Story: Te aitanga pepeke – the insect world

Why do sandflies bite us so fiercely? They are taking revenge on Tū, the god of humankind, for killing Namuiria, the first sandfly. Midges, moths, cicadas, mosquitoes and other insects feature in many traditional Māori stories, especially the battles fought by Tāne, guardian of the forest and its tiny creatures.

Story by Bradford Haami
Main image: Insects carved on a lintel

Story summary

All images & media in this story

In Māori, ‘te aitanga pepeke’ means the insect world. It includes mosquitoes, butterflies and moths, sandflies, cicadas, midges, stick insects and centipedes. Frogs, spiders, lizards and other small creatures also belong to this group. They share certain features:

  • they have four or more legs
  • they sit in a crouching position
  • some can leap or jump.

Insects appear in many sayings, such as ‘the little grub destroys the pūriri tree’. This reminds people that even tiny things can have a big impact.

Some tribal stories also featured insects.

The battle of Tāne and Whiro

When Tāne (god of the forest) climbed to the heavens to fetch the three baskets of sacred knowledge, Whiro (god of the underworld) tried to get the baskets himself. He sent an army of midges, sandflies, birds and bats to kill Tāne, but Tāne called the winds to keep them away.

As Tāne came back down with the baskets, Whiro sent out a swarm of beetles, but Tāne defeated them too. He took all Whiro’s insects and birds to his forests, where they remain to this day.

Kūmara moth

This story tells of how the hihue (kūmara moth) came into being. The parent of the kūmara (sweet potato) was Whānui, a star in the heavens. His younger brother stole some kūmara and took them down to earth, to feed mankind. In anger, Whānui sent three creatures down to earth, to destroy the kūmara’s leaves. They are the caterpillars of the kūmara moth.

Rātā and the insects

Insects had the job of protecting the sacred forest. A man named Rātā chopped down a tree for a canoe, without asking the forest god. That night, the insects raised the tree up again. Rātā cut it down, but again the insects raised it up. When Rātā saw them, the insects said, ‘You had no right to chop down the tree without permission.’ Rātā was ashamed and sorry. The insects then built him a canoe, which the spiders carved beautifully.

This story is about showing respect to the spirits before taking something from nature.

How to cite this page:

Bradford Haami, 'Te aitanga pepeke – the insect world', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 24 September 2007