Cooma bug invasion: Hospital forced to shut down operating theatre

Source: Cooma-Monaro Express

It was a hot and balmy evening when the bugs came.

They descended in vast swarms that took residents of Cooma, Berridale, and nearby areas by surprise on Saturday, January 9, and in the days that followed.

"I've lived here all my life and never seen anything like this," Anne from Cooma said.

The invasion of the small, black, insects was so enormous and unexpected that some people mentioned the apocalypse and Armageddon.

At a local motel an overseas family, which had just checked in, fled after opening their door on Monday night and having their room instantly filled with the insects, which they mistook for bed bugs.

In Vale Street at Woolworths, the bugs swarmed outside the automatic doors in such frantic numbers that they activated the sensors and were able to fly in, dive to the ground, and invade the aisles.

Staff had to switch off the sensors, tape the openings shut, and cover the gaps underneath. A massive clean-up followed, which lasted for days.

Meanwhile at Coles, staff used a fire hose inside the shop to flush out the hordes of bugs that had entered by crawling under an emergency door at the back of the store.

McDonald's reported having to add an insect screen to its drive-through window to stop bugs from flying at staff who were serving customers.

Cooma Hospital had to shut down its operating theatre as bugs invaded and threatened to contaminate the sterile environment.

A thorough clean-up was undertaken, with Queanbeyan Hospital being put on standby to accept Cooma patients needing emergency surgery.

Around $70,000 worth of sterile stock had to be disposed of and replaced to ensure patient safety.

In the residential sector, people reported motion detecting lighting suddenly coming on due to the bugs, and the light then attracting thousands more.

Berridale resident Justin Baker, who regularly puts up spectacular Christmas lights outside his house, walked out to find his patio covered in "a carpet of bugs".

"The Christmas lights usually attract some bugs, but it's nothing like this. My kids were amazed," Justin said.

People on the roads were also affected.

"I was driving from Cooma to Berridale on Saturday night and had so many bugs splattering on my windscreen that I had to stop at a service station to scrub them off," Danielle said.

"With the high beam on I could see swarms of them and as they hit my windscreen they sounded like huge raindrops.

"I used the wipers until I ran out of washer fluid, and they ended up smeared across my windscreen like raw eggs, so I couldn't see."

In the meantime, social media has been awash with people asking: "what kind of bugs are they?"

Suggestions included "dung beetles" and "Christmas beetles", but Luke Pope, an agronomist for South East Local Land Services, with just a hint of embarrassment, identified the bugs as "Blackheaded Pasture Cockchafers".

"They're a member of the scarab family and are serious agricultural pests with the larvae living underground and destroying pasture by eating plant roots," Luke said.

“The climatic conditions we’ve had here over the last year, with rain promoting lots of pasture growth to feed them, have most likely resulted in huge numbers of larvae living underground.

“Then, through metamorphosis they change into bugs, and swarm out of the ground during warm, windless evenings to start their mating ritual, which lasts just a few weeks. Soon after that they die.

“It’s something farmers out of town regularly experience, but this could be a first for Cooma.”

A few residents thought they may have been “bitten” by the bugs, but entomologist Dr Thomas Wallenius, from the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University, described them as harmless.

“The bugs are a harmless relative of the Christmas beetle. They don’t bite but maybe the spurs on their legs could give somebody with sensitive skin a bit of a twinge.

“They mate in a similar way to humans, with the male fertilising the female internally, and afterwards the female looks for a place to lay her dozens of eggs. The proud parent bugs only live for a short time after that.

“However, the bright lights of civilisation distract the bugs from their mating ritual and they usually end up having more interest in the lights than each other.

“They swarm towards the lights, hypnotised by the brightness, and many then drop to the ground, exhausted, and die within days.

“Aside from being a pest in some situations, the bugs are a marvel of nature and nothing to be afraid of and it may be a long time before we have them visit in such enormous numbers again,” Dr Wallenius said.