Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday Morning at the Chookhouse — a 12-Step Programme

  1. Begin well: nimbly avoid liquid poop when clambering into hen boudoir.
  2. Wearing gloves, pick up slightly more solid matter in boudoir; place in poop bucket.
  3. Misjudge while backing out, thereby skinning shin on ledge, tripping on ramp and folding legs in various directions.
  4. Land in unseemly heap on ground, mercifully still free of poop.
  5. Collect Pink Pills for Pale Poultry from ground, where they also landed, and inspect for poop.
  6. Catch Henemoa, pills’ intended recipient, without much kerfluffle.
  7. Congratulate self on this achievement.
  8. Dose chicken and, when she spits pills out, redose.
  9. Suffer splattering of fresh liquid manure on shirt, trousers and gumboot.* Release chicken.
  10. Exit premises, swearing softly and attempting to prevent soiled fabric from contacting skin.
  11. In laundry, shed clothes and begin filling bucket with warm water.
  12. Drop open Napisan container in bucket so it, too, partly fills with water...
Henemoa, not at all pale,
and looking as if butter
wouldn’t melt.

* Yes, it is possible to hold a chook in such a way that soiling of clothing does not occur. But after my unfortunate exit from the hen boudoir I was not in possession of all my faculties.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Tremendous World of Small Things

A native Lycaena or copper butterfly
at Whatipu. New Zealand moths and
butterflies are the focus of an
Auckland conf
erence in March.
We all love butterflies, ‘Even those people who insist that they hate insects’, writes naturalist Andrew Crowe. So it was fair enough for Egg Venturous to feature monarchs, the most frequently seen butterflies in New Zealand. 

Weta are another story, or several stories, but those monsters of the night have thrust themselves upon me, thus finding their way here and here. So now that’s enough about insects, isn’t it?

Well, no. While they are unlikely to win affection as hens (for instance) do, they are somehow fascinating. There are so many of them — yet we know so little about them. For all the diligence of collectors, forever ready with their killing jars and mounting boards, we cannot pin insects down.

Discovering Life on Earth
Earth may be home to 15 million species of insects, or 30 million. Of these, 10,000 or so are named species in New Zealand, but those unnamed may number as many again. So multitudes are yet to be discovered and described, a process akin to charting the planet by hand, down to the last millimetre ...several times over.

Even when an insect or other invertebrate is known to someone, it is seldom as widely known as the many larger creatures that most of us recognise; the ones with backbones, ranging from apes to zebra. Each day, an insect is discovered afresh.

In ‘The Exotic North’, New Zealand writer Penelope Todd described and drew a ‘small transparent moth ... simple, monochrome — black lace and glad-wrap’ that she spotted at her current place of residence, Whangarei Heads. She’d not encountered a passionvine hopper before; they don’t go as far south as Otago. But she’s given northerners (especially gardeners, who may have been rather jaded about them) a new way of seeing them.

Here Be Dragonflies among Other Things
 Until this year I didn’t know we had katydids. Then I saw one and learned that they are common, native, and beautiful: a vivid, glowing green.

Katydid, Clevedon (above);
blue damselfly, Whatipu (below).
I didn’t know we had damselflies, either — let alone the differences between them and dragonflies — but both d’flies were in evidence recently at the Whatipu wetland on Auckland’s west coast.

About five years ago I ‘discovered’ the native bees and hoverflies in my sister-in-law’s garden at Thames. It hadn’t occurred to me that New Zealand had insects of its very own, other than huhu bugs, puriri moths and weta. 

Subsequently, Andrew Crowe’s book Which New Zealand Insect? revealed a whole new country to me. It includes introduced insects, admittedly, but also many that are native or even endemic (exclusive to these shores, not necessarily abundant).
As a child I was ‘into nature’, keeping shells, stones and other finds on display in my room. But my mother has also just reminded me that among them was a real live stick insect that I named, with the remarkable lack of imagination that children sometimes exhibit, Sticky. This brought back to me a vague (possibly false) memory, of securing Sticky in a shoebox covered with glad-wrap, in which I poked breathing holes with a pencil.

A Sticky End?
Stick insects or phasmatids lack the ‘ick’ factor of many invertebrates; there’s something endearing about their stick-figuration. In an acclaimed campaign for a UK disability organisation, ‘Slim the Stick Insect’ (complete with walking stick) was among Aardman animated characters telling real people’s stories.  

