Whip Scorpions and Jungle Nymphs: Behind the Scenes at the Insect Zoo
And now, an end-of-the-week pause to celebrate insects and the people who love them. I was lucky enough to get a tour this week of the Smithsonian's Insect Zoo and Butterfly Exhibit, after which I lingered, gawking at butterfly pupa and tarantulas and many-legged things, most certainly overstaying my welcome. After all, the nice people showing me around had things to do and grants to write.
But who wouldn't linger? It was too fun getting a behind-the-scenes look at the guts of the place, the many tiny marching legs and rustling wings and the staff and volunteers that tend to it all.
In the visitor's sections, people peer through glass, watching spiders, scorpions and giant millipedes crawl and feed and hunt. Behind those exhibits is a narrow, cavernous room, where staffer Rosa Pineda climbs up ladders and leans into cases, pulling out bugs like the Malaysian jungle nymphs and walking leafs. She checks for pests, adjusts temperature and cuts up lettuce and apples and yams. The eastern lubber grasshopper gets lettuce and apples and lima beans. The desert beetles eat cat food and yams. Milkweed bugs eat sunflower seeds.
Down the hall, in the butterfly pavilion, Dan Babbitt, the exhibit's manager, described what he loves about anthropods. What has kept him tethered to bugs, since his freshman year in college, when he took a boat onto a Michigan pond with his freshman biology class, dipped a net into the water and pulled up a mass of insects: large beetles, giant waterbugs, dragonflies.
"First of all," he said, "I'm biased because they're awesome." As he spoke, a blue morpho butterfly landed on his shoulder. It is an exquisite creature, found mostly in Central and South america, with iridescent blue wings. The blue, he explains, is not a pigment, it's the way the light gets reflected of the structure of the butterfly's exoskeleton that creates the shimmering color. Once, he said, he saw one trying to mate with the thick blue laces of a kid's sneakers.
Insects are vital for our natural world, he continued. They pollinate food crops, they feed animals and they act as decomposers, breaking down nutrient-rich material, which gets fed back into the carbon cycle.
At the museum, he uses bugs to teach people about evolution. On of his favorites is a whip scorpion from Tanzania, which he shows me, clinging to a slab of wood. It's an arachnid, a spider, but it's different than its spider brethren. Spiders are usually loners; due to their tendency to eat one another. But this one is a social animal. It lives in dark, humid caves. And over the millenia, he explains, its legs have evolved to act like antenna, two of which it uses for sensing rather than walking.
"There's something that seems so foreign to us mammal-centric people," he says of insects. "They can be very alienesque. But you can find insects in your backyard - they're so accessible.
Citizen scientists make up the 80 volunteers who feed and care for the insects, and I learned that the best collecting vessels are baby food jars and spice containers, both a perfect size for the tiny silver fish that volunteer Anna Wilder found in her bathtub.
And one final thing: Dan Babbitt and the staff at Smithsonian's Insect Zoo and Butterfly Pavilion are champions of spiders, insects and other anthropods. But that doesn't mean they're opposed to eating them. It takes a lot less energy to grind up milkweed bugs than it does to rear a chicken or a cow, Babbitt said. And it's low-fat, nutrient-rich food. Plus, honeypot ants store sugar in their abdomen, and it makes them taste like honey.
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Rebecca Jacobson, Patti Parson and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.