Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

Leaping lubbers! It's an Insect Zoo

It's Thursday morning at the Smithsonian Institution's famed Insect Zoo, and the action is about to begin.

Zoo Director Nathan Erwin, AG '81, is about to feed romaine lettuce to a mob of goggle-eyed "lubber" grasshoppers.

"Okay, guys, here you go!" announces the 39-year-old entomologist, as he yanks open the wooden panel at the back of the display case. With the flick of a wrist, he props a pale green leaf against a stick. Then, he steps back to watch the excitement unfold.

Here they come. From every direction, the lubbers converge on the luscious-looking greenery, moving jerkily along on their stilt-like legs. Seen up close, these short-horned insect prowlers look like something out of a Japanese sci-fi flick.

The lubbers are southern grasshoppers-from Alabama, Florida, Georgia-and they've each got five eyes, along with vise-like jaws and flickering mouth-parts that never stop moving. After millions of years of evolution, the lubbers have developed the leg-power of an Olympic kick-boxer at the top of his game: Startle one, and he'll vault 20 times his body length without a second thought. (If humans enjoyed the same skill, they could leap 40 yards on command.)

Interesting? You bet. But there's no denying the fact that these lubbers are also a bit...creepy. Upset one, and he'll respond by spitting brown gunk at you, and then pole-vaulting into the next county.

Erwin loves them. You can see it in his face, as he watches his lubbers feast on their rapidly dwindling stalk of romaine. "They actually do much better on romaine lettuce than leaf," he says.

He pauses to watch a large lubber take a heart-shaped bite from the last of this morning's leafy fare.

"Utterly fascinating," says Erwin. "Once you begin to realize how amazing insects are, you're hooked for life. Follow me. I want to show you some stick-insect hatchlings we just got in from Australia."

Life is never dull here

As the director-since 1995-of the Smithsonian's Otto Orkin Insect Zoo (yes, it's named for the pest-control company), Erwin runs a giant bug circus that currently entertains more than 1 million visitors a year.

Along with supervising a small staff and about 20 volunteers, the UD-trained insect specialist also is responsible for maintaining the exhibits and creating educational programs that tell the stories of insects to the worldwide audience that daily troops through the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

"I think of myself as a kind of ambassador for the insect world," says Erwin, while pointing out that his collection of living, breathing crawlers, which opened in 1976, was the first of its kind in the Americas. "The only thing that predated us was an exhibition at the London Zoo that had been there about eight years."

When tourists arrive at Erwin's hall of bugs each morning (operating hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., every day except Christmas), they find themselves wandering through a startling wonderland in which red-kneed tarantulas snap up crickets during display feedings and wonderfully industrious leaf-cutter ants farm fungus for dinner in special tanks full of chopped tropical foliage.

"Life is never dull here," says Erwin, while leading a tour along the backs of the display cases. "Now, this section of the museum deals with danger and predators. In other words, how do you get through life without getting eaten?"

He points to a platoon of brightly hued milkweed bugs. "One way to survive is to carry a warning color, like these guys. They're bright black and orange, and that's basically a warning that tells birds, 'Don't eat me, I taste bad!' There's a nasty toxin in the milkweed they eat, and the birds know it will make them sick."

But. tasting bad is only one of many survival skills on display at the Insect Zoo.

"Another trick is to blend in," explains Erwin, opening the back of another display case. "You can look like a leaf. We've got some fascinating leaf-insects from Sri Lanka. Or, you can even look like a bird dropping. But, there's a price to pay. If you're going to look like a bird dropping, you've got to act like one. You've got to be very, very still!"

He points to a batch of Sri Lankan leaf-insects displaying these camouflage skills, which barely twitch and flutter in the slight breeze wafting into the open case. From four feet away, you'd swear that these were merely green leaves, riffling on a tree branch.

Move in a little closer, however, and you can see tiny eyes prowling the vegetation, as they "imitate" leaves in a display of biological mimicry.

Even stranger looking are the Australian stick-insects-brown fellows, knobby-headed, who move with solemn deliberation.

Suddenly, a child's delighted face has materialized on the other side of the glass.

