Six-legged Ghosts: The insects of Aotearoa

Lily Duval, Canterbury University Press, $55

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During metamorphosis, Lily Duval writes, “moths and cicadas fly and amble away from the cases that contained their previous selves.”

This book is a mark of the author/illustrator’s own metamorphosis—from someone grossed out by grubs, driven to madness by sandflies, and having nightmares of bugs in her bed, to a proud entomophile.

Duval’s life is now arranged around insects. She has a master’s degree exploring cultural entomology, a research job at Radio NZ’s ‘Critter of the Week’ show and other bug-based writing and illustrating gigs.

Her book is a gentle, gorgeous attempt at conversion: a plea for understanding, representation and protection of the 10 million insects that call this planet home. The world has already lost many of its known insect species, she points out—six-legged ghosts that have “slipped silently away”.

Duval wants us to consider how many we might have lost before we even knew of their existence, hidden under the soil or the cover of darkness, and how many more are on the brink.

Creepy-crawly facts abound. We meet parthenogenetic aphids, “nature’s matryoshka dolls”, that can give birth to babies that are already pregnant; delightful “corpse fauna”—maggots, flesh flies, et al—that so helpfully clean up the dead; Lazarus species, like the endemic Canterbury knobbled weevil, rediscovered by a university student 80 years after it was written off as extinct.

As Duval writes, “at this point in history, how we relate to the natural world matters, and how we represent the life around us matters.” So as well as the science, she deals with the culture of insects, examining the art they inspire and the language we choose to describe them.

Take the scarab beetle of ancient Egypt: considered a symbol of the god of the rising sun, thanks to its expertise in rolling orbs (albeit of dung) across the landscape. Or a story from Ngāti Awa about the larvae of the kūmara moth, sent to Earth by the ancestor Whānui to plague crops as a punishment for his kūmara-stealing brother. These caterpillars, called anuhe, grow up to 90 millimetres long, have a claw-shaped horn at their rear end—and can decimate a crop. Back in the day, whānau would train black-backed gulls to swoop in and pick these caterpillars from their plants. Genius.

The book includes more than 100 of Duval’s original paintings. They too speak to the story and character of insects, rather than just their anatomy.

A red admiral butterfly, feathered and detailed, seems to rise off the page. The pincered tail of an earwig gleams in the light. Even a sandfly looks efficient, gently furred, pleasingly snicked together. Beauty, where I never expected to find it.

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