Today we went on a family trip to the Insectarium on the outskirts of Philadelphia.
My four boys and I love all things creepy-crawly. Back in Scotland, we loved to go on minibeast hunts as part of our nature rambles. Of course, in Scotland there was nothing poisonous or venomous in the bug world so we could happily scoop things up into our hands to study them. That’s going to be a learning curve here. Our favourite was the dor beetle, a type of dung beetle with a matt black upper carapace but a beautiful, metallic underside the colours of petrol in a puddle. Despite the fact they were abundant so we were always likely to find them on any walk, we were always happy to encounter them. There were also a plethora of dragonfly species where we lived and we loved to see them darting around, dashes of bright colour, in the warmer months. As well as wild insects, for a period we also had pet cockroaches. Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches to be precise. Having them in a tank was a bit like having fish: they don’t cuddle on your lap and you don’t have to take them for a walk (bonus!) but studying them can be fascinating and almost meditative. I got them used to being handled so they were more interactive. You can’t pick up a fish and stroke it. So my boys are very much “slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails” boys and I’m their bug lovin’ momma. This trip was, therefore, very much our cup of tea.
My husband, on the other hand, has a bit of a love-hate relationship with spiders. If he happens upon one unexpectedly or if one suddenly scuttles across the floor late at night, he has been known to release a piercing scream. And he swears one wolf spider tried to attack him with its “fangs”. But the same dread they fill him with has also led him to be fascinated by them. He is always drawn to spider exhibits in any display of captive beasties.
The Insectarium is a funny wee place. The Insect Museum, it turned out, is housed in the same building as an extermination business. In fact, the two operations are run by the same people. So in the same shop where one buys tickets to go and marvel at the wonders of insect and arachnid life, there is also someone advising how to search and destroy insects who are running amuck in houses. Love and hate. Diversification in a business is a good idea, of course, but that’s quite some mixed message.
The first floor of the Insectarium is devoted mainly to specimens of insects. The walls are lined with butterflies in frames and there are glass cabinets filled with cases of bugs and spiders. It reminded me of a Victorian curiosity cabinet or the dusty sections of an old museum. One of my favourite museums is the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It had a remodel a few years ago but when I was little it was pretty much arranged as it had been for centuries and on one of the top floors there was a musty room filled with wooden cabinets, each covered by a leather flap which, when raised, revealed hundreds of insects, butterflies and arachnids pinned in serried rows. The Insectarium was like a hobbyist’s version of the same.
The boys loved seeing the glow-in-the-dark scorpions under the ultraviolet light, a hive full of live bees that was a glass panel so that they could see them buzzing around the hexagonal cells and a display set up like a kitchen with live cockroaches milling around. They also got to vote for their favourite baby insect. Three of them were loyal to our former pets and voted for the baby roach but the littlest Pict voted for the baby leaf insect.
The upper floor, however, was the main event: tanks upon tanks filled with live beasties. Highlights were the Black Widow Spider, the Goliath Tarantula, the chubby scorpions and – for me at least – the variety of cockroach species. We were also amused by a tank full of decorated shells, painted in bright colours, for the hermit crabs to choose from. Pimp my shell. The boys and I also got to hold various insects including a fancy Leaf Insect and a beetle that feigns death, on its back, legs up the air and everything, as a defence strategy.
We had a fun day. Everyone enjoyed the trip: the boys and I got to indulge our love of seeing and handling insects but in a way that is safer than just shoving our hands into someone leaf mulch in the wild – at least until such time as we have learned to identify venomous bugs – and my husband was excited to see a Black Widow, which he loves. And hates. And for my next insect pet, I would like a Glorious Beetle.