‘Delightfully awful’: wētā motels proliferate as New Zealand falls in love with giant insect | New Zealand

In a small motel deep in a garden in Wellington, a group of tenants with glistening cigar-shaped bodies and spiky legs move into his home. A male sleeps with his harem of females, their bodies huddled together, a threadlike mashup of legs and antennae. Once every fortnight, the motel’s owner, Holly Neill, briefly opens the door to look out the plexiglass window and check on her tenants, each time experiencing the thrill of being able to spy on the shy and strange creatures inside.

These are not paying customers and neither are these ordinary motels, but rather man-made homes for one of New Zealand’s most beloved insects – the wētā. More and more, wētā motels are popping up in gardens as New Zealanders start embracing bugs in their backyards – something that may also give endangered species a fighting chance at survival.

Forests, grasslands, caves, and alpine terrain once teemed with wētā, but their populations have suffered from the introduction of foreign pests and increasing habitat decline due to dairy farming. Sixteen of New Zealand’s wētā species are endangered, and the remainder are listed as threatened or endangered. The largest species, the giant wētā (or wētāpunga), once abundant in parts of the North Island, is now found only on Hauturu-o-Toi (Little Barrier Island), a pest-free sanctuary off the East Coast. The giant Mahoenui wētā, which was feared extinct until its rediscovery in 1962, exists only in a patch of gorse in King Country.

A giant Cook Strait wētā is perched on one hand. The creatures are wingless and nocturnal.
Photograph: Gary Webber/Alamy Stock Photo

“I think people hold them in high regard and it’s almost a pride to have wētā in the garden,” says Neill, a conservation enthusiast and wildlife photographer.

“It adds another dimension of nature appreciation if you include the more secretive little bugs that come out at night.”

Wētā belong to the same group of insects as crickets and grasshoppers, and there are between 70 and 100 species of wētā endemic to New Zealand. They are wingless and nocturnal, and some, including the wētāpunga, are among the heaviest insects in the world – comparable to the weight of a sparrow.

Wētā belong to the same group of insects as crickets and grasshoppers
Wētā belong to the same group of insects as crickets and grasshoppers. Photograph: Herb Christophers/Department of Conservation

Neill set up two wētā motels on native kānuka trunks at the back of his Raumati Beach garden just over a year ago, after discovering the motels in “many different sanctuaries”. Three months later, she had her first guests. At one point, she opened a motel to find a wētā, a native cockroach, and a bumblebee in the same room. “I felt like I was interrupting a bug meeting,” Neill laughs.

When she first moved into the property, the garden was overgrown with agapanthus and weeds, where she found only three spiders hiding. She cleared it, set traps for predators, planted native trees and set up the motels. “I was shocked at how sterile it was and then since I did that all the rooms are full [of wētā]. This shows a fairly rapid change.

“A window to the world”

The motels are made of untreated wood and are designed to have entrance and exit tunnels large enough for the wētā to slip through but small enough that a mouse cannot. To attract wētā, they must be dark during the day.

“If you were to split a log and watch what they do naturally, it’s quite similar to that,” says Steve Rawson of Swiss Wood Technicians. He began making wētā houses in 2016 for the Department of Conservation, and in 2018 began selling them to the public, becoming one of many small retailers or community groups to do so. Sales were up, but before last Christmas they sold about 40 motels, double the previous year.

“We’ve seen a real increase in sales, especially in the Wellington area,” says Rawson, which he attributes to education programs at Wellington’s urban sanctuary, Zealandia. “Before that, I think a lot of people looked at wētā and thought ‘Yuck, I don’t want to get near them’, but they’re actually amazing creatures and they’re not that horrible at all.”

Motels (sometimes called hotels or condos) were originally conceived as a research aid around 1994 by Massey University ecologist and wētā expert Steve Trewick – a scientist so dedicated to the insect, that a wētā tree , the Hemideina trewicki, bears his name.

Trewick was trying to determine the distribution of wētā in the environment – ​​a difficult task when dealing with a secretive, nocturnal creature – when he discovered two species sharing a dead tree trunk. “From that observation, I said, well, let’s just do our own versions of that, because then we can open them up and see how many men or women are there.”

According to Warren Chinn, an invertebrate ecologist with the Department of Conservation, a growth in higher education and increased awareness of conservation issues could lead to more interest in wētā and how to care for them. “I would also say that social media and the internet have been a tremendous boon to awareness of conservation values.

“These things are really successful – the animal doesn’t know it’s artificial, it just knows it’s adapted.”

Motels are “undoubtedly” useful for wētā people, especially in urban environments, adds Trewick, and the growth in understanding of biodiversity and its maintenance has ripple effects to boost other species.

But the interbreeding of wētā motels with private backyards does more than help protect wētā populations; they also satisfy the curiosity of creepy fans.

“I think the most useful thing about motels is that people see there’s a lot more to the biology of our planet than they otherwise would. Most of New Zealand’s biology takes place at night. It’s a window to the world,” says Trewick.

They are fascinating creatures to observe, adds Chinn: “If you open the doors to the big ones…there is a density of these monsters and their big spiky legs. It’s deliciously awful.