It's a Hollywood-scale showing with a lethally-beautiful assassin, zombie-horror momma and a creepy character that can shoot a killing spray out its backside.

There's a backstory that stretches hundreds of millions of years, and the stars are all based on real life - bugs.

The fantastically popular Bug Lab exhibition, co-produced by Weta Workshop and Te Papa, is returning to New Zealand.

Auckland Zoo will be "bugified" from next month, when the interactive show featuring giant model "hero" bugs opens in an immersive 1sq km cluster of domed chambers.

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Visitors will be able to test their skills against superpowers of bugs - including brain surgery and survival teamwork - and may change their perspectives about "creepy-crawlies".

The exhibition will also feature a star comeback from New Zealand's own heavyweight bug, the wetapunga - which has outlived the dinosaurs but was under threat of extinction from predators introduced by man.

Bug Lab will give Auckland Zoo a stage to highlight its wetapunga breed-for-release recovery programme, helping bring Aotearoa's largest bug back from the brink.

Once widespread throughout Northland and Auckland, the wetapunga population had shrunk to just Hauturu/Little Barrier Island, where it was under attack from cats and kiore (the Pacific rat).

But starting with just 12 insects five years ago, Auckland Zoo has now released thousands of wetapunga on pest-free islands in the Hauraki Gulf - including 730 on Otata Island in The Noises earlier this month and about 400 to Motuhorapapa on Wednesday.

Bug Lab will run at Auckland Zoo from December 20 until late August, before travelling to the US. Opening at Te Papa in December last year, the $5 million blockbuster attracted more than 137,000 visitors in four months at the national museum before wowing crowds at Melbourne Museum from June to October.

Weta Workshop co-founder and creative director Sir Richard Taylor has been thrilled by the response to Bug Lab, which follows Weta's collaboration with Te Papa for the hugely successful Gallipoli exhibition.

"Some suggested that we may not be able to capture lightning in a bottle twice," Taylor said.

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An initial task was "to identify, out of the tens of millions of different species of bugs, the ones we would actually pick on to tell the coolest stories.

"And once we'd done that, it was then the process how the exhibition would speak to the audience."

"We created a thing we called bug nouveau - we theorised that if the bugs were to put on an exhibition for us humans, how might they design [it]. So when you enter the exhibition, you're entering a world that in theory that's been developed and created by bugs for us as humans to enjoy.

"And I loved the fact that when both young and older people go into the exhibition, they definitely are caught up in this fantastical world."

Creations by internationally famous special effects and prop company Weta Workshop had been inspired by bugs, including the aliens in movie District 9 and giant weta in the 2005 King Kong.

The company name comes from the weta.

Auckland zoo Bug Lab exhibition. Photo / Weta Workship
Auckland zoo Bug Lab exhibition. Photo / Weta Workship

"It's the coolest little monster in our country," said five-time Academy Award-winner Taylor. "And it just seemed appropriate to call a company building monsters after a little beautiful monstrous insect.

"I would hope that as people have come to appreciate the importance that they play in the ecosystem of New Zealand and how unique they are to our country, that people aren't just prone to squish them or be fearful of them because ... they are a gentle giant.

"They're almost like little alien tanks. I find them infinitely intriguing.

Taylor wanted Bug Lab to inform and entertain and inspire.

"The children who have engaged with the exhibition seem to come away with a much greater understanding of how important these creatures are to our planet and to their very existence, and how there is a sense of respect can be found even in the smallest thing that might be walking across your desktop."

He enjoyed seeing visitors connect with the interactive parts of the exhibition, including the giant bombardier beetle.

When disturbed, the real-life bug ejects a hot noxious chemical spray from its backside (technically its lower abdomen) with a popping sound. The spray can be fatal to attacking insects.

Children can climb in and slide through the Bug Lab model and out its rear end, "complete with sound effects - it's great fun".

Another wow factor is the giant model of the orchid mantis, a creature so beautifully coloured it mimics parts of the orchid flower - attracting insect prey. "Beautiful and brutal in equal measure."

Taylor hoped Bug Lab visitors leave understanding "how so many aspects of our lives have been influenced, inspired and engineered by bugs, and what truly extraordinary creatures are living right there in our compost heap or under the lintel of our shower."

An initial concept for Bug Lab was a superhero show, including how certain superheroes' powers were based on bugs.

But Bug Lab's head of design, Ben Barraud, said the bugs' array of skills was such that there was a "lightbulb moment, where it's like, hold on a minute - these guys are superheroes".

The exhibition was like "this grand expo that the bug world has brought on to educate humans as to the amazing technologies and science behind the genius of bugs ... and has taken 450 million years to develop".

Bug Lab took 40,000 hours to make and features incredibly intricate work.