"Look," says Erwin, "it's a Homo sapiens. You know, every once in a while, one of the visitors will be standing out there, staring at the insects during feeding time-and suddenly a hand appears in the display case, carrying food for the bugs. And, sometimes, you'll hear this startled scream on the other side of the glass. I've often wondered what must be going through their minds at that moment."

Zoo named for 'Otto, The Orkin Man'

Spend a morning with Erwin at the Insect Zoo, and you'll witness the passion that sent him to the University of Delaware in the fall of 1977 to study entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences. He says he decided to attend UD after visiting the campus as a high school senior.

"I dropped by the entomology department one morning," he recalls, "and the secretary said, 'Oh, wait a minute, I'll get Dr. Bray.' He spent at least half an hour showing me all around the department, and I thought that was great. And, then when we got back to his office, I looked at his door and the plaque on it said: 'Dr. Dale F. Bray, Department Chair.'

"I told myself right then: I'm going to Delaware. That really clinched it for me." [Bray, who came to the University as an assistant professor in 1949, retired from the Department of Entomology and Applied Ecology in 1983.]

During four years in Newark, Erwin studied everything from insect morphology to insect ecology to pest control. "I learned from lab courses at Delaware that 'teaching with objects' is a great way to teach," he says. "And, that lesson is still something I use every day of the week, in designing exhibits at the Insect Zoo."

After spending five years as a pest entomologist for the state of Maryland, Erwin joined the non-profit Rachel Carson Council and put in another four years, mostly working on the Basic Guide To Pesticides, a 280-page reference work designed to help others carry on Carson's pollution-fighting work.

Joining the Insect Zoo as a museum specialist in 1992, Erwin was amused that the Constitution Avenue bug kingdom was named after Orkin, the nemesis of billions of termites, roaches and other household pests.

"The fact is that the Smithsonian simply had no money to redo this exhibition," he says, "and they went out looking for $500,000 to help redesign it. Orkin came up the money, which meant that under the policy of the Smithsonian, they were allowed to name the exhibit.

"But, I want to make it clear that Orkin has no influence on the content. And we even have a section in one little video-interactive that talks about 'integrating pest management,' and why you certainly want to take the least toxic approach to controlling pests at home."

'Finicky' tarantulas and 'waggling' bees

Ask Erwin to describe his favorite insects, and the pain of having to choose is evident.

"Geez, that's like asking somebody which is your favorite child," says Erwin, who recently
was awarded the 1997 Presidential Citation for Outstanding Achievement during ceremonies in Mitchell Hall. (For a photo of this year's recipients, please see page 29.)

"I mean, they're all fascinating in one way, shape or form. But, if I had to choose...well, I'm a big fan of honeybees. I like watching their behavior and the way they communicate with one another. I like watching their 'waggle dances' and the way they can fill a comb with honey-a wonderful engineering feat that turns out perfect every time.

"But, then there's also our giant centipede from Trinidad. I collected him myself, out in the field. He's a predator, and he's the stuff of your worst nightmares. And yet, he's incredibly interesting at the same time. And then, you've got the katydids, and the jumping bristletails...and what about the tarantulas?

"Okay, maybe they're a little finicky-often they won't eat on command-and they can be pretty temperamental at times. But, they've each got their own personalities...Muriel and Cleo and Miss Piggy. Some of them have been here since the zoo opened."

He pauses above a group of small glass cases, each of which contains a furred, somber-eyed tarantula.

"Most people don't realize that tarantulas are actually quite fragile, quite vulnerable," says Erwin. "All those ridiculous movies that Hollywood creates, movies like Arachnophobia. Why, it's all totally absurd.

"Tarantulas don't go running after people, to bite them and kill them. Good heavens, a tarantula bite is no more harmful than a nasty wasp sting.

"There are a lot of false stereotypes about insects out there, and it's our job to show the world what these animals are really like," the zookeeper says.

"I get in here every morning at 7:30, and I don't leave until the last visitor is out the door. We want to show everybody who comes through what the science of entomology is all about and just how fascinating these creatures really are."

-Tom Nugen