Moths are members of the order Lepidoptera, but these mostly nocturnal creatures are often in the shadow of the brighter, day-flying butterflies. New Zealand has fewer than 20 butterfly species but more than 2,000 moth species! Regardless of numbers, our local Lepidoptera share much in common. The majority are endemic – meaning they live naturally in New Zealand and nowhere else. Read about these fascinating winged creatures in the articles New Zealand moths and Nocturnal adaptations of moths.
Quantitative ecologist Dr Barbara Anderson and Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research entomologist Dr Robert Hoare are fascinated by moths. They are very aware of moths’ roles in the ecosystem as food for native birds, reptiles and invertebrates and as pollinators of plants. Importantly, moths are also indicator species for environmental change due to their short lifespans and mobility. They are reasonably easy to monitor but often fly under the radar as citizen science monitoring usually happens during the day rather than at night.
Ahi Pepe MothNet’s origin
Barbara wanted to know more about the distribution and ecology of moths in the Otago region. She was also curious to find out if artificial lighting had impacts on moth communities. With funding from the New Zealand Government’s Participatory Science Platform (PSP) initiative, Barbara enlisted the help of four local schools, Orokonui Ecosanctuary, the University of Otago and Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research in a project called MothNet Shedding Light on the Night.
Conducting robust science research
Ahi Pepe MothNet set out to gather robust data from the outset. The project provided member schools with Heath moth traps – lightweight battery-operated systems designed to attract and capture moths. This meant everyone used light sources with the same strength and wavelength – standardising the process.
For their first project, schools investigated the effects of orange street lights on moth communities. Heath moth traps were set up under a bright street light and in an area away from the light but kept all other variables as similar as possible.
During the second project, schools investigated whether vegetation restoration impacts moth diversity. Local Dunedin groups used Orokonui Ecosanctuary as a reference site – a mature, natural area. Schools set up Heath moth traps at treatment and control sites within the school environments. The treatment sites were native plantings around the school or at nearby restoration sites, and the control sites were typically school playing fields.
Moth specimens caught in the moth traps were sorted and counted the following day and identified by Robert.
The work by the four Otago schools and their science colleagues has been far reaching. The students held workshops and made displays and presentations. The project produced the Beginners’ guide to the macro-moths of Otago, an information and identification guide, and the moth data was used by a graduate student as part of her MSc thesis.
Ahi Pepe MothNet - discovering moths through a Māori lens
Following the success of Shedding Light on the Night, Ahi Pepe MothNet received additional PSP funding allowing it to expand to 14 schools. The project name changed to Ahi Pepe MothNet. In te reo Māori, ahi translates as fire and pepe as moth, making symbolic reference to their aim of sparking interest in moths.
The project has expanded to include mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge), weaving the science, Kāi Tahu stories about moths and te reo Māori together. Barbara explains that the goal was to tell the stories of the moths first – their whakapapa, their connections, their place in the stars and their role in the ecosystem.
The idea is first to connect to the children and help them see the significance of moths, with the ultimate goal being to better understand, appreciate and take care of our native moths.Dr Barbara Anderson
Resources in te reo Māori and English
The project partners worked with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu to produce eight identification guides in te reo Māori and English. Five whakataukī (proverbs) about moths and their life cycles form the core of te reo Māori guides, providing context and purpose for the ongoing science research.
In addition to the ID guides, Barbara and the team have produced a number of resources to aid teachers and students with trapping, identifying and labelling moths for collection purposes and protocols for collecting and recording local moth data.
Taking Ahi Pepe MothNet to the world
In July 2017, the students at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti took their moth research to the 2017 World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in Canada. Their workshop used their Ahi Pepe experiences to reinforce the value of partnering mātauranga Māori with science.
The rest of New Zealand can also be a part of the Ahi Pepe MothNet project. Renewed funding means that the project has expanded to include all of Aotearoa. Schools across the country can take part in moth research, and beginners’ moth identification guides have been developed for all of New Zealand.
More citizen science opportunities
Some of the people helping to fill the gaps in our butterfly knowledge are citizen scientist groups like the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust (MBNZT), led by Jacqui Knight. Volunteers gather information by tagging butterflies, conducting butterfly counts and walking transects to collect data about the number and locations of all our butterfly species.
Read about how scientists are gathering data about monarch butterflies in this Connected article Look out for Monarchs.
Nature of science
PSP initiatives like Ahi Pepe MothNet demonstrate how the strands of the nature of science – as depicted in the NZC – are interrelated. Student investigations and collaborative work with scientists lead to a greater understanding of science as a process. Students explore local issues, communicate their findings and with the help of the wider community, take action to support their cause.
The Ahi Pepe MothNet project received funding through Otago Science into Action – the Otago pilot of the Participatory Science Platform (PSP), which is part of the Curious Minds initiative and funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The PSP is currently being implemented as a pilot in three areas: South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago.
Ahi Pepe MothNet has also received additional funding from Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research; Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti; Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu; Te Tumu, University of Otago; Department of Geography, University of Otago; Orokonui Ecosanctuary; Otago Museum; and New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.
The government’s national strategic plan for Science in Society, A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara, is a government initiative jointly led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Ministry of Education and Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.
In Shining a Māori light on moths, read this Curious Minds project.
Visit the Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research website for extensive information about Ahi Pepe MothNet and the resources they’ve produced.
Check out some of the publicity Ahi Pepe MothNet has received.
Read Dr Barbara Anderson’s blog.
Watch the video Moth Net: Shedding Light on the Night for an overview of the project.
MothNet has a community Facebook page to highlight interesting moth species and promote local activities.
New Zealand’s Biological Heritage – one of the National Science Challenges – is helping to fund the national Ahi Pepe MothNet project. Find out what they are doing to enhance and restore New Zealand’s ecosystems.