Small Wonders: Our Buggy Friends
Frances Stafford and Becky Shelley
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
Most exhibits at a Zoo show vertebrates. Though admittedly very charismatic, these are not the most important animals. The Insectarium at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden was opened in 1978. It was the first such house in North America dedicated solely to the display of arthropods, and it won the 1979 National Exhibit Award for best new display in any Zoo or Aquarium. It has also won awards for its captive breeding programs. Beautifully displayed within is an extensive live animal collection including many exotic arthropods from around the world. They represent the myriad tiny creatures that are vital to the working of our planet. Arthropods are the insects and their relatives, creatures with segmented bodies, jointed legs, and exoskeletons. This is the theater for the guides who lead Insectarium tours.
The rewards for the docent are many. One is to spend time discovering for themselves this fascinating and beautiful world. The moments when comments change from “Ugh” to “Awesome,” from “Gross” to “Cool,” The little girl who enters in tears of apprehension because she fears bugs, and leaves gleefully smiling because she petted a walking stick. The 3rd grader who gazes nose to nose at the giant millipede coordinating more than 200 legs into a wave of locomotion, and exclaims “Beautiful, beautiful!”
Children relate to furry animals and brightly colored birds, but it is special to guide them as they come to appreciate and relate to these previously unknown creatures. The shimmering bubble of air under the diving beetle’s wing strikes a note of envy in the mind of the girl swimmer who must surface with every stroke for her breath. A student marvels at the industry of the ants, and wonders if they miss the enjoyment she gets from school and play. On learning that the walking stick flings her eggs to land widely distributed on the forest floor, a boy worries about how she will find them again. He accepts that this distribution is the best chance for survival that she can give them.
My focus will be:
1. The organization of the house and the docent tours.
2. The teaching opportunities provided by the house.
3. Life stories of the insects.
4. The insect biofact tables at the zoo during summer.
5. The classroom programs at the Zoo or at schools.
1. Organizing Tours
From the beginning in 1978 it was recognized that the Insectarium contained such a wealth of information that it could not be covered as part of a general school tour. Also, the material was completely new to most of the docents who were interested in volunteering. The then director of education gathered a group of enthusiastic tour guides and together they assembled slides explaining the exhibits. These were initially used in training and also as programs for visitors. Every few weeks guides had training sessions from the Zoo entomologists. Dissatisfied with the slide programs, the guides then began developing the touring system that is followed today. It was originally for students 3rd grade and above. Teachers would call the guides for advice on preparing the students for the visit. This interaction had a very positive effect on teaching in schools.
Today children as young as kindergarten visit the house and most of them are very well prepared. The docents offer a program to schools from September through March. Students from grades K through High School are invited, with the majority in grades 2 thru 4. We draw students from as far away as Indianapolis, Dayton, and Kentucky. Others are so close that they walk to the Zoo. Insect guides must complete the general tour guide training and have one year of experience on zoo grounds. Then they must learn the Insectarium. Additional training in animal handling is required before guides can give insect demos.
The organization of the tour is molded by the organization of the House. It is the best way we know to move a large group through the exhibit. The challenge for the docent is to allow each student a very close view of the small exhibits, and to tell the amazing life stories of these less familiar creatures. The introduction is given to the whole class with the docents present and observing. It includes a review of the definition of an insect. A question and answer section with visual aids emphasizes the roles of insects: pollination, recycling, and position on the food web. This time also allows the docents to assess the preparation and knowledge of the students, and to select a suitable vocabulary level for their tour.
The house is arranged by topics, which can be studied in any order. The class, with a maximum of 40 students, is divided into groups of 56 students, each with a chaperone. Each of the groups goes with their docent to a different starting point. An additional station is a live insect demo with the option to touch. It includes a millipede, hissing cockroach, and a walking stick. Each group spends about 10 minutes per area, covering the entire house in about 75 minutes for a total time of 90 minutes. This can be condensed as suitable for younger children. The topics mentioned in the introduction can now be expanded as we tour the house.
