New Zealand and Australia are the only places in the world where real glowworms live. Illuminate yourself with these glowworm facts and discover some of the best places in New Zealand to see them shine.
Despite their name, they’re not actually worms but larvae of carnivorous fungus gnats (arachnocampa luminosa) that munch on other smaller insects – ewww! Northern hemisphere glow worms are actually flying beetles with their tail-lights switched on.
Glowworms’ blue-green bioluminescence radiates from a kidney-like organ near their bums. It’s a reaction between the luciferase enzyme and a small molecule named luciferin, assisted by oxygen stored in a handy air bag that also concentrates the light into a captivating glow.
Glowworms are known in te reo Māori as titiwai, which means ‘lights reflected in water’.
More than just pretty to look at, the glow attracts prey – such as midges, mayflies, moths and tiny spiders – that are then entangled in sticky, silky threads that dangle from their homes. The larvae then hoist the threads by eating them before moving onto the main course and eating their prey alive – brutal! If they don’t like the look of their dinner, they simply cut it free.
Adult glowworms – fungus gnats – are carnivorous but not generally cannibalistic. In a clever evolutionary quirk, they are not attracted by the light, and if they’re accidentally trapped they’re normally strong enough to pull themselves free. Despite their cunning as juveniles, adults are poor flyers and don’t eat either.
Glowworms get it on in the warmer months making December to March the best time to see them. Their larval stage can last up to a year but their adult lives are a lot shorter – up to 76 hours for females and 96 hours for males.
Glowworms’ sensitivity to light means they’ll dim or turn off completely if you dazzle them with your torch. You can see them best in total darkness or with red light, but be sure to carry a torch to get safely to and from their habitats, which are typically super-dark, rough underfoot and spooky!
Getting a good glowworm photo is no easy task! For best results, use a tripod or rest your camera on a rock, and set your camera with a long exposure (e.g. 20+ seconds) and high ISO setting (3200+), and don’t use a flash. Here are some other great tips from pro-photographer Tom Archer. Good luck!
Top glowworm spots
Kawiti Caves (Bay of Islands, Northland)
Twenty minutes south of Paihia, this wonderful limestone cave and glowworm tour was first established in the 1950s by Te Tawai Kawiti, descendant of Māori chief Kawiti. The caves’ staggering stalactites and stalagmites make a terrific backdrop to the thousands of resident glowworms.
There are four HPNZ-member holiday parks nearby – Bay of Islands Holiday Park, Waitangi Holiday Park, Bay of Islands Campervan Park and the Paihia TOP 10, as well as another 20 or so spread throughout Northland.
Waipu Caves (Northland)
This is one of Northland’s best underground secrets. The longest of Waipu’s limestone caves is 175 metres and home to one of New Zealand’s largest stalagmites at around 2.5 metres high and almost two metres diameter! Their one-hour guided tours are the way to go here.
Arounds 30 minutes’ drive away is the delightful Ruakaka Beach Holiday Park. Set beside an estuary on 13 hectares of peninsula, this family friendly park has safe swimming and kayaking, and a surf beach within walking distance.
Hot Water Beach (Coromandel)
Head here for an irresistible, free combo of basking in naturally heated water in a self-dug beach bath (two hours either side of high tide), followed by glowworm-spotting along the Hot Water Beach walkway after dark.
Right on the spot and situated along a beautiful stretch of Coromandel coast, Hot Water Beach TOP 10 has plenty of accommodation options and even more fun stuff to keep the kids smiling, including a brand-new swimming pool.
Tikitapu Blue Lake (Rotorua)
Tikitapu (Blue Lake) got its name when the local chief’s daughter lost her iwi’s sacred tiki as she swam in its waters. While the lake continues to hide the tiki, the forest surrounding it also hides plenty of glowworms – during the day, at least. After dark, head out on the lake circuit track starting at western end of the car park to see what you can find.
A hop, skip and jump away, Blue Lake TOP 10 Holiday Park is a great base for exploring Rotorua and its mountain biking mecca – Whakarewarewa Forest – as are a bunch of other great holiday parks around town.
Waitomo Caves (King Country)
Vast galaxies of glowworm can be seen on Aotearoa New Zealand’s most famous underground adventures. Walk, boat, or even abseil in and float through the labyrinthine cave system on a variety of different trips from serene to super-adrenalised.
A short stroll away from Waitomo Caves is Waitomo TOP 10 Holiday Park, which has leafy campsites, and smart cabins and motels.
Smiths Farm Holiday Park (Marlborough)
In a peaceful location between Picton and Havelock this lush, green park is a great base for Marlborough Sounds adventures such as the Queen Charlotte Track. Smiths Farm guests can also go on pretty bush walks on the farm that boast a glowworm grotto and 20m-high waterfall.
Jacksons Retreat (Arthurs Pass)
On the West Coast side of Arthurs Pass Highway is Jacksons Retreat Alpine Holiday Park, set on high terraces above the mighty Taramakau River. Nearby are four glowworm dells awaiting exploration, with options for the wee ones and adventurous folk not so easily spooked by the dark!
Punakaiki Beach Camp (West Coast)
Its pancake rocks and blowholes may be famous enough, but Paparoa National Park has so much more to see and do including mountain biking, kayaking and soaking up sunsets. After dark, pop into the Punakaiki Cavern, where wooden stairs lead to 130 metres of safe passageways taking in glowworms and stalactites.
Spectacularly squeezed between towering limestone cliffs and the Tasman Sea is Punakaiki Beach Camp, with spacious sites and a variety of accommodation from cabins to holiday homes.
Leith Valley Holiday Park (Dunedin)
Bordering Ross Creek Reserve with its bush tracks, pretty reservoir and waterfall, it seems hard to believe that Leith Valley Holiday Park and Motels is only a 30-minute walk to Dunedin’s vibrant city centre.
At nightfall, cross the bridge and follow the creekside track for around 200 metres to see glowworms twinkling in the mossy banks and cliffs.
Te Anau Glowworm Caves (Fiordland)
Gateway to Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park, the lakeside resort of Te Anau is famous for the scenic boat cruise to Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Sculpted by water passing through the mountains above, the caves are a twisting network of limestone passages with whirlpools, a roaring waterfall and hundreds of glittering glowworms.
Read here to discover the many ways that staying in a holiday park is good for people and the planet.
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