April 11, 2008

University of Kentucky College of Agriculture entomologists recently took their collections of native and exotic bugs, some live, on a field trip to a central Kentucky children’s museum.

Children and their parents crowded around entomologists and entomology graduate student volunteers to see and hold giant walking sticks, hissing cockroaches, and even tarantulas for the Bugs All Day program at the Explorium of Lexington.

Some children were very brave and let the bugs crawl all over them, while others seemed much more content to watch from a distance.

UK Entomologist Blake Newton said the event is one way the college and the entomology department can reach out to and educate the community.

“As soon as people see a giant walking stick, a tarantula, a giant scorpion - usually their first reaction is to hop back a little bit and then gradually make their way forward to the table,” he said. “So, it starts out as something startling, but then it makes you interested so you want to come closer and learn more about it.”

Newton said that’s really what the Explorium event is all about – sparking an interest in children and their parents and showing them the creatures aren’t all “gross and scary.”

“Our goals …on a day like this are just to excite people about entomology and insects and to show them that all insects aren’t gross and scary,” he said. “We like to talk to a few of these kids who are coming here maybe because they are interested in biology and science and get them to think about it as a future career and maybe coming to UK to study, or even just being involved in 4-H entomology.”

Newton said they would really like to be able to show visitors more bugs native to Kentucky, but this time of year, most Kentucky bugs are still in the egg and pupa stage and not ready for public appearances.

“We have some (native Kentucky insects) pinned in cases, and we put up some large pictures of native creatures,” he said. “Most of the live things with us are exotic, however; we do actually have a large millipede with us today as well as some Hercules beetles. Someone on our staff actually raises these beetles, which is a Herculean task in itself, very difficult to raise. We have a handful of grubs and some native spiders…brown recluse and black widow.”

Being able to see the brown recluse and black widow up close allows Kentuckians to learn more about the mysterious spiders, such as how to identify the creatures in their homes.

“Those two spiders probably more than any other thing in Kentucky have these myths surrounding them, and honestly even some of the best information out there may be myths,” Newton said. “They are very mysterious, and we’re still doing a lot of research on them, especially the brown recluse, which is very difficult for people to identify. We have fewer brown recluse spiders in central Kentucky, compared to western Kentucky.”

He said that almost every person who sees the brown recluse says, “Oh, I thought I had those in my house, but now that I see it, and I realize it’s something else; it’s probably something like a wolf spider.”

UK Entomologist Ric Bessin started the partnership with the Explorium of Lexington nearly 10 years ago to host the “Bugs All Day” educational event. The program is only one of many outreach events for UK entomologists. They also have an insect walk at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary near Lexington each year and set up booths at various events and festivals around the state. For more information about, visit UK’s entomology department Web site.