"A lot of the bugs had to be 3D-scanned to create the 3D model from which to sculpt the large figures," said Barraud, Te Papa's acting creative director, who was also creative lead on the museum's renowned Gallipoli exhibition and an art director on The Hobbit movie trilogy.

"Bugs are incredibly hairy, particularly bees, and in order to get the precise shape of the bees, they needed to shave actual dead bees to scan them, and that goes down to shaving their eyeballs because they have hair growing out of their eyes."

Bug Lab was informative and interactive. The giant model bugs represented arrays of talents, including flight, deception and armour, and were complemented by video of their skills playing out in real life.

Barraud's favourite interactive was the Japanese honey bees versus the giant hornet.

"The hornet has impenetrable armour that [the bees] can't sting through - they can wipe out a whole hive in a matter of minutes.

"But [the bees] worked out that if they can get the scout hornet, as it gets near the hive - they form a ball of bees around the hornet, and then they all vibrate their wing muscles at such a fast rate that they raise the temperature and they essentially cook the hornet in a ball of bees.

Auckland zoo Bug Lab exhibition. Photo / Mike O'Neill
Auckland zoo Bug Lab exhibition. Photo / Mike O'Neill

"So our interactive has this epic battle going on with a giant hornet, which is bigger than a human, in the centre. And it's covered with these extraordinarily beautiful bees.

"You're inside the hive. There are interactive panels embedded into the honeycomb and you rub the panels. You can see a giant thermometer on the side of the wall, and you start to raise the temperature. The trick is to get the hornet up to the right temperature and it will die. And there's a massive light and sound - the whole dome lights up."

Providing science for Bug Lab was Te Papa entomologist Dr Phil Sirvid, who was involved in selecting the giant model bugs - "picking some compelling stories from all of the bug world".

"We're celebrating the genius of bugs. And it doesn't mean a bug that's going to win the Nobel Prize for physics or literature. But bugs have been doing some incredible things for an incredibly long time.

"Dragonflies have been flying for hundreds of millions of years. We wish we could fly as well as a dragonfly - we just can't even get close."

The blue morpho butterfly lacks any actual blue colouration, but the structure of its wings' surfaces reflect blue light. "This mechanic is being imitated for anti-counterfeiting technology. So there's a lot of bio-inspiration in the show. In other words, cool things we can learn from bugs for our own benefit."

Weta Workshop, "famous for their detail", sent digital representations of the giant bug models for Sirvid to check with colleagues and other experts.

"I look at a lot of these bugs under the microscope, so I get to see the amazing detail. But most people don't get to see that. So to blow up the bugs to this large size gives people a taste of what scientists who study bugs get to experience, so that was great. Weta have really done a magic job."

Sirvid said it was important visitors to Bug Lab could "dive in, do a bit of self-directed learning". "We didn't want a boring science show where people just go in and stare at text on a wall."

The relationship between another of the giant model bugs, the female jewel wasp, and cockroach prey was "a quite mind-blowing story - and in the case of its cockroach victim, possibly quite literally".

The wasp stings the cockroach in a "nerve mass near the leg". Venom causes a reaction "like putting the parking brake on". "Then she stings it closer to the main brain area and this causes the roach to sit there and start grooming itself."

What the cockroach is unwittingly doing is preparing itself to become food for the wasp's larva.

The wasp then leads its prey to it lair. "The cockroach can walk, it just doesn't want to unless it's prompted to. So it's like walking a dog on a leash.

"The poor old cockroach is [then] entombed with an egg. Then a few weeks later out emerges another beautiful jewel wasp.

"This is a beautiful zombie-making mother. There are a lot of steps to the story but at the end of it you might actually feel sorry for a cockroach."

An interactive accompanying the jewel wasp model will allow people to see if their brain surgery skills are good enough to "create your own zombie cockroach", said Auckland Zoo head of visitor experiences, Phil McGowan.

The giant scale orchard mantis, dragonfly, Japanese honey bee and bombardier beetle will also feature in the five-dome, 1sq km Bug Lab exhibition space.

"We're really trying to bugify the whole zoo for the eight months and showcase our love of insects and share with our visitors the amazing things that they do," McGowan said.

"There is an incredible amount of content, all of which has been created with the support of Te Papa's science team. It's absolutely on the money in terms of highly immersive, fun, interactive experience for everybody, not just children."

Out in the Zoo grounds, zoo keepers will present live bug encounters, giving visitors the opportunity to get up close to a diversity of endemic and exotic bugs. A schools programme has been created and Mazda will pay for 30 classrooms to go through Bug Lab.

The exhibition's opening hours will mirror Auckland Zoo's. Starting in January, there will also be Friday night Bug Lab Lates for adult audiences, with live entertainment, a liquor licence and a Weta Cafe menu featuring "sky prawns" - protein-packed Otago locusts.

