Such a scatological lifestyle sounds awful to humans, but to dung beetles, it's a beautiful thing. And speaking of beautiful things, dung beetles are magnificently colored critters that look as though they've been dusted in green and purple glitter. Moreover, as with almost all insects, the world could not exist without them.
Digesting excrement is something of an art form to the dung beetle, one of many tiny creatures that play a huge role in decomposing the earth's organic materials.
Juxtapositions such as those of the dung beetle and humans, as well as the value and beauty of the world's insects, are the focus of the Audubon Nature Institute's new Insectarium, a state-of-the-art, multi-sensory, interactive facility designed to educate visitors about the importance of insects in entertaining ways. Nearly two decades in the making, the Insectarium opens this Friday (June 13) on the first floor of the historic U.S. Custom House on Canal Street.
Confronting head-on the many insect-related fears and prejudices humans are socialized into accepting, the Insectarium hopes to restore a sense of wonderment about insects while it depicts the critical nature of their relationship to the rest of the world. The dining habits of the lowly dung beetle are but one example.
'Because the poo of cattle is largely plant material that's only been partially digested, the action inside the beetle's digestive system works further on breaking down those plants so when they themselves poo, they release nutrients into the soil," explains Zack Lemann, an entomologist and "bug chef" at the Insectarium. "You've got things like phosphorus, iron, calcium, all sorts of elemental compounds that are entrapped in the plant, and it takes a certain amount of eating and processing to release [the compounds] back as free elements in the soil."
Once released, those nutrients are absorbed through the soil by various plants that need them to grow. The dung beetles at the Insectarium will feast on a steady supply of cow manure inside their dung pile-shaped vivarium the technical term for a live animal exhibit so visitors can observe them as they go about their business.
Located just up the street from the Shops at Canal Place, the 23,000-square-foot Insectarium is the largest freestanding museum in the country devoted entirely to bugs. It will feature more than 70 live exhibits with thousands of insects representing roughly 70 different species and nearly all 31 classes of insects.
'The mission of the Audubon Nature Institute is to celebrate the wonders of nature with a collection of museums," says Ron Forman, president and CEO of Audubon Nature Institute. "We have one of the top zoos in the country, one of the top aquariums [but] while working with all these animals, one was always missing insects."
Given that insects comprise more than 90 percent of the world's species and outnumber people by 1.5 million to one, America's lack of a world-class insect museum stands out as an oversight. Inspired by a visit to a world-class insect museum in Montreal in the late 1980s, Audubon leaders decided that, after finishing the Aquarium, they would set their sights on a living science museum dedicated to insects.
The Insectarium is the tenth addition to Audubon's cluster of nature-themed parks and attractions. Others include the Audubon Zoo, the Aquarium of the Americas, Woldenberg Riverfront Park, the Species Survival Center and the Center for Research of Endangered Species, all of which have helped to turn Audubon, once an "animal ghetto" of a zoo in the 1960s, into a thriving network of support for the protection and preservation of animals and nature through education and hands-on learning opportunities.
Originally planned for Woldenberg Park at the end of Esplanade Avenue, the Insectarium landed in the Custom House, a site that provides easy access to other Audubon attractions downtown. The museum occupies the first-floor carriageway of the historic four-story Custom House, which took 33 years to complete after construction began in 1848. Initially designed to support trade through the Port of New Orleans, the building housed Civil War soldiers on both sides. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
'This building has the highest level of historic protection of any in New Orleans," says Melissa Lee, Audubon's director of public relations. "When things came through the Port of New Orleans to be declared with the U.S. Customs, the carriages would come right through here," she explains. "As part of our long-term lease with the federal government, we kept the entrance and the exit glass so people can still see the original intent of this building and this space."
Because the Insectarium is leasing the space and the building is protected, Audubon must preserve the facility's architectural integrity by working around original elements such as vaulted ceilings and skylights, and by making sure that none of the exhibitry is permanently attached. The museum and everything in it was designed around things that are of a historic nature, Lee says.
On a typical tour, initiation into the bug world happens gradually. It begins by talking about ancient insects and their relatives the evolution of insects as we know them today. Models of anatomically correct prehistoric dragonflies which had three-foot wingspans soar overhead as guests start their insect education.
There's a logical order to everything included in the museum, says Jayme Necaise, entomologist and director of animal and visitor programs. "We want to show everybody what's a bug and what's not, and highlight interesting things about their life history and things about bugs that are really cool."
