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.

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