Auckland zoo Bug Lab exhibition. Photo / Weta Workship
Auckland zoo Bug Lab exhibition. Photo / Weta Workship

McGowan hoped the exhibition would "challenge and inform people as to their assumptions around what they think they know about bugs.

"[They're] not just creepy-crawlies. They fulfil a hugely important role in every ecosystem where they exist. And they have amazing superpowers that we're still learning about and trying to replicate ourselves."

A gift shop will offer a range of bug-related merchandise, including cuddly toys of each of the giant model bugs plus the wetapunga.

Bug Lab will give Auckland Zoo a showcase for its wetapunga breed for release recovery programme. Staff from its Ecotherm team will deliver additional presentations and encounters, to allow visitors to get close to New Zealand's largest bug.

One of the world's heaviest bugs, females (heftier than males) have been recorded up to around 70g - nearly the weight of a common starling.

A tank-like creature with, to some, frightening looks and spiky back legs, it takes its name from Punga, the god of ugly things in Maori myth. Its scientific title, Deinacrida (demon or terrible grasshopper) heteracantha, is no less intimidating.

But wetapunga are actually gentle giants - flightless, nocturnal creatures which will bite only if threatened or provoked.

They also play a vital role in the ecosystem, germinating, fertilising and distributing plant seeds through nutrient-rich poo pellets - at around 1g, the same as a jelly bean, also one of the largest of any insect.

Ancestors of wetapunga are believed to have been around for more than 190 million years, and the creatures have changed little.

They were once widespread throughout Northland and Auckland but habitat destruction by man and introduced pests saw them threatened with extinction.

A captive breeding recovery programme was begun by Butterfly Creek in South Auckland, and wetapunga were released to pest-free Hauraki Gulf islands Motuora in 2010 and Tiritiri Matangi in 2011.

Auckland Zoo joined the programme in 2012. From the initial 12 wetapunga they were given permission to take from Hauturu/Little Barrier, they have released more than 3000 to firstly Tiritiri Matangi and Motuora, and then Otata and Motuhorapapa.

"We've basically industrialised their breeding," said the zoo's Ecotherm's team leader Don McFarlane.

There are about 100 enclosures with about 20 creatures in each, in a temperature and light-controlled breeding room - Auckland Zoo's own "weta workshop".

Adults are kept in separate cages, and mated in as many different pairings as possible to ensure genetic diversity. A "dating book" keeps track of the rounds of couplings.

Eggs take four to 24 months to hatch, after which the wetapunga will undergo 11 monthly moults of their hard outer covering until adulthood.

Six keepers on the Ecotherm team monitor the up to 2000 wetapunga in the breeding room. And a "browse selector" locates suitable plants for them to eat - "they're pretty fussy".

McFarlane was at London Zoo, where he was an invertebrate specialist, for 12 years. He was attracted by Auckland Zoo's reputation for working with native species, "particularly the wetapunga".

"There's very few places in the world working so intensely with an invertebrate for their conservation.

"Because they're invertebrates, you can make a huge difference with comparatively smaller amount of resources than say would be required for a gorilla or an elephant. You can really save a species in a couple of rooms if you give it the right amount of expertise and time."

Zoo staff on repeat visits to release islands were discovering evidence of the introduced wetapunga surviving in the wild.

"I can't tell you how rewarding it is to release something like a third-instar [period between moults] wetapunga, which is comparable to the size of your thumb, and then go back eight months later and see that it's an adult.

"To imagine that animal going extinct is just heartbreaking to me."

Wetapunga are released at night, when most birds are asleep, usually on to large trees with lots of fissures and flaky bark they can hide under.

"They've got extraordinarily powerful back legs covered in spines," McFarlane said. "What they do in the wild is stick their heads into a tight hole and anything that comes in after them gets a face full of spiky legs."

But although that was effective against birds, from which they were also well camouflaged, it was scant protection against mammals, including the kiore.

"They're not very well adapted for mammalian predators because they're large and they're stinky, and mammals, especially rats, can just sniff them out," said Auckland Zoo Ecotherm keeper Ben Goodwin. "And anything a wetapunga can hide in, a rat can get to."

Goodwin, who oversees the wetapunga husbandry at Auckland Zoo, has been on both its collection trips and every release bar one. He has found insects released as juveniles, grown to adults on both Otata and Motuhoropapa.

"Invertebrate conservation has been something which I've always been passionate about. So this project is awesome. It's really exciting to see the animals that we've bred here out in the wild again and hopefully establishing on the islands."

Asked how vital it was wetapunga survive, Goodwin said: "Would you ask that question if it was a kakapo, a kiwi? I think it's important that we protect all of our species in New Zealand."

• Tickets to Bug Lab go on sale from Monday. Book online at aucklandzoo.co.nz