For example: "Insects are in the phylum Arthropoda, but there are types of arthropods that aren't insects," Necaise says. "To represent arachnids, we have a spider. To represent the crustaceans, we have hermit crabs, which are relatives of bugs, as are crawfish. And to represent the millipedes, we'll have giant African millipedes, which [belong to] another class, class Diplopoda. So we start broad with examples of what are not insects and then we move into class Insecta."
'We're trying to explain to people that there are these close relatives to insects that we call bugs, but there are plenty of other animals out there that don't have bones in their bodies but are not what we'd call a bug," adds Lemann. "Like a snail, or sponge, or a coral or a slug."
Beyond the arthropod area, visitors encounter full-on insects broken down into their various orders, many represented by live specimens. The insects in the museum will come from around the world. Some bugs may be bred locally through the Insectarium, while others will be purchased through national and international suppliers.
For entomologists Necaise and Lemann, there were certain must-have specimens, such as a diverse array of beetles the largest group of animals on the planet as well as ants, bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, walking leaf insects, dragon-headed katydids and, of course, those infamous New Orleans termites, roaches and mosquitoes. Each animal is represented in a unique way to showcase its specialized role on the planet. The dung beetle is a prime example, as is the love bug, which will make its debut in a video depicting its history which guests can watch from inside an original Volkswagen Beetle inside the museum.
When asked to name his favorite insect, Necaise says it's a toss-up. "Leafcutter ants are really where my heart is," he says. "I really like the walking leaf insects; they're my second favorite, and my third favorite is this type of local beetle, a beautiful purple ground beetle."
The leafcutter ant exhibit is one of many special features that will showcase, up close, the lives of insects at work. Necaise first took an interest in leafcutter ants while studying the behavior of social animals in college. "It just fascinated me, [the ants'] whole little structure," he says. "They have a dump where they put all their dead bodies and their poop and all that stuff. Then they have certain worker ants whose responsibility is to tend to the garden, and nurse ants that take care of the babies, and then they have foragers who go out looking for food, harvest it and bring it back. And they have scouts who actually wander way off the trail looking for additional resources. It just captivated me and from that point forward I was a bug guy, hands down."
In one exhibit, leafcutter ants cut pieces of leaves and bring them into a fungus garden where they chew them up and inoculate them with a fungus, which in turn continues to grow and provide food for their developing larva. The fungus is not found anywhere else in nature and is unique to leafcutter ants, Necaise says.
The Insectarium also will examine the ways in which bugs directly affect humans, particularly in New Orleans. For example, visitors will learn how the fruit fly was instrumental in the developing study of genetics and how mosquitoes caused the yellow fever epidemic of the 1800s.
'We show the yin and the yang, the good and the bad," Lemann says. "What our volunteers and our staff will do is explain to visitors that there's a good side to all these things, whether it's their role in the food chain or other benefits from other species that we don't always know about or think about."
Lemann adds that New Orleanians welcome many insects into their backyards, such as monarch caterpillars and butterflies. To that end, the museum will have seasonal displays to teach visitors what to watch for at home.
At various points along the tour, trained naturalists and volunteers will answer questions about the exhibits. "We want to do a lot of talking to the public here," Lemann says, adding that most of the insect care and maintenance of exhibits will occur during operating hours so people will have a chance to ask questions about many aspects of insect life.
Meghan Calhoun, volunteer manager for the Insectarium, adds that a corps of volunteer Bug Ambassadors will circulate throughout the facility. "They'll serve as interpreters for the insects," she says. "Insects aren't always entertaining, or they will hide, so our bug ambassadors serve as that [connection] between our visitors and the tiny titans that reside in our facility."
Anyone can volunteer, Calhoun says, adding that the Insectarium asks ambassadors to commit to a single, three-and-a-half-hour shift every week for a year, following a six-week training process. During training, each week is devoted to a different section of the Insectarium. Volunteers will greet visitors as they enter the facility and will use jokes and games to entertain and educate as they try to put to rest any potential fears or uneasiness about insects.
'We designed our bug ambassador program to be based around fun, because we know that the general public is scared of some sort of insects," Calhoun says. "The basic truth of it is that insects give us food and clean up our garbage, and without them we would have no chocolate and we would live in piles of garbage. We want our visitors to leave with the essential knowledge that insects are okay."
In addition to the ambassadors' jokes, the Insectarium plans to be full of surprises an "Underground" exhibit where guests can experience life "to-scale,' as if they were insects living below ground; an "Awards Night" multi-sensory theater experience where guests can watch insects awarded for their special roles in nature, starring several celebrity guest voices; a "Hall of Fame" featuring hundreds of preserved specimens in display cases representing some of the most beautiful animals on earth; a "Butterflies in Flight" Japanese garden experience where live butterflies will circle overhead; and "Bug Appetit," a chance to watch live cooking demonstrations with real insects and learn about cultural entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs.
