For Leilani Walker, a PhD student at the University of Auckland, insects are as charismatic as organisms come. Like the motley squad of beasts inhabiting the world of Pokémon, the insects of our planet are impossibly weird, function strangely, and seem to disobey the laws of physics. “Once you go down past a certain size, the effect of the world on you is completely different,” she says. “Gravity is different. Ants can get trapped in droplets of water. It’s practically a fantasy world.”
With the aim of sharing her love of insects with other humans, Walker collaborated with illustrator Emma Scheltema to create the Insects of New Zealand Playing Cards. The cards have been designed with a colonial frontier aesthetic; it’s a conscious crack at tapping into society’s nostalgia for an era when the limits of knowledge were literally broadened by khaki-clad explorers.
“Insects and invertebrates... I think they’re very beautiful... but they don’t get a whole lot of notice. Because they’re small, they’re often very well camouflaged, and they’re in places where we don’t expect them. And some are annoying, like mosquitoes.”
Yet while the majority of us unwitting two-leggers go about our lives, insects play hugely important roles in our environment. Some of their many functions include: pollination of native flowers; breaking down bark and other materials to facilitate nutrient cycling; consumption of flying pests; and breaking down carrion and faecal matter.
Walker acknowledges it can be difficult for the general public to feel emotionally connected to insects, despite their ecological impact. This disconnect also happens to make conservation efforts challenging. But making New Zealanders feel more connected to the various insect species is one of the effects she hopes the playing cards will have.
“I grew up playing cards a lot. When I was a teenager, there was this one pack of Marvel superhero cards,” she says. “The interesting thing about these cards is that we did not know much about Marvel superheroes at all. But there were different characters on each one, and we played cards often enough that we got familiar with them.”
In the same way, people playing with these insect playing cards would be a captive audience; these cards could facilitate learning about the six-legged biodiversity of our country.
But of course, nothing beats seeing a critter in real life. If you want to learn about insects, Walker says you can try light trapping – putting a huge light on a sheet at night and observing the moths that fly there. Or for those happy to commit, female praying mantises can live for a couple of years, which makes them a good pet for kids.
But if the responsibilities of attending to a critter are beyond your means, there is always the Nature Watch NZ’s iNaturalist app to check out, as well as our museums. Te Papa and Weta Workshop recently collaborated to create the Bug Lab exhibit in Wellington. “Museums are really interesting places with a lot of different roles,” says Walker. “They’re involved in active research and curation, but they’re also at the very frontline of public engagement, particularly with things like science.”