2. Teaching Opportunities
At “Insect or Relative?” beetles, spiders, and millipedes are displayed with the names concealed. The students are reminded that insects have 3 body parts, 6 legs and exoskeletons. They then observe, apply the criteria, and deduce the answer.
The section on “What Eats Insects” displays vertebrates such as reptiles, mammals, fish, and amphibians. Birds are represented with pictures, and spiders are included in this display. Docents can point out the long snout of the tree vole, the specialized teeth of the golden-headed tamarin, or the arrows of water squirted from the mouth of the archerfish. Other lessons on adaptations abound in this section.
Creatures that may become nutritious food need survival strategies. In “Defense and Escape” we see those that take the offense with venom delivered by sting or bite. More defensive methods include colors that warn of poisons, also camouflage and mimicry.
“Metamorphosis” diagrams a complex phenomenon. Younger children are satisfied with looking through the magnifying glasses at a variety of the eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults that illustrate the four stages in the life of butterflies. More knowledgeable students will be interested to learn of a second simpler form where the juveniles look like a small version of the adults and don’t go through a pupa stage. This lesson can be reviewed at several displays of groups of insects that include immature individuals. Diving beetle eggs hatch into six-legged, string-like larvae, which are nothing like the adult form. The stick insects and hissing cockroaches come in a range of sizes, with the newly hatched looking like miniature versions of the adults. Students can observe and deduce whether they are looking at simple or complete metamorphosis.
“Insect Lifestyles” shows solitary, gregarious, and social insects. Ants, termites, and bees have lessons to teach about working together for the benefit of the group. The leaf-cutter ants carry vegetation into their underground home to build farmer’s fields where they grow fungus. Their food is the fruit of this fungus. The fungus exists only where these ants tend it and the ants survive only on this food. What an example of interdependence and the great web of life! When a queen goes to begin a new colony, she takes a starter of the fungus with her. She is like the pioneer women who moved west carrying living yeast to make bread, or the Italian wine maker carrying grapevine cuttings to the new country to establish his vineyard. The wonderfully ugly Naked Mole Rats show that some mammals are organized like termites with one queen and many female workers raising the young in an underground city.
3.Life Stories of the Insects
Juvenile roaches are smaller versions of the adults. Like all arthropods they must molt their exoskeleton several times as they grow. Lucky students will see a soft, vulnerable, white roach emerge, leaving behind its empty casing. The white turns to dark brown in the short time it takes to harden into a protective coat.
Mating and egg laying can often be seen in the Insectarium. The slender, winged Australian Walkingstick males can fly to their mates. She must wait for him. With her chubby egg-laying abdomen and tiny vestigial wings, she cannot fly. The female giant water bug lays her eggs onto the back of her mate. He must carry them until they hatch. His very presence provides protection, and in seeking a good living environment for himself, he provides it to his brood. Students can see the tiny bugs emerge from these eggs.
The rare display of Bullet Ants is a favorite with guides and students. The ants are huge, about one inch long, and the head, thorax, and abdomen are easy to distinguish. Eggs and larvae can usually be seen. The antennae and venomous jaws typical of ants are obvious. The unusual sting in the abdomen, as painful to man as being hit by a bullet, indicates that ants developed from their relative the wasp.
A walk through the Butterfly Aviary is a walk through a rain forest, and a reminder of the importance of insects. The flowering plants need pollinating; the fish, turtles, and birds need food; debris needs recycling; and the soil needs to be worked and aerated. The beauty of the passion butterflies dancing on brightly colored wings lifts our spirits. They are more miraculous now that we know their life stages and incredible transformation.
During the summer the Insectarium is used as a station for the insect biofact cart. Visitors can pick up and handle specimens in Ryker boxes. Items shown demonstrate both kinds of metamorphosis, differences between moths and butterflies, and the life cycle of the silkworm moth.
An alternative program is given either in a Zoo classroom or taken to a school in the community. Arthropods and insects are easily maintained in aquariums in the school program office at the zoo. Docents trained in animal handling give a 25-minute program with a demo that may allow the opportunity to touch. Animals used include hissing cockroach, millipede, hermit crab, and tarantula. These programs are very popular with schools. They can also be used to help teach the proficiencies mandated by the school authorities.