Insect breeding at Queens Park helps keep tuatara and birds happily fed

Most people would shudder to stick their hand into a box full of locusts, but Invercargill City Council Living Species Officer Jessey Beattie-Mackey doesn’t even flinch.

She’s spreading freshly picked grass amongst a load of locusts that are launching themselves every which way around the glass box in a frenzy of wings and legs.  These locusts are being bred in Queens Park in order to feed the birds in the aviary and Invercargill’s beloved tuatara.

To mark Insect Week, which runs from 20 June to 26 June, we are taking a look (from a safe distance) at our little-known bug breeding habitat.

Tucked away behind the aviary is a small breeding room that hosts enough locusts, mealworm and black beetles to feed all the birds and tuatara, but is also the stuff of nightmares for anyone with a slight insect phobia, especially when one of those overzealous locusts manages to escape at their feeding time.

It made sense for the Parks team to breed their own bugs for the animals to eat, rather than to source them from others across the motu, Beattie-Mackey said.

For sustenance, the locusts will eat blades of fresh grass as well as apple, carrot, and bran, but otherwise, the Living Species Officers pretty much leave them to it.

All they needed, said Beattie-Mackey, was food and warmth.

The lights are on in the habitat 24 hours a day because otherwise, they go dormant. Not ideal for the feeding of the animals, but it made for the best time to clean out their living areas, she said.

In the two enclosures, there are egg trays and sticks for the locusts to crawl over, and an ice cream container in each, filled with dirt, for the locusts to lay their eggs in.

Beattie-Mackey said the outer casing of the eggs was tube-shaped and pink, with a similar texture to bubble wrap, but smaller, and the egg itself looked like a piece of rice. Looking closely, you can see flashes of pink dotted throughout the soil.

Tuatara eat about 120 grams of food each year, and each locust is about 1.5g so at the most, they only need two locusts 1-2 times a week, and nothing over winter as they brumate at that time.

In the same room, there are also two big black bins filled with wood shavings and a few thousand mealworms and beetles that are also being bred to feed the birds in the aviary.

The two manage to live in harmony together, going about their day, crawling through the sawdust and laying eggs, keeping the life cycle going.

When their time comes they will be fed to the birds in the aviary, alongside bird feed and a fruit mix.

Beattie-Mackey says the bug breeding is a very small part of her job, but an integral one. It means that the tuatara and birds are being fed food with the same nutritional value that they would get in their natural habitats.

“It’s really important to us that we replicate as similar habitat as possible for these animals while they are in our care, that includes the food they eat,” she said.

See a close up of the locusts here: Bug Week – YouTube