‘Bug lady’ launching new book and education initiative

CREEPY CRAWLIES: ‘Bug lady’ Robinne Weiss has no qualms about handling large insects like this spiny stick insect. PHOTO: GEOFF SLOAN

Naturalist Robinne Weiss, known as ‘the bug lady’, is about to launch a new education programme and has a children’s novel being released tomorrow. She spoke to Tom Doudney about her lifelong fascination with insects, why her home near Southbridge is called Crazy Corner Farm and more

Tell me about what you were doing with ‘The Bugmobile’?

The Bugmobile has been closed for about two years but that was something I ran for about 10 years. I took live insects into schools and pre-schools throughout Canterbury and told them about the insects and a variety of issues relating to insects.

What sort of insects did you take into schools?

I focused on the insects they might see themselves in their backyards, in the bush on Banks Peninsula or anywhere here in the South Island. So often kids watch the Discovery Channel or whatever and they see all these amazing things from other places in the world and they don’t really know about the amazing things here in their own backyards.

How did you find kids tended to react to the insects?

They loved them, it was great. Part of my mission with the Bugmobile was to give kids positive experiences with insects so one of the things that the programme led up to was kids handling live insects. In 10 years I only had maybe 10 kids who by the end of the programme still refused to hold an insect.

You came originally from Pennsylvania in the United States. How does the insect life there compare to here? Is one place richer than the other?

Yes, I’m afraid Pennsylvania has a lot more bugs than New Zealand does. There are interesting things about each but it’s hard because I taught about insects in the US for many years and there are certainly things I could do with kids there that I can’t do here simply because we just don’t have the volume of insects. In Pennsylvania it was always guaranteed you would see something spectacular if you went out looking for bugs. But there is cool stuff here too – we have lovely stick insects and beautiful praying mantis.

When was it and how was it that insects became really interesting to you?

I think when I was born. I’m one of those kids who just never grew out of it. I think the first time I was called ‘the bug lady’ was probably at seven-years-old and the neighbours used to ring me every time they had centipedes in their bathtub to come and retrieve them.

What is it you find so fascinating about insect life?

I think it’s because we know so little about them. Any amateur with patience and good observation skills and record keeping can discover things that nobody else has discovered before. Globally we only know a fraction of what’s out there.

What brought you over to New Zealand?

My husband got a job at Landcare Research in Lincoln. He is no longer at that job but we are still here.

As a naturalist at Camp Tamarack in Canada you got to care for and teach with an 2.4m long Burmese python named Ka. What was that like?

It takes some getting used to, they are very strong and muscular animals and I am a very small person. When you hold a snake you need to support their bodies or they feel unsafe. Because my body is small she would be wrapped two or three times around my torso as I was teaching and it always made the kids really nervous.

Your place is called Crazy Corner Farm. Why is that?

It’s a little acre and a half that used to be a council gravel reserve back in the late 1800s and it is in the middle of 500ha farms all around us. The neighbours actually call it Funny Farm because there has been this succession of strange people who have lived here. So we work really hard to live up to the weirdness of the property and I think we do okay but there have been some really strange people here over the last 150 years.

In what way were these previous residents strange?

The one that everyone in the neighbourhood knows about is these two brothers who used to live here maybe 60 or 80 years ago and they both brewed moonshine. They each tried to keep the other from drinking their moonshine so they hid it all over the property, under buildings, in the animal sheds, in every little nook and cranny. We are still finding bottles of their moonshine, although the lids have been rusted off them all.

When you find one, I guess you just have to tip it out?

Yeah, but we have a few of the bottles lined up as a display in the shed.

After you finished up with the Bugmobile you started writing and the first novel you wrote was A Glint of Exoskeleton then you published an activity guide, Insects in the Classroom, in January this year and now your second novel The Dragon Slayer’s Son is due for release tomorrow. What’s that about?

It’s a fantasy novel about a boy who discovers in one fell swoop that his father is dead and he was killed by a dragon because he was a dragon slayer. So he is whisked off and has many adventures and finds out his father might not actually be dead, so he and some of his friends go searching throughout the South Island to find out what has happened to his father. The dragons are of course fictional but based on New Zealand fauna. I thought ‘what would dragons be like if they were in New Zealand? Well, many of them would be flightless just like our birds and many of our insects, so what features would they have to live in the various habitats here?’ So I really thought about the ecology of the creatures that really do exist here in New Zealand and made sure my dragons fit with that ecology.

Tell me more about this new education initiative, Bugs and Books, which you’re starting up where you combine science and literature to engage children.

I was finished with the Bugmobile but really wanted to get back into the classroom a little bit again and for me, I really love that intersection between science and art. I think using facts to inspire creativity is cool. It adds a dimension to our study of the natural world and to art, so I thought ‘I can put these two together in a programme’.

It engages the kids who are keen on bugs and science because we are looking at live insects and talking about the facts behind them but for insects the facts are often a lot stranger than fiction. Then we take these facts and say ‘create a character based on insects and make sure your character has factual characteristics but also give them some personality’. We talk about character building and then the kids get a chance to write a story based on their character. So it also engages the kids who are artistic and love to write.

• For more information on Robinne Weiss’ books and new education initiative, visit her website robinneweiss.wordpress.com