'We want to introduce people to the fact that insects are okay to eat," says Lemann, who will also serve as Bug Chef for the Insectarium. "They're eaten all over the world by lots of cultures. Shunning insects as food [is] odd because we eat crustaceans, which are the next closest relatives in the animal kingdom to insects."
The Insectarium will hold daily cooking demonstrations and have various artifacts and edible insects from around the world. That includes crickets, wax worms, moth caterpillars from Thailand, and powdered ants from China, which the Chinese believe help with a variety of health issues, including rheumatoid arthritis and poor immune systems.
No other insectarium in the world compares to this one, says Steve Dorand, head of the Audubon Nature Institute design team. "We wanted to break the mold. Each gallery is different it is eye candy tremendous visuals, bright colors, the way museums should be."
One major goal of the Insectarium is to reduce phobias about bugs, Dorand says. With multiple sound-and-light effects, games, dioramas and other theme-park technology blended with traditional museum presentation techniques, the Insectarium will be a place where families can have fun while they learn.
'We want to show the world that we're about the top things," Dorand says of the Insectarium's location in New Orleans. He adds that New Orleans is unique among U.S. cities because of its climate and the way insects impact human life.
Forman says the Insectarium will take on great significance not only to New Orleans but also to the nation and the world as people become more aware of nature and the need to preserve the Earth. Insects are the most important species on the planet, he says, and without them the world could not exist. As is well iterated throughout the new museum, insects decompose our waste as well as pollinate the plants we need to sustain our own lives.
The Insectarium was made possible by funding from a variety of public and private sponsors, including U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Brown Foundation, the ZeMurray Foundation, Woldenberg and Goldring Foundations, BASF/Termidor, DowAgroSciences and Terminix, as well as city and state funding.
While it may seem counterintuitive to have pest control companies such as Terminix sponsor an institution dedicated to the lives of insects, Terminix vice president Steve Good says his company supports advancing the awareness and understanding of insects throughout the world.
'There's a famous quote," Necaise says. ""It's an insects' world.' We're living in their world they're not living in our world. Insects basically run the show. Without insects, we would all be living in piles of trash with little or no food to eat, because insects are important to recycling nutrients, getting rid of things and pollinating. Insects are wonderful and they run the world."
"Good' Garden Bugs
Is your green thumb frustrated by pesky insects that enjoy munching on your plants when you're not around? Such insects are only doing what they do best but there are ways to invite other, "good" bugs into your garden to keep watch and to discourage the ravaging insects from pigging out on your plants.
Before you reach for a can of insect repellant, consider putting some "insectary" plants in your garden to attract scarecrow bugs. For example, if you're trying to get rid of slugs, small caterpillars or grubs, try planting amaranthus to attract ground beetles; or, if you want to scare off aphids, ladybugs will do the trick with a little enticement from fennel or Queen Anne's lace.
For more info on gardening with bugs, visit www.welovebugs.org.
Sidebar B / Possible long cutline [Waiting on photo to go with info.]
The crown jewel of the Insectarium's mounted specimen collection, and the last to be installed in the museum, is a pair of Queen Alexandra's Bird Wings butterflies given as a gift to New Orleans by the Montreal Insectarium. These butterflies are an extremely rare and endangered species found only in remote Papua New Guinea. While it is illegal for anyone to capture or possess these butterflies, the Audubon Insectarium is able to keep its pair of preserved specimens because they were collected more than 100 years ago. These butterflies are so rare they'll have their own security detail.
Stuff to Know Before You Go
Here are some hints that will help you get the most out of your first visit to the Insectarium, courtesy of the museum staff:
Starting June 13, visitor hours will be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays.
Tickets are sold for specific times, much like at movie theaters, and must be purchased in advance. Tickets $15 adults, $12 seniors, $10 children 12-under, Audubon Institute members receive $2 discount.
Tickets are available online at www.welovebugs.org, at the Insectarium booth across the street from the museum, or in person at Audubon Zoo, the Aquarium of the Americas, or the Entergy IMAX Theater.
Tickets to the Insectarium may also be purchased in packages with IMAX, Aquarium or zoo tickets.
Upon entering the museum, visitors must pass through a metal detector and personal items will be scanned.
There are no lockers for storage of personal items such as umbrellas, shopping bags, etc. A limited number of wheelchairs are available for rent; strollers are allowed but are not available for rent.
Photography is allowed.
Snacks, refreshments and souvenirs are available for purchase in the Insectarium gift shop, appropriately called the Flea Market.
Parking ticket stubs for Central Parking lots may be validated for a $5 discount.