Aotearoa’s next generation of entomologists

Aotearoa’s next generation of entomologists

Maggot racing, tree shaking, and cockroach cuddling. Our learning team and invertebrate curators have just finished their first Spineless Critters After School Club. Insect curator Julia Kasper describes what the kids learnt and why it was so much fun.

Our next Science club starts on Wed 7 Aug – there are still spaces, book now!

Spineless Critters Club – Insect curator Julia Kasper with the kids, 2019. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

A world of invertebrates

The kids who attended our Spineless Critters Club – Eleonore, Liam, Sophie, Sylvie, and Hannes – are animal lovers, but Eleonore, for example, adores slimy worms and hairy spiders rather than bunnies and cats.

In eight weeks, our little group explored the microcosmos of the invertebrates that make up an impressive 97% of all animals on earth.

Behind the scenes

In the first week the kids had an exclusive behind the scenes visit to our insect collection where we compared a dancing human skeleton (just animated, I am afraid) with the spineless critters that have exo- or hydrostatic skeletons.

We were discussing evolution using the example of insects with and without wings.

We even attempted to mimic a springtail’s jump so is pretty hard to explain in word, but trust me,  it’s way more fun than playing twister.

In the image of the springtail below you can see the forked tail open. Normally it would be attached under the body – working like a spring-load when opened in milliseconds.

Pseudokatianna triclavata Salmon, 1949, collected 8 October 1945, Courrejolles Peninsula, Campbell Island. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (AI.000372)


Week two’s subject was development and we heard our own Spiderman Phil Sirvid who talked about motherly spiders, and mollusc specialist Rodrigo who showed us impressively huge snail eggs.

Eggs of Megalobulimus sp. a.k.a. ‘mega-snail’, 2019. Te Papa

Later we handled live earthworms and found out if they were grownups or not.

I also demonstrated the transformation of growing insects with live mozzie larvae, beetle larvae, and moth caterpillars that could be touched and examined under the microscope.

Sophie looking through the microscope, 2019. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Mimicry, camouflage, and display

In week three, while looking at drawers full of stick insects, we talked about how camouflage helps avoid predators.

Phil Sirvid showed the kids how some insects have warning colours to tell other species that they’re dangerous (e.g. wasps) or taste bad (e.g. monarch butterflies). And then there are those who pretend to be dangerous or bad tasting by copying warning colours of other insects.

The kids looked at pairs of specimens and worked out which bug was pretending to be nasty and which wasn’t.

We looked at how the display of a peacock spider and morpho butterfly wings work, and why male insects are sometimes flashy and females drab.

Feeding and weaponry

In week four we examined the mouth and legs of a praying mantis and discussed the different situations for a bug where it needs attacking or defence strategies.

Praying mantis in the science collection, 2017. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

We also observed dragonfly fang masks, tarantula chelicera, scorpion tails, and huge crab claws!

We dissected spider fangs, beetle jaws, mozzie proboscis and mantis claws and prepared our own slides to take home once the sticky mess was dry.

After that, we went digital and built our own hungry and powerful invertebrate using an online game.


We built our own underwater spy and went out to the Bush city’s little stream. The spy worked very well but our water samples were disappointingly clean.

Luckily I had sampled in the Khandallah stream beforehand and this one was full of bugs.

The kids had fun pipetting mayfly, stonefly larvae, water fleas, and midge larvae of the water sample and taking a close look under the microscope observing the breathing via gills, air bubbles, or siphons.

Human / insect relationships

This is one of my favourite topics. The kids seemed to share my likeness of the ‘gross’ aspects.

We had a very lively interactive slide show about pests and diseases with all the fantastic itchiness of fleas, lice, mites, and bedbugs.

We compared harmful exotic cockroaches and harmless native NZ bush cockroaches – we even had a live one crawling up our sleeves.

Holding a NZ bush cockroach, 2019. Te Papa

We talked about the importance of human relationships with insects such as pollination, decomposing, forensic entomology, maggots cleaning wounds, and food.

The bravest of us even tried a spicy mealworm snack!

Eating a spicy mealworm snack, 2019. Te Papa

After we were ‘well’ fed, we had the famous and popular international maggot race.

It was a tough race and the maggots crawling for the UK (Sophie’s runner) and Jamaica (Eleonore’s maggot) had a head-on-head finish, followed by Liam’s Brazilian maggot. The adults of the group made poor decisions, and our maggots lingered at the starting point.

The hunt

Week seven involved a field trip. But beforehand we had to prepare our equipment. The children built their own aspirator used to suck the insects into a sample tube without inhaling it.

Preparing equipment, 2019. Te Papa

It was very cold outside but even in winter you can find insects all over the place. We discovered them by using all kinds of different techniques that scientists use on their field trips lots of tree shaking was involved!

Shaking trees and using an umbrella to catch insects, 2019. Te Papa

Senses, orientation, and communication

In the last session Victoria University kindly loaned us two ant colonies.

We offered the ants different kinds of food, observing how they found it and made trails.

Ants, 2019. Te Papa

Like most social insects, ants need to communicate with each other. If you watch ants on a trail, you’ll notice that they often touch each other with their antennae.

All ants can produce pheromones, which are scent chemicals used for communication and to mark the trails. The antennae are the noses of the insects.

We looked at all kinds of different antenna shapes (including snails) and we tried to recognise odour with an odour memory game. How difficult this was in the runny nose season! – luckily there was some camphor, menthol, and clove oil as part of the memory.

We finished our Spineless Critters Club by building a house for earwigs. Earwigs are fantastic to have in your garden if you struggle with aphids. Just hang a flowerpot upside down in the tree and fill it with straw or leaf-litter!


Our next Science club starts on Wed 7 Aug – and there are still spaces!


1 Comment

  1. Sylvie loved her day learning about insects from you Julia, thank you!

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