I used to enjoy camping in the bush, settling into my tent for the night and imagining all the fun times I'd have exploring the following day.
One particular night there was something nesting in my hair. Sister playing a trick, I thought. I woke to screaming and sister was out of the tent faster than a bullet. "Just stay still," Dad said. "I'll sort it."
I looked up, too frightened to move. Antennae tapped my nose. "We should leave it there," Mum said. "It suits her, and she's actually quiet for a change. In fact, it looks quite comfy."
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There was a long, 10-minute wait while they untangled the weta from my hair.
Weta are endemic to Aotearoa; they can only be found in New Zealand. There are over 70 species, and many that have yet to be named and identified. There are three main types: tree weta, cave weta and ground weta.
In Whanganui, people most commonly see the Wellington tree weta. Tree weta, or putangatanga, are in the genus Hemideina. There are seven species within this genus. Tree weta are very common in forests and suburban gardens throughout New Zealand. They are up to 40mm long and usually live in holes in trees. Such a hole is called a gallery and that is where weta hide during the day. They feed at night on leaves, flowers, fruit and small insects. They readily occupy a pre-formed gallery in a piece of wood (a "weta motel") and can be kept in a suburban garden as pets. A gallery might house a harem of up to 10 adult females and one male.
All weta are nocturnal, coming out in the evenings to scavenge for food. They are omnivores, eating whatever they can find lying on the forest floor. They are prey for our nocturnal birds such as ruru and kiwi. Tuatara are known to enjoy a tasty weta treat.
Weta have been described as giant, flightless crickets. While they are members of the cricket family, they really are unique. For one thing, their ears are on their front legs.
They have strong hind legs that enable them to jump, and they can pack a hearty bite if they feel threatened. All weta are flightless. For the most part they are docile and shy. It is quite easy to determine their sex. Females have a spike (an ovipositor) on the end of their abdomens for laying eggs, and the males have slightly larger heads. Weta lay their eggs during autumn and winter. The eggs hatch in the spring and the weta is born as a tiny version of its adult self. They can take up to two years to fully mature, shedding their exoskeletons as they grow. A pregnant giant weta is believed to be the heaviest insect in the world, weighing as much as three adult mice.
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Weta do not like being poked. I know this from experience. I had a Wellington tree weta on my hand and was showing it to a class of young children. I poked him with my finger, he raised his hind legs (this means he's feeling threatened and is about to jump). He jumped off my hand and landed on my colleague's shirt, bit him and then hung on for dear life. It took us a while to extract him. My colleague never felt quite the same about weta again.
If you are lucky enough to have a weta visit you at home or hide in your gumboot, catch it gently and put it outside. And keep an eye on the hind legs.
•Lisa Reweti is public programmes presenter at Whanganui Regional Museum.