health & science

Meet our newest creepy crawly citizens

A meet-and-greet with 10 of New Zealand’s 68 freshly minted insect citizens

Moths which live on volcanoes, a mite too small to photograph, a flightless stonefly, and a wasp with teensy wings to cope with windy weather are just some of New Zealand’s newest citizens.

These finds represent just a smattering of the 68 insects at our feet and in the trees around us which were studied and formally described by scientists in 2019. 

Being ‘described’ is a little like getting a birth certificate. The characteristics of the species are detailed, it’s slotted into a family and genus and given a scientific name.  

Thousands of New Zealand’s insects are yet to be formally described by scientists. 

Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research’s head curator of the arthropod collection Darren Ward said prioritising which species to study and name is a juggling act.

Biosecurity concerns can play a part. Identifying what’s native from what’s introduced can be one driver.

Many species, few people

At other times it comes down to expertise. Wasp enthusiasts will focus on wasps, arachnid buffs on spiders. New Zealand doesn’t have experts for every insect group, according to Ward. 

“We don’t have anybody that works on flies. Most people would go ‘Flies, who’s really worried?’ but there are several thousand species of flies and they are really important pollinators.”

Aphids and thrips, which can be agricultural pests also lack a local expert to identify natives versus imported biosecurity risks. 

Even when there are experts, it’s a numbers game. There are around 5000 species of beetles in New Zealand.

“There’s a lot of stuff. Not so many people,” said Ward.

Why should people care about insects? Ward thinks it’s an important but easy question.

“Why do people care about native plants, or birds? It’s just part of the country.”

He has curated a meet-and-greet with 10 of New Zealand’s 68 freshly minted citizens.

Some are widespread and commonplace, others we could barely get to know as they are exist only in small populations and could face extinction if their habitat is threatened.

Titans moth. Photo: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Titans moth
Scientific name: Arctesthes titanica

With a wingspan of two centimetres, this moth was named after the Titans of Greek mythology – primeval deities known for their enormous size and strength. While 2cm might sound less than impressive, it’s a relatively large wingspan in comparison to some other moths.

So far it has only been found in two areas close to Lake Wakatipu and it belongs to a group found in the South Island and mostly in sub alpine, or alpine areas. 

Due to its restricted habitat this pint-sized titan will likely need conservation attention to ensure its survival.

Kuschel’s weevil. Photo: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Kuschel’s weevil
Scientific name: Etheophanus kuscheli

This weevil with designer stubble is a night creeper, emerging after dark to feed on plants and dead leaves. Flightless, and about 2mm in length, it’s widespread at the top of the South Island. 

Its name honours Guillermo (Willy) Kuschel, a worldwide weevil expert who settled in New Zealand. During his long career Kuschel created a new classification scheme of weevil families and subfamilies. Willy died in 2017, three weeks after his 99th birthday. On his final day he’s said to have completed a manuscript, had a beer and died peacefully in his sleep.

With no immediate conservation threats it’s likely this weevil species will, like its namesake, enjoy a long life.

The volcanic moth. Photo: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Volcanic moth
Scientific name: Mnesarchella vulcanica

Meet the 5mm wing-spanned, rebel without a care, live life on the edge, bad-boy of the moth world. The volcanic moth was first found living on the slopes of a volcano. It’s subsequently been found in central North Island mossy mountain forests.

Early’s wasp. Photo: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Early’s wasp
Scientific name: Kiwi earlyi

This parasitoid wasp uses the larvae of other insects as a cosy incubator for its own young. The long ovipositor at the end of its body deposits the egg in the unsuspecting larvae, ensuring the death of the host, but survival of its own offspring.

While this may sound gruesome it can have biosecurity benefits. One of the strategies to deal with a potential brown marmorated stink bug incursion is to release a parasitoid wasp which favours the stink bug eggs as baby incubators.

Coprosma gall mite. Image: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Coprosma gall mite
Scientific name: Cosetacus mamangi

Imagine being so small a photo couldn’t capture your details. At around 1/10th of a millimetre the coprosma gall mite needs to be drawn in order to show identifying details.

To date it’s only been found in one place, Murphy’s Bush, in the Auckland suburb of Manurewa.

Springtail. Photo: Jan van Duinen

Springtail
Scientific name: Anurophorus laricis

Give this insect a fright and it will use its tail, normally tucked underneath its body, to spring away from danger, however, at only 1.5mm in length, it’s unlikely to be able to spring very far. This isn’t strictly a new species, but it’s new for New Zealand. It was found in Dunedin, living among Mānuka shrubs.

The botanical moth. Photo: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

The botanical moth
Scientific name: Sabulopteryx botanica

This species rose from the pressed leaves of a plant collected and dried for a botanical collection in 1961. The larva found on the leaves was not like anything else seen before. Subsequent searches for it in the wild over the years yielded no results. 

The moth was hiding in plain sight. It was eventually found alive in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens. 

With its preferred home, the shrub Teucrium parvifolium, at risk of extinction, the moth’s future is also in doubt.

Maungatua stonefly. Photo: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Maungatua stonefly
Scientific name: Zelandoperla maungatuaensis

It’s a fly which can’t fly. The Maungatua stonefly is an unusual stonefly as its wings aren’t fully developed. Instead it lives a life on the ground, around the streams it grows as larva in. 

Found only in streams in the Maungatua area of Southland, its wingless status puts it at risk. If its habitat is destroyed it’s a long, slow crawl to new streams.

Chatham Island wasp. Photo: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

Chatham Island wasp
Scientific name: Metaspathius chathamicus

Found onIy in the windy Chatham Islands this parasitoid wasp has all but dispensed with wings. They’re still there, but they’re very small.

Instead of flying it crawls around leaf litter and searches for the larva of beetles to lay its eggs into. 

Papake ground beetle. Photo: Teiji Sota

Papake ground beetle
Scientific name: Mecodema papake

Found in fragments of forests is a carnivorous ground beetle which is thought to eat larva of other insects such as beetle grubs, cicada nymphs, and possibly earthworms. Originally it was found in the Waipapa River Valley in Northland and is one of 24 new species of ground beetles described in 2019. 

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