New Zealand’s native moths each have their own ecological niche and their own job to do here in Aotearoa.
it’s been a weird winter. Our City of Snails has seen some rain and the Garden City went through a depressingly foggy June, followed by the warmest July on record. Our lawns never stopped growing and weeds were germinating constantly. The craziest aspects of our southern “winter” was the abundance and activity of all sorts of invertebrates, creatures that would normally be fast asleep under a rock: heaps of grass grubs, Alexander beetles and centipedes. But the most telling symptom of our warm winter was the regular appearance of moths on the outside lights.
I love moths; always have and always will be a lepidopterist.
As a student at varsity in the Netherlands, I’d load up my 50cc moped with a generator-powered light trap to collect moths in the National Park, just to see what’s out there. And this fascination never left me – I’ll always hunker down with my colleagues at BioBlitzes in New Zealand, around a light trap in a forest, a wetland or a tussock habitat.
Moths are attracted to bright lights, especially in the blue-ish spectrum. Their eyes are especially sensitive to the UV component of lights – I suppose it’s the way they navigate by the light of the moon.
When we put on a bright blue light, their system gets confused and the moths will fly in ever-decreasing circles towards this artificial light source, only to crash next to it on the white sheet, spread on the ground.
The fascinating thing is that we have so many different species of moth in all sorts of impressive colours and patterns. Seeing this diversity at night is opening our eyes to all those different lifeforms, native to New Zealand, each with their own ecological niche and each with their own job to do in Aotearoa.
When people think “moth”, they immediately associate that with small, scaly-winged creatures that fly into our hair at night, or the insects that eat our woollen clothes. For your information and to allay your fears, clothes moths are pretty rare in New Zealand – carpet beetle larvae would be your main culprit!
Another frequently held belief is that our moths are drab, boring and mostly brown. “And they look pretty uninteresting too,” according to my dearest… Sad stuff. There are heaps of brilliant and impressive moths in our country, our forests and even our gardens. The p¯uriri moth (North Island only) is one of them: big, bright green with a life cycle story to match, plus a staple food for moreporks!
Slightly smaller but even more impressive are the p¯uareare and the aihuka. Google these names and you’ll not only find their Latin names, but also realise that you have just entered the fabulous world of Ahi Pepe (MothNet). Imagine a group of kids of Te Kura Kaupapa M¯aori o Otepoti¯ creating their own educational resources on the native and endemic moths of New Zealand, complete with their stories, the ecosystem services and life cycles. The collaborative group is based in tepoti (Dunedin) and has completed a guide to the Otago macro moths with the help of Ahi Pepe MothNet scientist Barbara Anderson and lepidopterist extraordinaire Robert Hoare (Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research). Funding largely came from Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Unlocking Curious Minds and the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge. But they didn’t stop there. Now we have guides to the macro moths for all regions of New Zealand in English and Te Reo. They even modified and produced portable Heath light traps.
The rich stories of these species and their habits are becoming part of the curriculum. Of course, this is all about engaging teachers, students and wh¯anau with the world of moths. You can find them on Facebook.com/ MothNetNZ.
My all-time favourite, the South Island lichen moth (aihuka) is the adult stage of the five-finger (Pseudopanax) looper caterpillar. You can find a picture of it on a $100 bill.
Aihuka means “frost” in K¯ai Tahu. The snowy-white over chocolate brown of aihuka’s wing pattern is reminiscent of the southern frosts over the rich, deep soils of the Southland plains.
It’s been a weird winter, but I can’t wait for aihuka to fly again in the warmer months of the year.
Xyridacma alectoraria. Declana egregia.