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Kaipara, or, Experiences of a settler in north New Zealand

Chapter XXIII. — Kaipara Insects

page 183

Chapter XXIII.
Kaipara Insects.

This part of New Zealand, as well as suffering in common with the rest of the colony from the ravages of the political caterpillar, is a good deal troubled with other insects, and an entomologist would find in the Kaipara rare
The Kauri Bug (life size).

The Kauri Bug (life size).

opportunities of prosecuting his studies. Some of the specimens are so strange that they cannot fail to strike with their peculiarities the most unobserving, and I will venture to describe two or three of them.
The Kauri bug (called by the Maoris the page 184Kekereru), with its power of emitting a terrible and unbearable smell when alarmed, has been so often and so fully dealt with by writers, that I shall content myself with simply making a
A weto or Bulrush Caterpillar (two-thirds life size).

A weto or Bulrush Caterpillar (two-thirds life size).

sketch of the insect, leaving its smell to the imagination of my readers, and will proceed to describe the most curious of the New Zealand native insects I have seen, called the bulrush page 185caterpillar (Sphæria Robertsia)—native name, A weto. This caterpillar becomes changed into a white vegetable substance while still retaining its caterpillar shape. It is from three to three and a half inches in length, and when about to assume the chrysalis form buries itself in the ground, and it is supposed that in doing so, some of the minute seeds of a fungus become inserted between the scales of its neck; these the insect, being in a sickly condition, is unable to rid itself of, and they vegetate and spread through the whole of the body, completely filling and changing it entirely into a vegetable substance, though retaining exactly the caterpillar form, even to the legs, head, mandibles, and claws. From the nape of the neck shoots one single stem, which grows to a height of eight or ten inches, its apex resembling very closely the club-headed bulrush in miniature. This insect plant is generally found growing at the root of the Rata tree. It has no leaves, and if the stem by chance becomes broken off, another arises in its place, though two stems are never found growing simultaneously from one caterpillar. When fresh, the vegetable substance of which it is composed is soft, and has strong nutty flavour, and the page 186natives are fond of eating it; they also use it burnt and ground to powder as colouring matter for tattooing purposes. In every instance the caterpillar is found perfect in shape and size, without any sign of contraction or decomposition, and it is therefore presumed that the vegetating process takes place during the insect's life. A section of the insect vegetable shows distinctly the intestine passage.
The Mantis (life size).

The Mantis (life size).

Another curious insect found here is the "Mantis," commonly called, on account of its shape, "the ridge-pole rafter." This insect has the power of changing its colour like the chameleon. It favours tea-tree more than any other plant, and if resting on a withered portion, assumes a corresponding brown colour, though when found on the young leaves it is a bright green. Its shape is most peculiar, and very suggestive of the name given it.

page 187
Another insect very commonly found in soft wood tree is called by the natives the "Weta," but by vulgar little boys "The Jimmy Nipper."
The Weta, Male (two-thirds life size).

The Weta, Male (two-thirds life size).

It is a most repulsive and formidable-looking insect, with a body sometimes two and a half
The Weta, Female (two-thirds life size).

The Weta, Female (two-thirds life size).

inches long, and is capable of biting hard enough to make blood flow freely. The male page 188and female differ considerably in shape, the male being provided with an immense pair of jaws. They have no wings, and their bodies are covered with a kind of horny shell.

I was engaged felling some dead trees in my bush when I first made the acquaintance of these uncanny looking insects, and I then discovered two specimens in a hollow tree. A settler, an old soldier, hailing from the Emerald Isle, was assisting me, and I asked him what they were called.

"Jimmy Nippers to be shure, sur!" he responded; "and by the same token, one's a male, and t' other's a faimale."

I inquired if he knew which was which, and he replied—

"Bedad, sur, shure that's aisy to see; look at the power of jaw in that one—that's the faimale, sur."

I found out afterwards, however, that he was wrong, and his mode of reasoning defective, and, I fear, hardly complimentary to the fair sex.

One of the insects most dreaded by our orchardists is an insect called the "Leech," about a third of an inch long, and very like a small slug. It sometimes attacks plum and page 189pear trees in thousands, and completely denudes them of leaves. Shaking wood ashes over the trees is a very effective method of getting rid of these pests.

