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Beetle Mania

Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences was crawling with bugs, and The Scientist went down to join in the fun.

By | August 25, 2011

A volunteer shows off a millipedeEDYTA ZIELINSKA

Earlier this month (August 13-14) thousands of children and bug-loving adults descended on the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where all manner of insect—dead, alive, and deep fried—were on display to be looked at, touched and, yes…eaten.

It was the museum's fourth year hosting the event, and with more than 3,600 visitors, it smashed their previous bug fest attendance record. While previous years focused on other insects (last year it was bees), the beetle took this year's spotlight, with a Beatles cover band and aquatic beetles that swam like miniature sea turtles among the many attractions.

Beetles, however, weren't the only bug on display at "Beetle Mania." Nor were they the only ones on the menu. One popular presentation was from Zack Lemann, who cooked up tasty bug treats for gastronomically-adventurous visitors. He served breaded-and-fried dragonfly (crunchy) on a mushroom slice, and chocolate-chirp cookies containing baked crickets among the chocolate chips. A program manager at the non-profit Audubon Nature Institute, which oversees many of the zoos and museums in New Orleans, Lemann has been cooking bugs since 1997, bringing entomophagy—the practice of eating insects—to diners around the world. Though he's neither an entomologist nor a chef, Lemann's cooking presentations draw crowds, which he entertains with rapid-fire facts about insects.

chocolate chirp cookies
chocolate chirp cookies
STEFAN ZAJIC

Other attractions at the Academy's insect festival included numerous cases containing the largest, smallest, and prettiest preserved beetles from the Museum's 180-year old collection. There were also stations for touching live bugs, one of which was located behind a backdrop of Dan Otte's grasshopper paintings and illustrations. (Read more about Dan Otte's grasshopper adventures.) Also in attendance was Steve "The Beeman" Conlon, who placed a box holding a queen bee at his chin, attracting drone bees to fly to the box by dint of her regal pheromones and giving Steve a bee-beard.

At a series of tables near the entrance, several of the museum's entomologists were giving demonstrations of the work they do on a daily basis. Jason Weintraub, an assistant curator of entomology smoothed out the wings of butterflies intended for preservation by clipping them under a band of paper on a block. Associate curator Jon Gelhaus sat next to the lepidopterist and sorted through a pan of alcohol containing a random assortment of tiny insects collected from the nearby New Jersey Pine Barrens. These insects were caught using a malaise trap, Gelhaus explained, which ensnares insects who encounter vertical netting, fly upwards to escape, and enter a cone that delivers them into a bottle of alcohol (beetles, however, drop down). It was just one of many traps Gelhaus and other entomologists use to collect insects based on their behavior. Others included the carrion trap—a cup placed under a platform of rotting meat—for insects that feast on decomposing tissue, a light-trap for night insects, and the yellow pan trap, containing soapy water, for bees, wasps and other insect that are attracted to yellow.

The event was designed as a way of showing off the Academy's entomology department, and the science that they do, as well as giving visitors a taste of what it's like to study insects for a living. A number of stations helped aspiring young entomologists try their hand at the work. Kids could make aspirator traps—or "pooters"—that allowed them to suck insects into plastic bottles. Many took these two-nozzled containers with them as they toured a nearby fountain and park, searching for native insect fauna with an entomologist.

Preserved insects on display
Preserved insects on display
EDYTA ZIELINSKA

Insect-lovers could also practice their preservation techniques by pinning a beetle into a tiny paper box that they could take home. Dried beetles, the volunteer docents explained, needed to be boiled first to get the moisture back into their bodies before they could be pulled, stretched and pinned to their final display position.

For those who come to Beetle Mania more for the thrill, there were the hotly-contested cockroach races, that included one beetle this year, "which isn't really fair," according to Gelhaus. Beetles are generally much slower than cockroaches, he explains. Karen Verderame, the Academy's coordinator of children's programs, worked kids and cockroaches alike into a frenzy before releasing the insects into the center of a bulls-eye platform and watching which one would get to the outer circle first.

The bug fest is just one of four festivals that the Academy puts on every year to highlight its scientists, says Jacquie Genovesi, the Academy's Director of Education. The other three are focused on shells, dinosaurs and Earth Day. With so many attractions, it might seem that the insect festival would be the most popular, but in fact, the most blockbuster festival is the Paleopalooza in February. "It's hard to compete with dinosaurs," says Genovesi.

See the full slideshow.[gallery]

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences