With a flash of rose red on their wings and a dance-like sway of their bodies, large Australian stick insects may be the ideal symbol of Auckland Zoo's Valentine's Day event.

The R18 event on Wednesday evening, dubbed "Love Bug", will celebrate the love lives of insects - and offer some on the menu, along with non-bug and vegetarian options.

"We humans think we know about the art of love, but bugs have been at it for over 400 million years," said Dr Phil Sirvid, a Te Papa scientist who will speak at the event and who helped create the Bug Lab, which is on display at the zoo.

"Music, dance, scent and impressing with gifts are all part of bug seduction. Bugs offer plenty of examples of how to succeed in the mating game, but some of it you most definitely should not try at home."


Goliath stick insect

At up to 20cm long for the female, this is one of the largest stick insects in Australia. And while the male is smaller than the female, he has great staying power.

They can remain hooked up for hours at a time while the male hangs off the female, a strategy he uses to prevent others mating with the same female, according to a senior Auckland Zoo keeper and invertebrate specialist Don McFarlane.


New Zealand's giant weta, which can grow to larger than a mouse, are bred in large numbers at the zoo for a recovery programme.

McFarlane said the males have been seen following the females around, attracted by powerful pheromones.

As well as showing off the stick insects and the successful wetapunga programme, McFarlane gave the Weekend Herald a preview of some new imports not yet on public display.

Giant burrowing cockroach

McFarlane is rather fond of the giant burrowing cockroach from Australia, the world's heaviest cockroach at up to 35g and up to 7.5cm long.

"Of all the cockroaches out there I think these are the sweetest," he said. "These aren't the famous invaders in your kitchen."

Armour-plated and with strong legs, they like to wrestle. As to their mating habits, they like nightclubs - they burrow down to chambers they make 1m underground where the female has up to 30 live young at a time.

Emperor scorpion

When it comes to the emperor scorpion from Africa - the zoo has just one, a juvenile thought to be a female - McFarlane moves his hand cautiously near its tail, which can deliver a sting as powerful as a bee's.

Emperor scorpions lock, head-to-head, in an elaborate courtship dance before mating.

Australian rhinoceros beetle

One of Australia's largest beetles, the male can grow to 7cm in length, flies and has horns, one of the top of its head and one below.

McFarlane said a pheromone produced by the female drives the male crazy. The males will challenge for breeding rights, using their horns in combat to try to wrestle each other off branches.

The zoo has one pair of the beetles and an egg has been laid. McFarlane brings out the male, which clamps on to his thumb with its strong legs and produces a stream of squeaking and hissing sounds.