During some summers a kind of cricket also appears in immense numbers and eats the grass, and the bark off the fruit trees. The best remedy for these is to keep poultry, which relish them immensely, though the crickets in no sense return the compliment, as they give the flesh of the fowls a disagreeable bitter taste, and render them for the time unfit for the table. The eggs are not affected, however, and corn is saved, which is one point gained. Where crickets are undisturbed, they destroy all the grass in their neighbourhood, and then turn cannibals and eat one another.

We have not, I am happy to say, the dreaded Codlin moth up here, although it exists, I believe, in some parts of New Zealand.

Another destructive insect is a little brown beetle, shaped exactly as the lady bird. This insect confines its attention to the stalk end of the apple, round which it nibbles, until the apple withers and drops off. Last year the orchards in the neighbourhood were free from this pest, and I hope they have either moved page 190to pastures new, or have been exterminated by some of our insect-eating birds.

The spider tribe is very fully represented, some specimens being of enormous size. One kind is said to be so dangerous that a bite from it endangers life. I have never, however, heard of any one in the Kaipara having been bitten.

One other insect, called the Mason bee, I must mention. This fly builds a nest of a kind of white mortar, stocks it with small spiders, and lives in solitary state. It lays its eggs in the nest, and the stored spiders, which are not dead, but appear to have been rendered insensible, are for the consumption of its offspring when they hatch out. The Mason bee has a very venomous sting, and is altogether an undesirable visitor, as it builds its habitation in all sorts of untoward places, sometimes even in the locks of doors.

We have numerous other kinds of insects, including a small sort of mosquito, a vicious little biting fly called the sandfly, and a locust, which, though differing altogether in shape from the ordinary locust of the East of Europe, makes exactly the same noise when settled on a tree.

My readers will probably think, from the foregoing alarming list, that we are an insect-ridden page 191district altogether, but nature has provided us with plenty of help to keep down our pests. We have a beautiful little bird called the Blight bird, as small as some humming birds, which lives principally on flies and insects, though rather partial at times to grapes and figs; we have a bright brown vulture hocked bird —about the size of a lark, barred with brown and white on the breast, and with a beautiful metallic lustre on its feathers—which comes in flocks, and destroys great quantities of the Leech; and we have the imported Chinese Pheasant, which helps us greatly in the matter of slugs and crickets, though sadly given to rooting up crops of maize and potatoes, in consequence of which unfortunate habit it is looked upon as a deadly enemy by most of the farmers.

I asked my Hibernian naturalist friend one day how his potatoes were getting on. "Bedad, sur, "he replied," Oi niver had a crop come up so quickly; sure Oi'd only planted thim one day, and ivery mother's son of thim was up the next!"

His field, he afterwards explained, had received a visit from the pheasants in force.

In spite, however, of all the wrong-doing laid at the pheasant's door, I cannot help thinking page 192it does a great deal more good than harm by keeping down slugs, crickets, and other destructive insects. I took 126 slugs out of the crop of one pheasant, and I have shot many others quite as well supplied. They also give us many a day's pleasure, and help to keep the larder stocked. With a couple of good dogs and a "white man" (as a good fellow is called out here) for a companion, what more enjoyable than a day after the long tails. You have to do a good deal of tramping for your sport certainly, and you don't generally make a big bag, but you never come home empty handed, and feel when your day is over that you have thoroughly earned the three or four—or perhaps five or six—brace of birds that are hanging up in your safe.

Heavier bags than these are often made, though it has not fallen to my lot to make them. Last season a young fellow here grassed fourteen and a half brace between sunrise and midday, and bigger bags than that are even sometimes recorded, but they involve to my thinking too great an expenditure of labour in the way of walking for pleasure.

The full grown cock pheasant in New Zealand weighs from three to three and a half pounds, page 193and the hen from two to two and three-quarter pounds.

There is one kind of shooting (native pigeon shooting) that may be indulged in, without any walking beyond that necessary to reach the shooting ground. All you have to do is to seat yourself in the bush under a clump of Taraire trees when the berries they bear are ripe, and wait for the pigeons to come and feed on them. As soon as the birds are settled on the trees, and are busy with the berries, you can blaze away as hard as you like, for they won't fly away or move until you bring them down. It is unadulterated pot-shooting, and there is not a single iota of sport to be got out of it with powder and shot, though with a rook rifle there might be some little fun. The Maoris, who are, as a rule, bad shots, are very fond of pigeon shooting—they being about the only birds they can hit—and I have seen them returning after a day's shooting with two or three horse loads of pigeons. The New Zealand bird, although looking larger than the English wood quest, rarely exceeds a pound and a half in weight.