Always enthusiastic, entomologist Ruud Kleinpaste (aka the “Bug Man”) has used television screens around the world to share his continuing delight and amazement at the richness and complexities of the insect world. His passion for these creepy crawlies seems to be in inverse proportion to many people’s horror of them.
Rudolf Hendrik Kleinpaste was born in Jakarta to Dutch parents, in 1952. Following independence in Indonesia, they returned to Holland where he studied botany and forest ecology at Wageningen University — choosing forestry rather than entomology because he regarded the latter as his hobby. He graduating with First Class Honours, but took 10 years to get the five year degree because, as he told North and South, “I was a lazy bastard, hated studying and took time off”.
After meeting a New Zealand-born Dutch woman who was keen to return home, he took his father’s advice to see the world and arrived in Auckland in 1978: “without a job and with 10,000 pinned moths I’d collected since childhood, my guitar and some good Dutch coffee”.
After a stint in his new wife’s hometown of Whakatane where he worked in a sawmill, the couple moved to Wellington. There he found a work scheme job with the government's Nature Conservation Council, preparing seminars on New Zealand’s rare and endangered species. So began a longtime fascination with his adoptive country’s flora and fauna.
His next job was with the Forest Service in Auckland, studying kiwi in the Waitangi State Forest. After 18 months, he was offered a position as an entomologist with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. He stayed with MAF for the next 14 years working in areas including biosecurity (eg developing better ways of disinfecting aircraft) and pest identification and control.
It was also the beginning of his media career. Unlike some of his colleagues, he was happy to take calls from reporters — and he gave good copy. Radio station 1ZB recognised his potential and offered him a programme: ‘Ruud's Awakening’, a weekend talkback show where he fielded listeners’ queries, offered his own brand of environmentally friendly horticultural tips and did his best to discourage them from killing the bugs in their homes and gardens.
From 1988 he also began writing regular newspaper and magazine columns and articles. His work has appeared in publications including the Auckland Star, NZ Listener, Your Home & Garden and Growing Today.
With his growing media profile in print and on radio — and given the highly visual nature of his work — television wasn’t far away. But his initial foray onto the small screen had little to do with creepy crawlies. Instead, he fronted 1990's The Enduring Land, a four part Gibson Group documentary series about the history of farming in New Zealand. Kleinpaste was happy with the subject matter, telling North and South, “I like explaining things. It’s a matter of knowing how to put it across and believing in and liking the topic”.
The bug-based work soon followed. In 1991 and 1992 he could be seen with his bugs on TV3’s children’s series The Early Bird Show, alongside Russell Rooster and Suzy Cato (with a similar stint on What Now? in 1994).
In 1992, he found a more adult audience when he began a long-running association with TVNZ lifestyle and gardening series Maggie’s Garden Show. He continued as one of the presenters until it finished in 2003; he also had a role on TVNZ’s replacement gardening show Ground Rules in 2005.
Kleinpaste’s first programme in his own right followed in 2001 with The Bughouse, a Bryan Bruce-directed documentary about insect life in domestic homes. An international programme and audience came next. The two-part World’s Biggest Baddest Bugs, made by Natural History New Zealand for US cable channel Animal Planet, was billed as “an entomological odyssey around the globe in search of the ultimate biggest and 'baddest' creepy crawlies”.
It was followed 2005 by the 13-part Buggin' With Ruud — again for Animal Planet — which had Kleinpaste being touted by some as the insect equivalent of crocodile man Steve Irwin. It saw him experiencing 8.5 g-forces in a jet (fleas pull 125g), jumping from nine metres (trying unsuccessfully to emulate a dung beetle) and wearing 60,000 killer bees (to prove they wouldn’t kill him). Kleinpaste found himself on CBS News and on the talk show circuit, appearing with Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres. The series drew two Emmy nominations and screened in more than 60 countries.
In 2009 Kleinpaste took a respite from the insect world, and examined his heritage — and that of fellow migrants from Holland — as presenter of the Dutch episode in documentary series Here To Stay.
In the 2018 round of New Year Honours, he was made an Honorary Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Kleinpaste is likely the first Kiwi transplant to be awarded for 'services to entomology, conservation and entertainment'.
Profile written by Michael Higgins
Sarah Barnett, ‘Ruud Kleinpaste’ (Interview) - The Listener, 25 March 2006
Liz Light, ‘Love Bugs’ (Interview) - North and South, November 2007, page 88
Tony Reid, ‘Bugged’(Interview) - NZ Listener, 18 February 1989, page 26
‘Ruud Kleinpaste - The Bugman’. TVNZ website. Accessed 9 January 2018
'Ruud Kleinpaste' - North and South, 1 November 1990, page 26