Auckland Zoo is home to a fascinating collection of ectotherms, from one of the world’s rarest and most endangered amphibians – our tiny endemic 40mm Archey’s frog – to water dragons, turtles, geckos, and even Avondale spiders.

Our ectotherms – animals which maintain their body temperature within narrow limits by behavioural means (ie. basking in the sun or seeking shade) – have a varied diet and an important part of that diet is insects. Every ectotherm has its own requirement, meaning we need to have on hand a large variety of insects and maintained in all developmental stages. Each development stage is a different size giving us the ability to feed everything from juvenile ectotherms, some of which are lighter than an adult cricket, right up to adult lace monitors at 7kg (though they’re more of a snack!), which is a hugely complex job in itself.

For at least the last decade, our ectotherm team has always bred insects on a small scale, so we aren’t fully reliant on an external supplier whose supply we cannot control. With the ongoing zoo development, an opportunity came up to create an entirely sustainable space purpose-made for insect breeding. There are many reasons it makes sense to be in control of our own insect supply. Cost is a huge one, live insects are expensive to buy, and the cost of the building could easily be made back over a couple of years. The complexity of ordering – having each insect lined up in order of developmental phase (also known as its instar) means the team can just go in and pick what they need, for example they can provide newly hatched crickets ready to fed to our smallest of ectotherms. Accountability – the team can account for exactly what the insects are being fed and be confident that they are not contaminated. Finally, reliability of supply. Not many places breed live insects in New Zealand for feeding to animals, so if one of those places has a disease outbreak, or disaster strikes, we have nothing to worry about if we are in control of our own supply.

Ectotherm Keeper Ben Goodwin says although we always bred our own insects on a small scale in case of disaster, we are now in a much safer place, as well as now being in a position to grow this initiative to hopefully one day be able to supply insects for the entire zoo, not just for the ectotherms.

“It’s good to not have to worry ‘what if’. A lot of our species will only feed on live insects – so that would really not be a great situation to find ourselves in,” Ben said.

So, next steps – design a building. And as Senior Project Manager Roger Drew will tell you, easier said than done. First steps involve understanding the scope of the project and getting that signed off by everyone with a stake in the matter.

“In essence, a lot of it is old science. What Don McFarlane (Ectotherms Team Leader) did is inundate me with information from Italy, Sweden and all over the place – I became a bit of an insect buff, and I went on a crash course around learning what was in both Ben and Don’s head,” said Roger.

Every insect has different requirements and different breeding processes. Some need more warmth than others, some need more light, and some need more involved husbandry. So how in one room can we provide all of those things? And that was just Roger’s first predicament. He had to find a suitable location; decide on temporary versus fixed buildings; design a building that could maintain 30 degrees of heat 24/7; design with the ability to have interchangeable air in the building to stop viruses, but simultaneously not lose heat; plan how to service these buildings; uncover how much electricity the building would draw and confirm it’s within allowable limits – and of course, each big decision brought about a hundred and one other smaller dilemmas – good thing Roger loves having a challenging task on his hands!

With insect rearing, it doesn’t matter if it’s a conservation project like wētāpunga, or something like this, it’s about being consistent. Otherwise you get them all at one stage and nothing coming along to replace them. Which is awesome. I just love the husbandry, I just think it’s so interesting.

Ben Goodwin, ectotherm keeper

The first decision made was to use portacoms, as using temporary structures gives us the ability to grow and change depending on the needs of the zoo at the time. Roger worked with Ben and Don to come up with the best design and layout and settled with a solution that had two portacoms meeting directly in the middle forming somewhat of an airlock, giving it a bit of a ‘space station’ feel. Portacoms are quite light, which means they can be easily transported, but also proposes an issue in high winds, especially with Auckland’s unpredictable weather, and as Roger said ‘how do you anchor something to what is basically just a lava rock flow running through the site?’ They devised a solution by building a structure in which the portacoms would sit, basically like railway sleepers, which had to be measured and built to the precise millimetre, so when the moment came to lift these portacoms over the zoo walls by crane they would slot right in and be tied down with pre-set anchor points – there was not an opportunity to get this one wrong!

Under Roger’s expert supervision, it all took off without a hitch, but that was just phase one. Phase two involved the intricacies of how this room would function, considering everything from insect proof drains to stop insects getting out and others getting in, to designing a locust breeding enclosure – and this is where Roger’s true talents lie. An experienced designer with more design talent than anyone I had ever met, Roger was more than up for the job – he was also passionate, excited and rearing to go. For a man that started out in the commercial art world, his career has chopped and changed down a completely different path since then – from the armed forces, a signwriting apprenticeship, to a commercial artist. Roger has also been an international design and property manager for many blue chip retailers such as supermarkets, Georgie Pie restaurants, bookstores and a range of retail ‘turnkey operations’, from designing kids’ playgrounds, Santa grottos, movie props, and even Elle McPherson lingerie shops. He ran his own design company for many a year, and during that time decided to formally put a qualification behind himself, rather than, as he calls it, just the ‘the University of Hard Knocks’. During his study, he even designed and patented a product called ‘Hold it’, which gives disabled people with gripping difficulties their own personalised grip, using the same concept of moulding handles using heat, which better enables someone to grip on to something like cutlery.

When a job opportunity first came up at Auckland Zoo, Roger had actually retired already, packed up and moved rurally with his wife to ‘go and play golf, and coach rugby referees’ – some other passions! It became quickly apparent to Roger that working at Auckland Zoo was more than a job, and he had the opportunity to ‘learn a lot about things he didn’t know’ (which for a man with the experience of Roger is hard to believe). He fell in love with the conservation science process, and also the ethos – all things he was more than happy to go back to work for.

