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Shining a Māori light on moths

School children from across the South Island are discovering science and moths through a Māori lens.

Identifying moths

Tamariki across the South Island are seeing Aotearoa’s night creatures through Māori eyes, thanks to a new project connecting primary school children with mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge) and science through moths.

“The project is called Ahi Pepe MothNet. Ahi means fire and Pepe means moth, which literally translated means the “moth fire” says Barbara Anderson, Ecologist at Landcare Research. “This references a whakataukī (proverb) by Te Whiti o Rongomai about the light of a fire attracting moths.”

Lighting fires was a common practice to lure the adult mutton bird (tītī) returning from a day’s feeding. Te Whiti o Rongomai said “the fire was lit to attract the mutton bird and the moths flew into it”, which is used to talk about setting a trap for the enemy but luring in unknown people instead. 

Barbara and her colleagues used this as their starting point but changed it around to be “Ahi Pepe” rather than “Ahi Tītī”, because their intention is to attract the moths and, more symbolically, to spark interest in moths.

Ahi Pepe MothNet evolved from last year’s PSP-funded Shedding Light on the Night project. For this Unlocking Curious Minds project, however, Barbara and her team developed some parts from scratch, with a Māori focus.

The new project was launched at a workshop at Orokonui Ecosanctury in Ōtepoti (Dunedin) attended by schools from across the South Island. Each school sent a handful of students to learn skills that they can go back and pass on to their classmates.


The tauira learnt how to trap, identify and pin moths as well as how to set up an experiment where they would compare the types and number of moths caught in forest, a vegetation restoration project and a control site. 

“I liked making the traps and seeing what kind of moths were going in the traps. My favourite moths are the green ones,” says 11-year-old Maia.

“The best part for me was pinning the moths – that was pretty cool. But I got stabbed a lot!” jokes Moka, 10. “I think looking at moths is really cool and I think other people would probably like doing it too.”

They also had fun setting up little 'tracking' experiments where peanut butter was put at the centre of a patch of ink on white card, so that they could see the footprints of animals that had eaten the peanut butter.

Most of the footprints were from mice but one group had a 'moth murder' crime scene, where a half-eaten moth was found amongst the footprints.

moth murder scene

A core component of the project - a collaboration between Landcare Research, The University of Otago, Orokonui Ecosanctuary and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu - is a series of moth guides written in Te Reo Māori that focus on five whakataukī about moths and their life cycles.

“These are not translations,” Barbara points out. “It has been hard to get people to grasp that point. We’re doing it this way because we realised that there are extremely few science resources in Te Reo Māori in kura and those that do exist tend to be translations of English materials, which offer little context or connection to everyday life.”

Victoria Campbell (Kāi Tahu) tells us that she and her team at Kotahi Mano Kāika of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu provided quality Te Reo Māori and mātauranga for the learning resources as well as local cultural guidance for the project.

“My two sons attend Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti, which took part in the MothNet project and were supported by Kotahi Mano Kāika. This led to conversations about having Kāi Tahu input on developing the Ahi Pepe project,” she says.

“I’ve really enjoyed working with the project partners to produce these resources for our community.”


Tangiwai Rewi (Ngāti Tipā, Ngāti Amaru, Ngāti Tahinga) at Te Tumu, the University of Otago’s School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies, is from the Waikato area and she tells us the highlight for her was hearing the Kāi Tahu stories about moths.

“Megan and Tahu Potiki (Kāi Tahu) told me that the big native moths that come out around the campfire are called ‘takata wairua’. This name refers to capturing the souls of those who have departed and return in moth forms and also to the sound these moths make.”

As well as mātauranga Māori, the students also learn about the science behind why these moths are important.

Despite there being 2000 species of moths in New Zealand, 90% are found nowhere else in the world and very little is known about them. But we do know that moths are at the centre of a food web, because they both eat and are eaten, and that they are important pollinators for plants around the world.

Barbara says that the more they explored how to do the project, the more they found they could weave the science, culture and language together, which made the reason why they were doing the science all the more obvious.

“Rather than introducing science as an alien concept, we would turn it around and tell the stories of the moth first: the whakapapa of the moth, the connection of the moths to everyone, their place in the stars and their role in the ecosystem,” she explains. 

“The idea is first to connect to the children and help them see the significance of moths, with the ultimate goal being to better understand, appreciate and take care of our native moths.”

Identifying moths   pinning moths

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About the project

Ahi Pepe MothNet logo
Ahi Pepe MothNet
is supported by the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.



Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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