The McCormicks have been out for a few hours, and they return home to find something’s amiss. Their once carefully decorated Christmas tree is in a state of disarray – with baubles strewn all across the floor. At first, the family is at a loss as to what had happened, but then the culprit becomes all too clear.
For lots of us, the festive season just wouldn’t be the same without a freshly cut Christmas tree in our homes. But while they may look pretty and smell divine, the often-decorated shrubbery can sometimes harbor hidden surprises. And you may be concerned to learn that some common culprits include critters like spiders and mites.
If you’re faint-hearted: look away now. That’s because a 2017 report from the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach warned that “several hundred baby insects or spiders can be on a single tree.” Moreover, in another study that same year, the Safer Brand gardening firm found that up to 25,000 bugs – lots of which can only be seen under a microscope – could be located on just one tree.
For the most part, though, any creatures that hitch a ride on our Christmas trees are mostly harmless. Yet much more dangerous lifeforms can be found nestling about those bristly branches on the odd occasion. And one country which has its fair share of frightening creatures is Australia.
It was there in 2019 that a Brisbane couple found a 10-foot python nestled in their Christmas tree. Leanne Chapman told Australia’s 7News, “We came home from work and there’s a couple of butcher birds that visit every day. And they were just kicking off on the balcony – going crazy.”
Chapman’s partner John Brooks then ventured outside to capture some footage of the birds. But when he leaned against the Christmas tree he understood what all their squawking was about. Chapman explained, “As he’s turned around and stepped back, he didn’t realize he was leaning on the Christmas tree with the snake wrapped around it.”
Understandably, the couple decided not to disturb the snake! Chapman said, “It wasn’t bothered by us. It just stayed there for a good few hours as we watched it through the window.” Luckily though, the reptile soon grew tired of its new, festive hangout. And it was only as it slithered away that Chapman and Brooks realized what a whopper it was.
Speaking of the python, Chapman confirmed, “It was big – really big. After the initial shock wore off, it was a really beautiful snake.” In the end, Chapman was actually pretty happy about her Christmas visitor. She explained, “It was actually quite nice to see it that close up, because I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
But Chapman and Brooks aren’t the only people to have had an unexpected visitor to their Christmas tree in Australia. The McCormick family hail from the Coromandel Valley near Adelaide. And in December 2020 they were getting ready for the festive season – having put some of their decorations up already.
Among the seasonal editions to the McCormicks’ home decor was an artificial Christmas tree. As is a tradition for many families, they had adorned it with baubles and lights – keeping to a blue, silver and pink color scheme, according to The Guardian. It seemed that every decoration had been carefully placed – except for one addition that would later find itself a branch to perch on.
Before venturing out that day, daughter Taylah was sure to close the back doors, turn the lights off and put the dog out. But there was one eventuality she couldn’t prepare for. Because when Taylah returned home with her family three hours later, they found an uninvited visitor making themselves comfortable in their Christmas tree.
Revealing what went down, Taylah told The Guardian newspaper in December 2020, “I think the dog went straight to the Christmas tree and was sniffing around and mom thought that was a bit weird. There [were] baubles all over the floor… and she looked up and there was a koala in the tree.”
That’s right: the McCormicks had found a young and quite confused koala perched among the branches of their Christmas tree. Tyler added, “It was pretty tangled up in the lights. It was a fake tree and very old but she still tried eating the leaves off it … I saw her munch down on some but she stopped when she realized it was plastic.”
Taylah’s mom Amanda had seen koalas on the trees outside their home in the past. But she was still surprised by the sight and later told The Guardian, “I thought, ‘Is this a joke?’ I thought one of my kids may have put like a soft toy in there, but no, it was a live one.” With that in mind, she reached out to the Adelaide and Hills Koala Rescue, who apparently also thought they were being pranked!
After some convincing, rescuers arrived at the McCormicks’ property to find there was indeed a koala in their Christmas tree. The animal – dubbed Daphne by Taylah – was quickly untangled and removed from its perch. Though it’s safe to say the animal wasn’t happy about being disturbed. In fact, it growled and lashed out at the rescue team as they wrapped her in blankets and bundled her into a carrier.
The animal experts determined that Daphne was a young, healthy female aged between three and four years old. The team released the koala into some nearby scrubs, where she took a good look at rescuers before climbing a tree to safety. From there, she and the McCormicks seemingly went their separate ways, but the family won’t be forgetting their festive caller in a hurry.
Co-founder of Adelaide and Hills Koala Rescue Dee Hearne-Hellon suggested that Daphne had likely wandered into the McCormicks’ house to have a nosey around. She explained, “It’s not actually that hot, so they wouldn’t be seeking shade – particularly at the moment… [Koalas] are curious, and they are in the suburbs, and if they see something that they want to have a look at they’ll just drop in and have a look.”
Much of Daphne’s rescue was caught on camera – including by Taylah who posted a video of her koala encounter on TikTok. The video would soon clock up over 16,000 likes, though it seemed that many viewers couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The teenager explained, “All the comments have been like, ‘There’s no way this is real.’”
Taylah had to go to certain lengths to convince even her friends that the koala was real. She told The Guardian, “They were in shock at first, they didn’t think it was real… I had to send so many different videos because it just wasn’t moving. I had to get it blinking a couple of times to prove it.”
