The Insect Zoo
Photos by Monica Moriak and Wenbo Fan and courtesy of Patrick Carney May 15, 2020
Tarantulas and beetles and scorpions, oh my, the Entomology Club at UD has them all
As far as college cliques go, one crowd that hangs out on the University of Delaware’s South Campus is pretty typical. There is the popular one. There is the shy one. There is the model citizen who follows all the rules and never acts out. And, of course, there is the total diva with pink highlights who loves the spotlight and thrives on attention. They hail from all over the world and live together in confined quarters, just like your average group of college students (pre-pandemic).
Average… except members of this group also have fangs. Some glow in the dark. A few can live up to a week without a head.
This is the Insect Zoo at UD, home to the only insect ecology and conservation major in the nation. The school’s critter collection, brainchild of the Entomology Club, comprises about 30 bug, scorpion and spider species — some are as small as a quarter, some are the size of a dinner plate. During a typical semester, students use the arthropods as an outreach tool, bringing them to local schools and museums to educate the public on the importance of creepy crawlies. After graduation, some of these students continue working in environmental education, while others do arthropod research at the university level or conduct forensic entomology, using their bug smarts to aid police investigations.
“People think insects are out to get them,” said Debbie Delaney, associate professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and adviser to the entomology club. “They see them as mindless little robot critters on the attack. But once they start learning about their behaviors and their relationships with one another — how complex and advanced they really are — they can’t possibly think like that anymore.”
Consider that the world’s insect populations, declining at an alarming rate, are essential to humanity’s food supply. Bugs and birds pollinate 35 percent of the world’s crop production, an amount worth $577 billion annually. Many experts say insects may also be the next frontier for the pharmaceutical industry — it’s already been discovered that wasp venom kills cancer cells. Then there’s the little fact that, if it weren’t for bugs who feast on rotting flesh, “we’d all be 12-feet deep in dead animals,” said Patrick Carney, a UD senior and president of the Entomology Club. “Not to sound dramatic or anything, but we depend on insects for the survival of humanity as we know it.”
Carney — who discovered a fascination with invertebrates as a young child, when a neighbor gave him the dead skin of a molting tarantula — is the developer of UD’s bug-care protocol. He is also one of three student zookeepers (although, Delaney has taken over this duty since the onset of COVID-19). In this role, before the need for social distancing, he visited several expos — like Pennsylvania’s Hamburg Reptile Show — to purchase new occupants for the zoo, an aquarium-lined space in the Field Ecology Lab about the size of a large walk-in closet.
“This is the opposite of buying a dog or cat,” he said. “The ‘adopt-don’t-shop’ mentality doesn’t apply here. In this case, you want to go through a credible breeder, because this means you aren’t depleting wild populations.”
The zoo inhabitants, which run as high as $120, are native to different parts of the world. That pink-haired creature who loves the spotlight and jumps into Carney’s hand whenever he opens the cage? That’s Boots, a metallic pinktoe tarantula from South America. The giant cockroaches that hiss at their enemies by blowing air through holes in the abdomen? They come from Madagascar. The blue death-feigning beetles who — you guessed it — roll over and play dead when approached? They’re partial to the American Southwest. This geographic diversity means zookeepers need to mimic a variety of climates. Tanks housing humidity lovers are misted regularly with a bottle of water and, in some cases, covered in plastic wrap to slow evaporation. The care regime also entails twice-a-week feedings — lettuce to the herbivores and live crickets to the meat-eaters.
“This ritual has become a nice quiet time where everything else just fades away,” Delaney said. “I’m not staring at Zoom, which is refreshing, because my whole life is now Zoom.”
While many zoo residents are venomous, most are only capable of inflicting bee-sting level pain on a human. One major exception is Lilith, a cobalt blue tarantula native to Southeast Asia. She won’t necessarily kill you — she’ll simply leave you bedridden for about a week with nauseating muscle cramps. (Don’t take it personally — this spider also attempts to eat its own partner after mating.) Then there’s Karen, a 44-legged Vietnemese centipede. The poison of this species has been responsible for heart attacks and at least one death.
“One of my scariest moments was receiving a text from another zookeeper saying Karen didn’t appear to be in her tank,” Carney said. “I told him to check under the water bowl and, sure enough, she was curled up there. My heart had jumped out of my chest.”
In the nine years the zoo has existed, not a single person has endured a bite, sting or pinch from any of the creatures — a reality Carney attributes to mood testing. Even for the less venomous animals that are safe to handle, zookeepers won’t do so until they’ve used a pair of tongs to give a critter a little nudge. If it responds with some type of warning behavior — say, showing fangs, rearing up on hind legs or, in the case of some moody tarantulas, spraying feces — aspiring entomologists know to let it be.
But if the creature does not seem bothered? A zookeeper can work on socializing it. At first, this may involve frequent taps with the forceps, so that physical stimuli becomes normalized. The next step is putting one’s hand into a tank, so the arthropod can investigate it. Following that, a person can start slowly lifting the critter out of its tank, allowing it to hang out on the hand. For some, it sounds like the stuff of nightmares. For others, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“We used to have a tarantula named Ziggy,” said Carney. “At first, he was nervous and flighty, and he wouldn’t let anyone hold him. But I worked with him over the summer, and I feel like he and I became as close as a person and a tarantula can get.”
Part of the attraction to arthropods is their human-like qualities. Ants plant their own gardens. Millipedes seduce each other with backrubs. Honeybees dance. In other words, once you get past the stingers and exoskeletons, you might catch a glimpse of yourself reflected in the aquarium glass.
“Once people see insects doing things they can relate to, like building a house or gathering food for their young, they think of them differently,” Delaney said, adding that the critters are “absolutely pets” and not used for any type of scientific experimentation.
This explains the entomology club’s habit of assigning human names to their arthropod charges. Coraline is a whip scorpion who frequently gets hangry. Avery is a Honduran tarantula with a perpetually bad hair day — no, really, these guys are known for their frizzy locks. Of course, club members also have some fun with the monikers, too, hence a friendly flat-rock scorpion called Dwayne “the flat rock” Johnson. (Curiously, the actual Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has publicly copped to a fear of spiders.)
“Studying entomology at UD has brought me an entirely new perspective on how the world around me works,” said Carney, who hopes to continue spreading the arthropod love after graduation this spring, perhaps with a career in public outreach. “It has opened my eyes to so many tiny things going on all around me — even inside our own homes.”
Any students who would like to experience this same perspective shift are welcome to it. As soon as the coronavirus threat subsides and campus reopens, all members of the UD community are invited to reach out to Delaney at firstname.lastname@example.org for a look inside the Insect Zoo. The critters will be waiting.
But, be warned.
“You definitely get attached,” Carney said. “After graduation, I’m going to miss every last one of them.”