Backyard Monsters

by Kathryn M. Duda

Insects hold a certain fascination that knows no age limit. Who hasn't watched an ant carry a crumb for what must be the ant-equivalent of a mile? Or who hasn't held his breath to observe a butterfly momentarily poised on a flower?

To many human observers, insects seem to possess the highest form of organizational skills, not to mention determination, persistence and responsibility. They appear to operate in a mini-world that is beyond our understanding.

This summer, that mysterious realm opens up at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where Backyard Monsters lets us into the world of insects to observe them more closely than you ever thought possible. You'll feel like you're on the set of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" as you enter the exhibit, where giant robotic insects surround you and hover overhead. And as a special Pittsburgh-only supplement to the traveling show, our Section of Invertebrate Zoology has organized a fascinating "live" insect exhibit full of bugs both ordinary and exotic.

Eek! They're Alive!

A technicolor wasp's nest sits on the table - the handiwork of Wanda the Wonder Wasp, the queen that contributed to research this spring in the Museum of Natural History's Section of Invertebrate Zoology.

Paper wasps like Wanda build their nests from wood fibers that they've chewed up. Wanda was given access to colored paper, a different color every week, and her multicolored nest demonstrates the progression of nest building - the part she built one week is of one color, the part she built the next is of another, and so on.

Wanda's work is part of the Entomology staff's experimentation for the live insect exhibit. Watching Wanda construct her colorful nest was "a joyful event for the Section," says Associate Curator Chen Young, and it marked the beginning of months of intense work preparing for the exhibit.

"This is a mini-version of an insect zoo," explains Associate Curator John Rawlins, who is directing the project. "We're testing ideas here to use in the zoo that we'll be developing in the next year."

Consisting of eight displays in all, the exhibit lets us observe the habits and lifestyles of various insects and arachnids. You'll see things you wouldn't ordinarily stick around to watch in your backyard, or you'd be stung or bitten. Here are a few highlights from the live exhibit:

Bees  We see bees buzzing around from flower to flower, going about their "public" activities. But back at the hive, their behavior is anything but ordinary. When a worker bee returns to the hive after a trip to collect some pollen, it dances to tell the others what it has seen. The pattern of the dance tells where the sun is; the types of pollen and perfume the bee is "wearing" tell what kind of flowers are out there, and the vigor with which it dances indicates the distance its hive-mates will have to travel.

In the exhibit, a working bee hive lets us see into this wondrous world. Bees' domestic nature is on view as they perform two weeks of "hive duty" and then make honey from nectar they've gathered outdoors. This beehive is up to four times larger than similar observation hives in other museums and universities. It is located on the museum's third floor, providing the insects with access to an open window.

Wasps  Have you ever found a grey paper-wasp nest tucked under the eaves of your house? No doubt you didn't want to look too closely, but we've got three that you don't have to fear. Here you can watch social but toxic paper wasps, like Wanda, building multi-colored nests behind glass.

Roaches  You may prefer not to think about cockroaches, particularly if they've ever come into your home uninvited, but these ancient insects offer a true lesson in the diversity of life. There are 4,000 cockroach species, in sizes ranging from an eighth of an inch to three inches, and they can be found almost anywhere. Cockroaches can tolerate a wide range of living conditions, and this is one reason that they have survived on Earth for more than 300 million years, according to Chen Young. Six species are displayed at our Roach Motel, where you can see their amazing diversity in size, color and behavior.

Spiders  Arachnids are creepy and crawly, but they're not insects. They do, however, fall under "Invertebrate Zoology," and Rawlins and Company thought you'd like to see some. Arachnids include spiders, scorpions, mites, ticks and others. In this exhibit you'll see a live black widow spider, a tarantula and a scorpion. Get as close as you want - they can't hurt you from behind the glass. But don't fool around with these guys if you come across one outdoors. Their bites pack a venom that in some cases can sicken and even kill humans.

Big, Bad Robo-Bugs

You'll get an ant's-eye view of insects in this section of Backyard Monsters, where animatronic bugs creep among 12-foot blades of grass and fly overhead. At nearly 100 times their actual size, these models let you see what insects really look like. They're waving their antennae, lunging back and forth, crawling and moving their eyes - showing us just how they move.

Nearby is a fascinating collection of more than 1,000 exotic insect and arachnid specimens from around the world, including the largest beetles, the major moth and butterfly families, and weird-looking bugs. You'll learn about how insects use camouflage to their advantage, see a scorpion's courtship dance and more.

In hands-on stations you can see through compound eyes and learn how insects chew plants, sip nectar and suck blood. Put together a giant ant puzzle, examine models of wings to see how the muscles move them, and sit at the controls of a robotic insect. Discover that unattractive insects are sometimes the friendliest, and that pretty bugs are sometimes deadly.

Then try your hand at a game that uses pictures of insects taken through a scanning electron microscope. See if you can identify what part of the insect is shown in the magnified "bugscape."

While You're Here

Watch Our Scientists at Work Observation windows on the third floor give visitors a peek into the Invertebrate Zoology lab, where scientists are working with the insect specimens from the museum's vast collection.

Tours Go behind the scenes with our oh-so-knowledgeable docents, where you'll explore our scientific labs and see some of the million-plus critters that make up the Invertebrate Zoology collection. Meet on the third floor in the Insect Area for tours Saturdays at 2:30 p.m., Sundays at 3:30 p.m.

Teen Docents Our talented teenagers are in the exhibit hall addressing insect-related topics Tuesdays-Saturdays 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. July 7-August 21 (and Saturday, August 29).

Discovery Room Children of all ages can explore the "backyard bugs discovery box," see a live display of silkworms and look at live invertebrates under a microscope.

Shop Visit our special Bug Store, where enthusiasts can find insect-related items ranging from jewelry to collectibles to bug kits and field guides.

Eat Finally, relax and have a bite to eat at the Museum CafÄ, Coffee Cart or Vending Area.


Films The Museum of Art Department of Film and Video presents the series "Insect Mania" in July. Call 622-3212 for details.

Birthday Parties "Buggy about Bugs" parties for children ages 6-11 are available. For information call 622-3131.

Camp Week-long Backyard Monsters camps for children ages 4-10 are taking place this summer. For information and registration call 622-3288.


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