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Six-legged Ghosts: the Insects of Aotearoa
by Lily Duval

A visually stunning' account of our insect world, 'part story, part history, part philosophy'.

By May 15, 2024No Comments

Last month I was cleaning the house prior to it going on sale, clearing cobwebs and wiping away finger marks and smudges, when I made the mistake of vacuuming up a crane fly in full view of my eight-year-old. She howled for an hour, levelling a tirade of fury at her mother for not caring enough for the insect’s ‘one and only life’.

To be asked to review Lily Duval’s beautifully constructed, visually stunning Six-Legged Ghosts the next day felt like an act of atonement. According to Duval, we are in the midst of an ‘insect apocalypse’. Insect numbers are plummeting worldwide and their extinctions often go unnoticed or unrecorded. ‘Insects don’t live on in our culture as symbols of the grandeur and beauty of a lost world,’ Duval argues; ‘they are little more than the briefest footnote in the narrative of our losses’. (154)

Duval, a reformed entophobe, lives and breathes insects. She is a researcher and writer for a range of conservation organisations (Critter of the week, Predator Free NZ and Kaimahi for Nature Whakaraupō). She is on the organising committee for Bug of the Year. A gifted artist, she illustrated Nicola Toki’s Critters of Aotearoa, published by Penguin Random House in 2023. Six-legged Ghosts is an offshoot of her Master of Arts thesis which explored cultural entomology – how we talk about and represent insects in culture. In her introduction, Duval writes:

There are a lot of great books written by passionate entomologists if you want to learn more about how insects work, what they get up to and why they are so vital for a healthy planet. Instead, this is a book about culture and the ways culture can change. It is an argument for better representation, for a shift in the way we talk about six-legged creatures, and a clarion call for insect conservation. Because in the face of the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis, with insect numbers plummeting globally, getting to know insects feels important – essential, even.

To be clear: this isn’t a book by an entomologist about insects. Six-Legged Creatures is part story, part history, part philosophy. Duval walks us through the underground basements of museums and their crumbling insect collections, holding them up against the glittering interactive displays that while ‘palatable, sanitised, approachable’, give children an opportunity to engage positively with our six-legged creatures. She mulls over the art and science of taxonomy, the benefits and the challenges. On the tension of pinning: ‘the drive to extinguish life in order to support and comprehend it.’

The book’s first chapter, an overview of insects in te ao Māori, is more of a ‘snapshot’, Duval says: Māori stories of insects that ‘reflect whenua, iwi and the insect itself’ are for Māori to tell and would ‘merit its own publication’. In other chapters, we learn of founding entomologists like George Hudson (1867–1946), a post office clerk who collected and studied insects and published An Elementary Manual of New Zealand Entomology at the age of 25. He took his work with such seriousness he would wear his church suit for collecting insects, shaking them from branches into his upturned white umbrella.

There are also stories of insects lost and beetles saved. It’s hard not to feel an affinity for the now likely extinct Mokohīnau stag beetle that clung to life on a small rocky outcrop ‘the size of a living room’ in the Hauraki Gulf.

It can be easy, perhaps, to brush aside the extinction of one species of beetle as unimportant or unremarkable. But losing a species is not simply another blow to our biodiversity: it is the loss of a way of knowing and experiencing the world. Each species is its own story and each story is interwoven into a wider narrative about who we are as a country – land, people, plants, fungi, animals, geology. How many threads of this story will disappear before the tapestry loses its vibrancy and integrity?

Insect conservation is vital and has its advantages, argues Duval. Solutions to save them have the potential to be ‘quicker, cheaper and more effective’ than what’s required for birds. The Robust Grasshopper, ‘a tank of an insect, tough-looking and burly’, has its allocated section of disused gravel road in the Mackenzie basin. The Cromwell chafer of Central Otago, ‘a jolly-looking beetle with rounded, ruddy-brown carapace’, had lost much of its habitat to housing and a golf course, but a fenced triangle of browned grass has been enough to keep the population stable.

To save insects, we need to address the persistent lack of funding for invertebrate conservation in the face of our bias for the ‘cute’.  We see insects as dirty, as alienated from human morals and values – ’mechanical creatures, lacking sentience’. But what other creatures provide us with the functional value of insects? Where would we be without our pollinators, without insects to break down the dead? We hold up Aotearoa as a land of birds, yet we have more than 20,000 insect species, and around 90% of these are not found elsewhere on the planet.

Duval’s watercolours reveal Aotearoa’s insects with luminous detail not accessible to the human eye. I was fascinated by the furry beauty of a micro-moth and the oddity of the knobbled weevil, and found myself tracing my fingers over a blue butterfly that seemed about to lift off the white page. Her passion for insects at times feels defensive, with reference to plague and pestilence and frequent reminders in the opening chapters of how humankind perceives insects as ‘uninteresting, unattractive and disgusting’. Yet with ‘so much of our current insect vocabulary defaulting to long-held negative attitudes to the animals’, Duval hopes ‘we can reform the words we use to talk about insects. Using language that breaks down rather than reinforces what divides human and insect might help us to recalibrate our attitudes to Earth’s six-legged animals.’

Duval urges us to find in the insect world the metaphors we need to navigate our way forward. Like the pepetuna/ pūriri moth, our lives aren’t linear – we are part of a cycle, and metamorphosis is essential.

To navigate the shifting world and undergo the painful, uncertain changes ahead, we can look to insects to show us that this kind of transformation is possible – that we can take our old ways of being and reform them. And as we reforge a healthier relationship to the rest of the natural world we are a part of, I hope that we can replace some of our old attitudes to the insect world with care and appreciation.

Six-legged Ghosts: Insects of Aotearoa

by Lily Duval

Canterbury University Press

ISBN: 9781988503431

Published: April 2024

Format: Hardcover, 296 pages

Amy McDaid

Amy McDaid is a fiction writer and reviewer from Tāmaki Makaurau. She has a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Auckland, and her debut novel, Fake Baby, was longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand book awards. In 2021, she was awarded the Todd New Writer’s bursary for her current work-in-progress. She also writes for School Journal, and is a Registered Nurse in Newborn Intensive Care.