I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life recently and it relates to another potentially win-win conservation situation: insect ecotourism. While at the International Congress of Conservation Biology Conference in Auckland, New Zealand in December last year, I played hooky for a day and went to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves!
The Waitomo Caves are about 2 hours south of Auckland and FULL of glowworms! Ok, so they are not actually worms but they sure do glow! The “Glowworms” are larvae of the fly Arachnocampa Luminosa. The adult fly lays an egg on the ceiling of the cave that hatches to become the glowworm. The glowworm sends down a strand of mucus that acts as a sort of fishing line to catch prey (other cave insects). How do they attract prey in a dark cave? Produce a light! They produce a light via a bioluminescent reaction. As we all know, insects fly towards the light and bam! they are captured in the sticky mucus strand. Check out this movie to see the amazing process, really watch this clip!
The Waitomo caves and glowworms were discovered by Maori Chief Tane in 1887 and he and his wife opened them to tourism by 1889! Can you imagine? The government took control of the caves in 1906 only to give them to the local Maori descendants nearly 100 years later in 1989. Check out the Waitomo caves page for more history.
I, with my partner, went on a Black Water Rafting tour under the glowworms. It was incredible. Imagine floating silently, slowly in an intertube under thousands of blue lights, just like a clear sky packed with stars! After our rafting tour we went on a cave tour to see the stalagmites and stalactites (or the mineral cave formations, as shown in the picture below). We also got to see the glowworms close up in the light- check out those mucus strands!
With the cost of tickets in the $200-$300 dollar range for the rafting tours and the cave tours around $40-$50, this is a lucrative business. It literally pays to conserve the flies, caves and the habitat surrounding them to encourage tourists. There are other examples of insect tourism- can you think of some? Another example to come from right in my backyard of Santa Cruz, California!