“Retirement is going to be a little way off yet,” Roger said, with a grin on his face.

The intricacies of designing the fixings such as locust breeding enclosures was an intensive collaboration between Roger, Don and Ben. Don and Ben were essentially able to feed back on years of frustrations from their original enclosures, and Roger has the experience and skill to make these fantasies a reality.

“We spent a lot of time together designing the intricacies of these enclosures – the size, how they work, how you heat them, how you can maintain a constant temperature, the lighting and look to provide UVb light to enable insects to synthesize vitamin D- which is then passed onto the ectotherm consuming it. It’s ground-breaking work, and very, very scientific,” Roger said.

We spent a lot of time together designing the intricacies of these enclosures – the size, how they work, how you heat them, how you can maintain a constant temperature, the lighting and look to provide UVb light to enable insects to synthesize vitamin D- which is then passed onto the ectotherm consuming it. It’s ground-breaking work, and very, very scientific

Roger Drew, Senior Project Manager

So much had to be taken into account – devising a shelving system to keep the bins off the walls to allow circulation; changing the design to give the team an easier task at cleaning them; developing a sliding function with a narrow aperture to open and close each enclosure, rather than the previous swinging system which would allow insects to quite easily escape; and devising a system to easily slide in and out the pottles out that the locusts lay their eggs into. With plenty of input from Ben and Don, Roger’s design was eventually perfected and a manufacturer was sourced, and lives have already been made easier with these impressive new breeding enclosures! Roger even designed a makeshift incubator out of an old fridge by removing the electronics and adding a heat tube so that the eggs could be incubated at 30 degrees Celsius – a trick learnt whilst designing Georgie Pie heated pie units!

Servicing the building and connecting it to a power supply was another feat in itself. Roger already had the services installed pre-portacom installation, but the main issue was with the switchboard it was intended to be plugged into, as it was determined it was already drawing a lot of power, and questions were raised around whether it could handle this new insect breeding portacom without blowing fuses in other parts of the zoo. Roger began a process to determine the exact power draw of what this insect breeding portacom would conduct – first by talking to the electrician to understand the power draw estimates on everything he had designed – from lights within locust bins, to incubators, heating and air conditioning – and came to the realisation that the predicted power output was barely within the allowable limits. He decided to adapt and change a few things to reduce power draw, but also decided to run a series of his own experiments measuring power draws for each individual item – and what Roger discovered is that we had been allowing for a lot more than we would actually be using. He took a confident, well-educated stab in the dark, flicked the ‘on’ switch, and it paid off – the team has already been up and running with insect production for over a month now.

I caught up with Ben one busy morning, and saw the ectotherm team in action servicing the completed insect breeding portacom. There was structure, routine and efficiency to this incredible process, as everyone went guns blazing into the cleaning and husbandry process. There were shelves holding locust enclosures as the designs had indicated – lined up, organised, and ordered by their developmental stages. The locusts were in their breeding enclosures and low and behold, they were breeding. The majority of them were actively mating, and some even sitting in the egg fields using their abdomens to push their eggs into the vermiculite (a laying substrate). Migratory locusts are a species found widely all over the world, and although native to New Zealand, they are quite restricted to hot coastal situations. For nearly any animal to breed they have to be satisfied with their environment, matching as close to a natural environment as possible, meaning this enclosure design can be considered a huge success!

The portacom is abuzz with activity, and Ben explains the purpose of other insects in the room. They are also breeding black field crickets – which are the main widespread crickets native to New Zealand. Crickets are barely 2mm when they hatch, so alongside other smaller insects we are breeding such as fruit flies, they are a great option to feed to really small animals. Also lined up in pottles are wax moths, a wide-spread introduced species to New Zealand. Moths are mainly fed out to animals rather than their larvae which can be quite fatty, but are also a great option for animals that are sick as they’re high and fat and very palatable to them, so can be used to hide medicine in. Meal worms are another insect the team is breeding that are high in fat, so good as a treat, but as they turn into beetles they serve another purpose – to feed to animals that we need to get moving more that can be a bit lazy at times, they actually encourage our ectotherms to chase and hunt their food. Ben also showed me a container of soil that held slaters – a crustacean not insect, high in calcium, and low maintenance, living off rotten wood and a few cat biscuits for protein.

“It’s just a step by step process, constantly producing animals, and constantly setting up new colonies. With insect rearing, it doesn’t matter if it’s a conservation project like wētāpunga, or something like this, it’s about being consistent. Otherwise you get them all at one stage and nothing coming along to replace them. Which is awesome. I just love the husbandry, I just think it’s so interesting,” Ben said.

Setting up new locust colonies is pretty straightforward, once they’ve been laid into their pottles, they’re soon shifted into Roger’s makeshift incubator, and they hatch out in about a week. They get set up in a breeding enclosure assigned to their specific developmental stage (or instar). In an ideal setup, you need two colonies for each instar stage all the way through to maturity – one to feed out to the animals, and one to bring through to the next stage. Maintaining the insect breeding portacom is relatively negligible in terms of food costs to maintain the colonies. They buy cat food, carrots, wheat germ, and honey, also using grass that the volunteers collect.

From start of the project to completion – one year in total – every challenge that could be contemplated arose, but due to the collaboration of our extremely talented zoo whānau, we are now in a position where we have begun to grow our ground-breaking insect breeding operation, and Ben is even dreaming big, with wish-lists for new insects, and with very real hopes to one-day supply insects to the entire zoo.