Month: September 2017

Moths and the night

Spring is here, and the moths are emerging. Overwintering as a pupa, they emerge when the temperatures rise, to mate and lay eggs so their caterpillars can spend summer and autumn feeding and growing. A month ago, a light trap at Gordon Park would attract just one or two moths, but now, after an hour, the white sheet is covered with moths large and small, wasps that parasitise moths, flies, beetles and other nocturnal life. New Zealand has over 1,700 species of native moths, many barely known or still undescribed, and Robert Hoare at Landcare Research is the only full-time researcher working on them – his plate is pretty full.

2. light trap

Light Trap: Using LEDs in the blue and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum shining on a white sheet attracts nocturnal insects, which confuse it with the moon—the only bright light they’ve evolved to deal with. Photo: WRM.

While waiting at a light trap, being savaged by mosquitoes, you’ll occasionally hear a loud rustling and flapping as a huge pūriri moth (Aenetus virescens) or pepetuna, blunders into the sheet. Adult pūriri moths have beautiful mottled green wings, but they have no mouthparts and don’t feed, living on stored fat for the few days it takes them to find a mate and reproduce. In contrast to their brief adulthood their caterpillars, called mokoroa, live for years in holes bored into tree trunks; wētā will often move into the vacated tunnels. Once very common in North Island, pūriri moths are now only seen around native bush. In times past, swarms would emerge and fly into houses, extinguishing lamps and candles.

1. puriri

Pūriri moths emerge on damp nights in September and October to mate, lay thousands of eggs and die. Photo: WRM.

The decline in moth numbers is something that’s been noticeable, even in my lifetime. When I was a child, long drives at night left the windshield plastered with insects, but hardly ever so today. True, cars are more aerodynamic now, but the decline is certainly real, at least in Europe where it’s been carefully measured. Scientists, managing annual light trapping in Germany since 1989, have measured real declines in the numbers of nocturnal insects, down on an average of 45%, or 80% in some areas. There’s been no funding for this sort of long-term monitoring in New Zealand, so we have to rely on anecdotes about windscreens.

3. forest looper

Also known as the conifer flash (Pseudocoremia leucelaea), this moth is common in native bush in spring. Its caterpillars feed on tōtara and miro leaves.  Photo: WRM.

This insect decline has multiple causes: deforestation of course, the switch to intensive agriculture reducing the diversity of habitats in our farmland and the widespread use of pesticides. Systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids are restricted in Europe but widely used in New Zealand, and most discussion of their impact is around their effects on honeybees, not our thousands of native species.

4. cranefly

There are over 600 species of craneflies in New Zealand. Sometimes mistaken for a gigantic mosquito, they are harmless.  Photo: WRM.

Even artificial lighting might be a problem. Everywhere, including Whanganui, old high-pressure sodium street lighting is being replaced with modern LEDs, which are brighter and far more energy efficient, saving councils millions of dollars annually in electricity costs. The problem is that sodium lights were orange, whereas LEDs shine in the blue end of the spectrum, like those in my fancy new German light trap. Blue lights are far more visible and confusing to insects. In the name of energy efficiency, we’re busily lining our streets with thousands of high-powered insect traps, without much thought about the effects on nocturnal pollinators like moths.

Human beings have transformed the night, replacing the moon and stars with so much artificial light that we’ve forgotten what darkness is. When I lead night walks at Bushy Park we stop and do a simple exercise of turning off all our torches. Some of the children in the group are then in complete darkness for the first time in their lives. For many of the creatures of the bush, the night is their habitat, the place they can’t be seen by predators. They evolved in a world that had darkness, and in just a few hundred years we’ve driven that away.


Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.


The Architect and the Artisan

With the refurbishment of the Whanganui Regional Museum now approaching half-way, considerable attention has been paid to the design and construction of its buildings. The 1928 building’s stripped classical architecture and pre-Napier construction have caused the bigger challenges to seismic performance, with a lot of steel and timber bracing now installed.

The Māori Court building, designed by Don Wilson, has also received earthquake upgrades, but mainly it is undergoing repair and restoration of many of its original features. Wilson’s Whanganui work, including the Museum, was celebrated in a well-received talk by architectural historian Mark Southcombe at the Davis Theatre on Tuesday 19 September. Investigation of the building’s origins has also revealed fascinating stories about the people who worked on it.

1. Basil Benseman

Basil Benseman

An important collaborator with Don Wilson, and a key contributor to the structure and appearance of the 1968 building, was master brick and block layer Basil Benseman. Bas arrived in Whanganui as a child and after leaving school, worked as a truck driver. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner and truck driver during WWII in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Italy before returning to an apprentice training scheme in Wellington. Before long, he had established B E Benseman Bricklayer, which from 1946 to 1985, built a significant portion of Whanganui. Bas worked on many landmark buildings around the city including the Embassy Cinema, St Marcellin School, Whanganui Intermediate, the Government Life and State Insurance buildings, the War Memorial Hall, Power Board Building, Queens Park steps and the Whanganui Regional Museum, among hundreds of others. He didn’t spend much of that time in the office; he was too busy on site, laying hundreds of thousands of bricks and blocks himself.

