Weta study first step in career plan

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 14:00 19/12/2012
15MANethan-johanson02.jpg
DAVID UNWIN/FAIRFAX NZ
INQUIRING MIND: Ethan Johanson, 11, is undertaking research on weta eating habits with Plant and Food scientists.

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Spiders and cockroaches don't faze Ethan Johanson - they fascinate him.

At 11 years old, the unsqueamish Palmerston North schoolboy has already begun research with one of New Zealand's leading science institutes - which requires plenty of close encounters of the creepy crawly kind.

The Russell Street School pupil dreams of a career in the world of bugs and his home is host to a rich variety of critters - the biggest, the family dog, an ageing labrador that is fortunately indifferent to the 22 smaller "pets" that share his home.

A small room off the Johanson family lounge hosts Ethan's carefully compiled collection of native New Zealand weta.

Fish tanks and hole-pocked icecream containers contain two long-legged cave weta, plucked from the Esplanade, 19 Wellington tree weta all sourced from no farther than the Johanson family backyard, and an Auckland weta, scooped up far from its namesake.

The schoolboy has teamed up with mentor Brent Page, from Crown research institute Plant and Food, for a study into weta eating habits.

The study was conceived by Ethan at the beginning of this year. He approached the topic wanting to know what the "point" of a weta's existence is.

He collected a variety of sizes of weta and began cultivating fuchsia seedlings in petri dishes on the window sill of their den, to find what difference the insect's mass makes to how the seeds are distributed.

Ethan's research into weta eco-systems was unique at the time, but the aspiring young scientist learned an important lesson in discovery when he was pipped at the post by another researcher who published findings on the topic this year.

Ethan once took his snail collection to a cricket game, mum Joanne recalls - his fascination with insects has been a part of the family accustomed to multi-legged escapees scuttling through the house for as long as they can remember.

When he was 4 he listened wide-eyed to an hour-long lecture on garden variety insects by "bugman" Rudd Kleinpaste and he proudly shows off his dog-eared signed copy of Kleinpaste's book.

Asked what his favourite insect is he thinks long and hard.

"I have always been passionate about bugs for as long as I can remember," he says. "At the moment it's weta, but that will change."

And the fascination is mutual - despite the weta's nightmarish appearance, Ethan's little critters have only once taken an interest in their handler's taste.

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"I got just this one bite. I lifted the lid and one just jumped out and bit me."

While his passion appears unusual for a boy of his age, Page says most entymologists, himself included, had a childhood fascination with bugs that just didn't go away.

Ethan has categorised his collection into a shelf full of critter corpses; dead bees in a jar, a seahorse in a plastic container, bugs encased in a resin as part of a home-made experiment, stick insects and beetles from abroad.

But there is nothing morbid about his fascination.

"I think the most bugs I ever got in one go was eight bees," he says happily of his backyard expeditions.

Asked if he would ever kill a creepy crawly, Ethan's eyes pop and he shakes his head vehemently - "not even a cockroach!"

He remembers both of his only - accidental - kills. He stepped on two bees while playing sport, which clearly made an impression.

"We don't kill bugs in this house," mum Joanne laughs. "But we've had all sorts of different animal funerals."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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