Slim, one of the faces of a UK advertising campaign.
Phasmatids are kept as pets or as subjects of scientific study, but care and attention are essential, according to Brian Chudleigh in New Zealand Geographic:

They require ventilation and a regular, light, fine spray of water, particularly when young. [Professor John T] Salmon had considerable trouble photographing stick insects moulting, as they frequently weren’t able to shed their old skin. This was probably because he kept his insects in an air-conditioned apartment, in which the air was far too dry. I’ve found that with regular spraying, failure to emerge from the old skin is extremely rare. By the same token, though, keeping the insects too moist encourages fungus, which can kill them.

      It is also important to replace the insects’ food regularly, before it begins to dry up.... Many New Zealand stick insects have restricted food requirements, feeding on just a few plant species.

No spray; hardly any air; probably the wrong food and all past its expiry date. Little wonder ‘Sticky’ failed to thrive. I don’t know his fate. It may have been as unhappy as that of Hidgil the hedgehog, another captive of my childhood, found dead one morning with his snout in a saucer of milk.

Landcare Research has six distinct stick-insect projects on the go. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be willing or able to go to such lengths in my own study, but in recent months a bright and shiny new toy has piqued my entomological curiosity again.

No Private Life
A camera that can take good close-ups makes all the difference, and even though it’s merely a ‘compact’, the Canon IXUS is quite capable. This device, and a fantastic new website where nature fans interact, have made looking at insects more fun. So last week I joined NatureWatch New Zealand where I recorded my first 10 observations ...and received species IDs from scientists.

Mating stick insects, Whatipu.
On noticing these stick insects at Whatipu recently, I was chuffed to have caught them with their pants down. Mating phasmatids have no private life: despite their camouflage, insect paparazzi frequently snap their intimate acts, then reproduce the images on the internet and in books. Brian Chudleigh describes mating couples as,

a common sight, the small male hitching a ride on his larger mate, the end of his abdomen twisted round and plugged into the underside of hers. Copulation typically lasts days, even weeks, though it may be briefly interrupted periodically while the female lays an egg. Both insects continue to feed while mating, but the male, unable to leave his perch, must be content with what he can reach from the female’s back.

Entomologist Stephen Thorpe identified the ones I posted on NatureWatch as Clitarchus hookeri, smooth stick insects. These, the most common species in New Zealand, were first collected by a member of Captain Cook’s expeditions. I’d asked about the little red protuberances on the female in my photo, one each end, and it is hard to convey my excitement when Stephen noted, “Looks like two interesting parasitic mites...”

A Unique Biological Jigsaw
NatureWatch, funded by a government biodiversity information programme, aims to document sightings of New Zealand flora and fauna. That doesn’t mean my backyard chooks, really, but Nature, red (and other colours) in tooth and claw.*

The idea is to piece together more of this country’s unique biological jigsaw. Anyone can contribute to and use the developing database, but its management by people with significant scientific knowledge makes it reliable.

Tree weta, Avondale.
Back to insects: three days ago as I deadheaded flowers in a vase, this impressive tree weta revealed herself to me, prompting my now customary expression of surprise. 

So even when we’re not looking for them, creepers, crawlers, jumpers, flutterers and freshwater fliers keep appearing — telling us the world is theirs as much as it’s ours, but also how spectacular and mysterious that world is.


Fact File
Stick insects are from the order Phasmatodea, which includes nearly 3000 species worldwide. ‘Phasma’ means ‘phantom’ and refers to the cryptic coloration (camo gear) that enables them to blend with their natural environment.

New Zealand’s 20-plus species are members of the Phasmatidae family; some other countries have ‘leaf insects’ belonging to the Phyllidae. All are solely vegetarian and tend to be nocturnal. When we find them during the day they’re at rest, often away from their food source. Clitarchus hookeri eat mainly manuka and kanuka.

Clitarchus species can be 8–10 cm long when fully grown. The females (and those of some other genera) can reproduce with males or without — parthenogenesis. Couples may be of different colours.

Dragonflies and damselflies are related (they belong to the order Odonata). Both need fresh water for their larval stages, and both have amazing vision: dragonfly eyes cover most of the face, says Crowe, and in the damselfly, about 80 per cent of brain power works to process visual information.

The two are in different families. Dragonflies fly fast and rest with their wings spread out. Damselflies tend to be smaller and fly slowly, fluttering like butterflies. At rest, they fold their wings back over their bodies. 

Dragonfly and damselfly habitat, Whatipu wetland.