For some people, though, the McCormicks run-in with the koala wasn’t surprising. They seemed to think that basically anything goes when it comes to wildlife in Australia. Taylah explained, “The ones that do realize it’s real, they’re like, ‘Oh, next we’re going to be riding a kangaroo to school,’ and, ‘This is a true Aussie Christmas.’”
Finding weird wildlife on your Christmas tree isn’t just an Aussie tradition, though. Yep, as the Spisso family from Washington D.C. discovered back in 2011, it can happen anywhere. When they went to remove their tree after another wonderful Christmas together, hundreds of little critters emerged – much to their horror, of course!
In the run-up to Christmas, it’s relatively simple to find a place selling trees. According to a study by Pennsylvania State University, Americans splurge an incredible $250 million on Christmas trees every year. Furthermore, for those prepared to wait, trees become progressively cheaper as the big day approaches.
Although most people buy their tree ready-cut to take home, some choose to actually chop it down themselves. And in 2011 the Spisso family were among that number. Matt Spisso, his wife Heather, and their three kids Maya, Maddy and Zach traveled to Hardee Farms, Maryland, to pick out a tree and cut it down. The location is somewhat famous in the area, as Hardee Farms has been selling Christmas trees since 1962.
The Spissos picked December 3 to get their tree, which just happened to be a Saturday. In fact, that’s actually a very popular time to pick up these festive favorites. Indeed, data suggests that the first Saturday following Thanksgiving is when most Americans prefer to buy a tree.
Christmas tree farms have become a widespread business in Maryland thanks to this kind of demand. Yet growing the trees is no easy task. In fact, they require a lot of maintenance. As well as spraying the trees with herbicides and fungicides to counteract disease, farmers also have to watch out for insects, rodents, drought and fire.
Whether or not the Spissos were aware of all this isn’t clear. What is known is that the family enjoyed a regular Christmas. Of course, when the season was finished, though, the tree needed removing. However, a few days before the family was due to get rid of the tree, the five of them made a surprising discovery.
As they came to take the tree down, the family discovered hundreds of small creatures. The majority of these were clustered around the Christmas tree, but many had also spread to the interior walls and even the stairway. Studying them further, the creatures turned out to be baby praying mantises.
Intrigued and not a little perturbed, the Spissos subsequently found a small nest attached to one of the tree’s branches. The nest was roughly the size and shape of a walnut. Praying mantis nests have a hardened outer shell to protect the eggs inside through the winter. However, when brought inside a heated structure like a house, the eggs are tricked into thinking it is spring and consequently hatch early.
Moreover, although the Spissos didn’t know it at the time, mantis nests are an increasingly frequent problem for those buying Christmas trees. Indeed, some people have shared stories online about their own nest-related Christmas tree incidents. And one such person was Daniel Reed.
“If you happen to see a walnut sized/shaped egg mass on your Christmas tree, don’t fret, clip the branch and put it in your garden,” Reed wrote on Facebook. “We had two egg masses on our tree this year. Don’t bring them inside, they will hatch and starve!”
Reed’s post went viral, with over 75,000 people sharing the warning about the mantis nests. And many readers were moved to comment, with attitudes ranging from gratitude to disgust at the thought of having so many insects hatch in their homes. One user even said she had suffered a mass hatching of hundreds of mantises.
The picture Reed shared was shown to an invertebrate zoology expert at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. And Dr. Gavin Svenson was quick to confirm that it did indeed show a praying mantis nest. He also explained what people need to do if faced with a similar scenario.
“The shared picture is definitely a praying mantis egg case, also called an ootheca,” Dr. Svenson said. “The praying mantises in the northern United States survive the winter as eggs in these protected cases. The warmth of spring spurs their development and hatching.”
Speaking to WOIO, Dr. Svenson added, “Putting the egg case outside quickly is critical if you want them to survive normally to hatch in the spring. Going from cold to warm and then back to cold can cause problems and reduce their chances of survival.” Good, considered advice, for sure, but Dr. Svenson’s guidance could still set a few minds thinking.
That’s because some people might wonder why on earth they would want the creatures to survive. But the truth is that praying mantises can be an excellent addition to your garden. The insects can actually reduce the number of other pests in your yard – annoyances such as flies, moths, and even locusts all feature heavily on the mantises’ menu.
Unfortunately, though, if mantises hatch inside your home, they probably won’t be able to find enough food to survive. And this could spell disaster: if the insects are starving, it’s likely they will begin turning on each other. This is the grisly scenario that faced the Spisso family.
Rather than be grossed out by the wanton cannibalism in their living room, though, the Spisso kids were enthralled. And they were likely even more excited when dad Matt bought them each a terrarium in which to house a few dozen of the mantises. As a result, the children could now study their new pets at will.
It seems young Maya Spisso especially enjoyed examining the mantises and witnessing how the insects drank water, or interacted with their terrarium. Dad Matt, meanwhile, was pleased with how his children dealt with the new additions to the family. “I think it’s neat,” he said. “I think it’s a learning experience for the kids.”
Before they released the insects, the children wanted to wait for warmer weather to give the mantises the best chance of survival. The Spissos were also curious to see the young insects turn from brown to green as they became adults. And to help the insects reach that stage, the kids fed the mantises with live crickets that their father bought.
As for mom Heather, well, she was relatively sanguine about the whole incident, despite the inconvenience of having to pick up all the little critters. “I’ve heard of some people having spiders in their trees, but I’ve never heard of praying mantises,” she said. “My mom used to say they were good luck… hopefully 2012 will be a good-luck year.”