greatly impacted by anthropogenic activities. In this paper we examined how insect functional groups respond to changes to urban vegetation associated with different management actions. We set out to investigate how herbivorous and predatory heteropteran bugs were influenced by differences in vegetation structure and diversity in a series of urban green spaces throughout southeastern Melbourne. The studied green spaces included golf courses, gardens and parks.

Examples of herbivorous and predatory heteropteran bugs. Top: The alydid Mutusca brevicornis is a herbivorous species that specialises on indigenous grasses. Bottom: The assassin bugs Gminatus australis is a generalist predatory species.

We looked at how the species richness of herbivorous and predatory heteropteran bugs varied amongst the different types of green space, and the effect that vegetation volume and plant diversity had on trophic- and species-specific occupancy. To this purpose we used a special type of modelling framework, namely ‘multi-species site occupancy models’. The hierarchical structure of multi-species site occupancy models is composed of three levels: a level for the ecological process (e.g. species site occupancy), another for the observation process (i.e. species detectability), and a third to account for the sampling of each species from its metacommunity.

In the paper we report that golf courses sustain higher species richness of herbivorous and predatory heteropteran bugs than parks and gardens, and that at the trophic- and species-specific levels, herbivores and predators show strong positive responses to vegetation volume. However, we also report that the effect of plant diversity is distinctly species-specific, with species showing both positive and negative responses.

Predicted mean trophic-level (a,b) and species-specific (c–f) responses of herbivorous (a–d blue solid lines) and predatory (a,b: red dashed lines; (e,f) red solid lines) bugs to the vegetation volume (a,c,d) and plant species diversity (b,d,f) gradients. Species illustrated are limited to those that showed a strong response to the covariates (i.e., those with 99, 95 and 75% CIs that did not overlap zero).

Our findings highlight that high occupancy of herbivorous and predatory bugs is obtained in green spaces with specific combinations of vegetation structure and diversity. We point out that the challenge faced by green space managers is how they can boost the conservation value of all urban green spaces for herbivorous and predatory insects through management strategies and actions aimed at promoting synergistic combinations of vegetation structure and plant diversity. We suggest that this will be especially important in large green spaces with simple vegetation structure, and in smaller green spaces such as public parks and residential gardens where a heterogeneity of planting structure and diversity is more difficult to intentionally achieve. We believe that tackling this conservation challenge could provide enormous benefits for all other elements of urban ecological networks, including human city-dwellers.

The Little Things that Run the City – Final Report


How did The Little Things that Run the City project get its name?

The Little Things that Run the City has been inspired by Edward O. Wilson’s famous quote:

“…let me say a word on behalf of these little things that run the world”

The quote was part of an address given by Wilson on occasion of the opening of the invertebrate exhibit of the National Zoological Park (Washington D.C., USA). It later appeared in writing format in the first volume of the journal Conservation Biology.

The key objective of Wilson’s address was to stress the urgent need to recognise the importance of insects and other invertebrates for humanity. Almost 30 years ago he was keen to see that efforts aimed at the conservation of biodiversity were beginning to also include non-vertebrate animals. In his words:

“A hundred years ago few people thought of saving any kind of animal or plant. The circle of concern has expanded steadily since, and it is just now beginning to encompass the invertebrates. For reasons that have to do with almost every facet of human welfare, we should welcome this new development.”

In this research collaboration with the City of Melbourne we aim to expand the circle further to also encompass the conservation of insects and other invertebrates in urban environments.

We are inspired to ‘say a word on behalf of the little things that run the city’.

Cover art by Kate Cranney.

Target species for rewilding, monitoring and public engagement in the City of Melbourne


On the 16th February 2016, the Urban Sustainability Branch of the City of Melbourne conducted a workshop with a working group of plant, fungi, bird, reptile, frog, mammal, insect and mollusc experts with the objective of identifying appropriate target species for rewilding, monitoring and public engagement in the City of Melbourne. The workshop was undertaken in close collaboration with our RMIT University’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group and the Shared Urban Habitat research project of the National Environmental Science Programme – Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub.

The ‘Target species for rewilding, monitoring and public engagement in the City of Melbourne’ report aims to summarise the events that took place during the workshop and present its most significant findings, including a list of potential species that could be targeted for rewilding, monitoring and/or public engagement actions in the municipality.

Holding on to what’s golden

An adult golden sun-moth in Chepstow, Victoria (Photo by Rustem Upton courtesy of Anna Backstrom)

We recently had our ‘Golden sun-moth’ research featured in the news section of the National Environmental Science Programme – Threatened Species Recovery Hub as part of a story entitled ‘Holding on to what’s golden’.

New ARC-Linkage Project: Designing green spaces for biodiversity and human well-being

ICON Science

FB view - CourtyardThe health and well-being of urban residents is intrinsically linked to green spaces and their biodiversity. Yet little is known about the mechanisms through which green space design delivers biodiversity and human well-being benefits. Through our recently funded Australian Research Council – Linkage Project ‘Designing green spaces for biodiversity and human well-being’ we aim to discover those mechanisms, contributing to theoretical knowledge about socio-ecological interactions, and to practical knowledge about effective urban design. We aim to:

1. Investigate the mechanisms linking green space design to biodiversity outcomes;

2. Investigate the mechanisms linking green space to human well-being; and

3. Develop best practice urban design guidelines that reflect these mechanisms and supports biodiversity and human well-being.

The involvement of a major city council (The City of Melbourne), an international consulting agency (Arup), a landscape design firm (Phillip Johnson Landscapes) and an environmental NGO (Greening Australia) as Partner Organisations on the project…

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The Little Things that Run the City – 2015 Report

The little things that run the city 201115 (lowres)-1

How many insect species live in your city? How are they distributed amongst the city’s green spaces? What are the ecological processes they perform and ecosystem services they deliver? What are their most frequent ecological interactions?

The Little Things that Run the City is a project that aims to address these and other questions within the boundaries of the City of Melbourne, Australia. Results stemming from this research are contributing to identify particular insects with key functional roles that benefit human city dwellers, determine where to prioritise conservation activities, guide the design and maintenance of green spaces, and assist city’s decision-makers in considering insects in broader biodiversity plans and strategies.

The project was inspired by Edward O. Wilson’s famous quote “…let me say a word on behalf of these little things that run the world”. Almost 30 years ago, he was keen to see that the circle of concern for animal conservation was beginning to encompass non-vertebrate animals. In this project we sought to further expand this circle so that it may also encompass the conservation of insects and other invertebrates in urban environments. Join us as we say a word on behalf of the little things that run the city.

Cover artwork by Kate Cranney.



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