Sometimes money from stimulus packages and research grants simply doesn’t pay the bills. Sometimes it takes a petting zoo to make ends meet.
The Bohart Museum of Entomology in 1124 Academic Surge has expanded its collection of insects that visitors can “pet,” bringing in a steady stream of visitors, free of charge but open to donation.
“We’re basically a shoestring operation,” said museum director and professor of entomology Lynn Kimsey. “The museum donations don’t bring in much, but any little bit helps.”
Kimsey estimated that donations, including private donations, bring in approximately $20,000 every year. This, in addition to the $100,000 per year in grants and government contracts, covers most of the projects that the facility runs, including the museum’s collection of over eight million insects.
The insects are kept in boxes with glass tops, pinned with labels and stored in movable file cabinets. The cabinets practically fill the facility, along with the books and reports about the insects.
And though this may be the main attraction for researchers and collectors from around the world, the crowd often seems to be focused on a small corner of the exhibit – the petting zoo.
The exhibit contains walking sticks from around the world, millipedes, a Malaysian walking leaf and hissing cockroaches. Along the wall, there are jars of donated live spiders, ants and other backyard critters. Kimsey is, in fact, pet-sitting a praying mantis for an elementary school student who figured she would be the most responsible caretaker, being a professor and all.
Larry Axelbaum brought his grandson, Brendon, to the exhibit last week after seeing pictures of the petting zoo in the paper. Brendon, a youngster with a possible future in biology, was particularly enthusiastic about the hissing cockroaches.
“Look at this big sucker over here!” he beckoned to his grandpa.
Larry himself was equally amazed by the bin full of cockroaches, each about two inches long and vocal with their trademark hissing mating call.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I mean, I could live without the cockroaches, but all these others are just so unusual in their own way. They’re not just insects.“
Aside from helping to raise money, the department also hosts various outreach programs. They visit classrooms, libraries and hold camps for the public. The museum also holds an annual Halloween open house.
“We consider it kind of an informal science education,” Kimsey said. “Plus, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun!”
Kimsey’s hope is that she can raise awareness for the insects she has made a career out of studying. She wants people to not be afraid of bugs, and perhaps even convince a few young visitors to one-day study entomology at the center.
“They’re not lusting after our blood or anything,” she said. “They’re harmless. People spend so much time and money trying to get rid of insects, and for what? All they really need to do is just pay attention to them.“
Knowledge is key to becoming comfortable with insects, she said – that, and holding the big suckers, as Brendon would say.
The museum is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located within the Academic Surge, next to the geology building.
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at email@example.com.