* ‘In Memoriam, Alfred Lord Tennyson
‘Princes of Camouflage: The Skinny World of Stick Insects’, Brian Chudleigh, New Zealand Geographic, Issue 83, Jan–Feb 2007

The Stick Insects of New Zealand, John T Salmon, Reed, 1991
Stick Insects, Steve Trewick and Mary Morgan-Richards, Reed, 2005

Conference: How to Help NZ’s Butterflies and Moths Practical Ideas for Practical People, 16 & 17 March

Friday, February 1, 2013

Unforgettable Weta I Have Met

One small step for a weta, one giant
leap for wetakind: Neil Alden Weta
lands at Whatipu.

There was something I needed to tell our cleaner when she arrived the other day — before she began work.

‘The poos in the bath...’ I started, and her eyes widened, ‘are not from a mouse. They’re from a weta.’

We didn’t set out to be the Avondale branch of the Auckland Tree Weta Breeding Programme but that status seems to have been thrust upon us, and the weta on our property have enjoyed a very productive summer.

Giants in the Bath
We’ve discovered six of these giant grasshoppers (grosshoppers?) in or around the bath over the last month — and no, they weren’t having a wash. We also had two would-be migrants hitching rides to far-flung locations on Auckland’s outskirts. 

The first weta we found, the one who mistook the bath for the toilet, we rereleased on the back deck, whence she disappeared into the foliage of an overgrown house plant. This was once the home of Willy (another weta, since deceased), who munched on its leaves.

Fallen leaf, with bits of stem the fussy eater spat out.
Our newcomer prefers to chew the stems and then spit bits out. The effect on the already ill-kempt plant is like that of a miniature beaver: several leaves have tumbled to the ground.

I have previously described my desensitisation process: a journey from utter terror of weta to respect, admiration, even fondness. However, it is still possible for a small “Eek!” to escape me when I look down to find one of these creatures clinging to my clothes. 

That’s what happened a few weeks ago when we were about to set off for Clevedon in outer South Auckland, to meet friends at the farmers’ market and go for a walk. In the car, I went to put my seatbelt on, only to find that a small male weta (about 3cm, plus antennae) had attached himself to my shirt like a brooch.

The Weta Dance

We were running late, so I jumped out and endeavoured to shake him off. Foolish move. Weta excel at holding on, and when the mountain he was on started to move, this one held on for dear life. Stopping what Carol dubbed ‘the weta dance’, I gingerly picked him up — and then something very interesting occurred.

“Ow,” I yelled. “He bit me!” In fact it was an overreaction. His little nip hurt a lot less than a henpeck (that is, not at all), and I was really quite pleased that I had got the fabled ‘weta bite’ off my bucket list and out of the way. The small male weta, too, had achieved his heart’s desire: to escape the clutches of the giant predator Homo sapiens. I let him go, and instead of being a goner, he was gone.

The chillybin stowaway.
Another adventurous male managed to conceal himself in our chillybin,* feasting no doubt on the supplies therein. He was noticed astride a red pepper two days later. 

By this time the stowaway had travelled with us to one of the wildest parts of the west coast, Whatipu, where we were staying at the wonderful back-to-basics lodge over the long (Auckland Anniversary) weekend.

After I released this weta from his space capsule, he scrambled away to begin a new, Whatipu offshoot of the breeding programme, and eventually to take over the world. (If any insect can achieve this, it should be the weta, of which at least one species — the mountain stone weta — survives being frozen and thawed.)

A Grinning Gargoyle

My most recent weta experience was the most chilling, metaphorically speaking. Taking a shower is, I tend to feel, a private occupation in which to relax as well as wash. While so ensconced and engaged one evening this week, I saw on the window sill above me one of our knick-knacks: a piece of copper crafted into the shape of a weta. In my reverie, I wondered what it was doing there (it usually sat in the living room) before realising that this grotesquerie, this gargoyle grinning down at me, was a real live weta.

Above, what I thought I saw (during a showertime
). The Real Thing is below. This female has
been in the wars: she has only one antenna.

The “Oh my God” that then escaped my lips was not, I can tell my parents, a blasphemy. It was quite pertinent, as one West Coast (albeit South Island) Maori name for the weta is taipo, translated sometimes as “devil of the night”. Clearly, by uttering the name of the Almighty, I was claiming protection.

As I dried myself (keeping one eye on the creature above), it occurred to me that friends and family might be less willing to stay the night at our place — or at least to use the bathroom — from now on. The chances of being greeted by a weta, these days, are just too high.

But then I reconsidered. Native wildlife is all the rage right now, so perhaps we can capitalise on our natural assets and offer regular “weta encounters”. Let me know what you think: would you pay money to stay at Weta Manor? 

* chillybin
NZ a portable insulated container for keeping food and drink cool.
– ORIGIN from a proprietary name.
Oxford Dictionary of English.