Story: Te aitanga pepeke – the insect world

Page 3. Moths

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Kūmara or sphinx moth (hīhue)

The origins of many insects are explained in tribal narratives and whakapapa (genealogies).

The Ngāti Awa tribe have a whakapapa for the kūmara (sweet potato) and the caterpillars that live on it. For example, according to the Ngāti Awa whakapapa concerning the origin of the kūmara, Whānui (the star Vega) is known as the celestial parent of the kūmara. One day, Whānui’s younger brother Rongomāui stole some kūmara tubers and took them to the earth as a food source for mankind. Whānui was so angered that he sent three creatures, Anuhe, Toronū and Moko, down to earth in punishment for the theft. Ever since then, they have ravaged the leaves of the kūmara. They are all the caterpillars of the kūmara moth (Agrius convolvuli).

Pūriri moth (pepetuna)

According to a Ngāti Kahungunu tradition, an ancestor named Hinepeke (jumping woman) married Tūteahuru, a grandson of Tāne, god of the forest. They produced a vast number of insects and lizards that dwell within the earth, on the land or stones, and in the water.

One descendant was the pepetuna, commonly known as the pūriri moth or ghost moth (Aenetus virescens), a parasite of pūriri trees. Because it flies at dusk and into the night, commonly regarded as the realm of spirits, the pepetuna was known as a spiritual messenger, or a ghost of an ancestor returning to visit his or her descendants. This giant moth has huge, bright green wings that may span 15 centimetres.

Meaning of pepetuna

Pepetuna means ‘eel moth’: the caterpillars were used as bait for eels. The term could also be a reference to the fact that they are eaten by migrating eels that head for the sea on rainy nights, between September and January. This is the time when the moths lay their eggs as they fly through the forest. They then die, falling to the forest floor.

Damaging trees

After the eggs hatch, the anuhe or larvae, known as mokoroa, gnaw into the trunks of trees such as the pūriri and tītoki. They live on the sap of the tree, eventually causing its death and decay – hence the saying ‘he iti mokoroa e hinga pūriri’ (the little mokoroa grub fells a pūriri tree). This reminds people that small things can have a big impact.

How to cite this page:

Bradford Haami, 'Te aitanga pepeke – the insect world - Moths', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 24 Sep 2007