Don Wilson’s modernist architecture made frequent, often innovative, use of brick and concrete, and Bas often provided the craft needed to realise his designs. The Museum project used conventional blockwork in many parts of the structure, as well as stone facing around the Davis Theatre, an unusual, vertical application of decorative brick on the exterior walls and a lattice of stacked breeze blocks on the end wall, echoing a similar pattern on the War Memorial Hall across the square. Don Wilson, though, had an even more challenging role in mind for his long-time collaborator.

2. Mural

The Whanganui Regional Museum mural, made of Italian glass tiles.

The south side of the building presented a new face to the city and Wilson wanted to make the most of it. He designed a mural, based on rock drawings, to be rendered in Italian glass tiles. The biggest problem was the lack of anybody in 1968 Whanganui with the technical know-how to realise it. With complete confidence he turned to Bas who, despite his protests that he had never attempted such a thing before, was eventually persuaded to set to work in yet another medium. Over 10 months of painstaking work he invented his own mosaic technique which has weathered 50 years of Whanganui rain and sun and remains a shimmering tribute to a great partnership – the architect and the artisan.


Frank Stark is Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.

A sampling of samplers

The term “sampler” comes from the Latin word exemplum, meaning an example to be followed, a pattern or a model. Pictorial samplers began life as plain samples of different stitches worked onto a single piece of fabric. A girl would add to it as she learned different needle work techniques, a standard part of her education.

By the mid 17th century, decorative samplers with borders were considered to be a mark of refinement. They were worked with horizontal bands of stitching, featuring letters, numbers and traditional motifs, such as the dove of peace. Later, poetry or religious quotations were added, and ornate borders became common.

The stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue, achievement and industry, and girls were taught the art from a young age. Samplers are still stitched today and are often worked to celebrate a joyous occasion, such as a birth or baptism.

1. Hanner Passell

In 1806 Hanner Passell stitched a sampler of fine coloured wool threads on linen.  This sampler is very fragile and damaged, but you can still see her mistakes – she has not allowed enough room for the word “away” in the third line of the verse. The verse has a dire warning about wasting time:

Exonerate your mind of worldly cares

Spend each Lords Day in Spiritual Affairs

Such wretched souls as squander that aw[ay]

Repent it sorely at their dying Day

And in very faded thread at the bottom we can read: “Hanner Passell Made this in the 11th year of her age”. Hanner is an unusual spelling for the name Hannah. It could be a family name, but it might be that Hanner was a poor speller. Genealogy records show that a Hannah Passell was born in Sussex in 1795 – that might fit.

2. Grace Combe



While Grace Combe’s sampler is faded, you can still see the skill and charm of her work. Silk threads on fine linen demonstrate cross, feather, herringbone and satin stitches. Sample sewing of the alphabet, homilies and designs of flowers, crowns and geometric motifs all feature. And only just visible under a strong magnifying glass at the lower edge is “Grace Combe March 24 1724.”


3. E Gregory


E Gregory’s sampler was made in England in 1820 and comprises images of grand buildings and floral motifs, all delicately hand stitched in cotton thread. While we don’t know who E Gregory was, or if and when she came to New Zealand, it is an excellent example of the sampler craft. For new arrivals to New Zealand, samplers were a reminder of family left behind and a way of making a new house more comfortable. A few home comforts transported across the world helped mitigate the hardships of settling in.


4. Caroline Hopwood


Young Caroline Octavia Hopwood made a simple sampler of wool thread on fine canvas in cross stitch. Lines of the alphabet are repeated in different colours; there is also a line of numbers and small motifs comprising a bunch of grapes, two dragons, a flowering plant in a basket and a deer. The whole is surrounded by a vine with geometric leaves attached. Caroline has stitched her name and age, a mere eight years, at the bottom of the sampler. You can see why it is simple – she is just learning.


5. Hannah Hopwood

The very old sampler on fine, natural-coloured linen was completed by Hannah Hopkins in 1729. The deep flower and leaf border is stitched with two strands of twisted silk thread in satin stitch, French knots and cross stitch. The centre panel spells out the great Psalm XXVII, proclaiming absolute faith. It is easy to recognise what sort of beliefs Hannah’s family had:

The Lord is my Light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear, the Lord is the strength of my life of Whom shall I be afraid.

The eccentric punctuation of the lettering is matched by the eccentric switch from rose red to yellow thread, which is very faded and hard to read. Perhaps Hannah ran out of the red and only had yellow left to match the rest of the sampler.


Libby Sharpe is the Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum.