Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Te Papa bugs Chicago

Jessica Wadleigh holds a live curly hair tarantula at the bug zoo at “Fantastic Bug Encounters!” at the Field Museum in Chicago. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune).

Steve Johnson, Hold a giant cockroach (if you want) in new ‘Fantastic Bug Encounters!’ at the Field Museum, Chicago Tribune, 26 June 2019

It has been more than two decades since the Field Museum presented a special exhibition specifically on bugs.

It’s not that the natural history institution is, like certain museum correspondents I might mention, squeamish. Far from it, as all the giant worms in jars and butterflies pinned to boards in 2017’s “Specimens” demonstrated.

Instead, it’s just been tricky, it seems, to find the right combination of science and showmanship in an exhibition about these animals with six or eight or 750 legs that are virtually everywhere, including under your sink, and will easily outlive sensitive us.

Enter “Fantastic Bug Encounters!,” developed by New Zealand’s leading natural history museum, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and designed by the studio, Weta Workshop, whose high-end film credits include the “Lord of the Rings” series.

The exclamation point is a clue that this show, opening Friday, wants to wow you. And it does, from the slow-motion video of a dragonfly downing a butterfly to the live petting zoo featuring a Madagascar hissing cockroach and other creepie-crawlies (to use the scientific term).

“It’s really over-the-top,” said Jaap Hoogstraten, the museum’s exhibitions director, admiringly.

Just to drive the point home, Jessica Wadleigh, one of the “bug zoo facilitators,” stuck her hand in a scorpion’s terrarium and lifted a rock and pointed a flashlight to show me the animals lounging beneath it.

She was confident they wouldn’t sting her, she explained, because scorpions need to save their venom for prey, And even if it did it would not be “medically significant,” she said. “It would be like a bee sting.”

Ditto for the tarantulas, she said. The black widow spiders, on the other hand …

I took her word for it, as I did when she pulled out some of the other, holdable bugs. I prefer my insect encounters to be entirely accidental and as infrequent as possible.

A live Madagascar hissing cockroach at “Fantastic Bug Encounters” at the Field Museum in Chicago. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune).

I went into this expecting an exhibition tuned for younger kids. “Bug Encounters” certainly has elements of that, with the live bug demos, the knob that lets you control the video speed of a bee in flight and a kind of digital whack-a-mole game that compares your reaction time to various insects’.

But there’s plenty, and then some, for the larger people who might bring their wee ones to the museum. Indeed, combine this with the ongoing (and breathtaking) “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” show at the Field, and you’ve got the makings of a full-day, full-family outing.

The centerpieces of “Fantastic Bug Encounters!” are four walk-through domes, each one dedicated to the spectacular behaviors of a specific bug. The Japanese honeybee, for instance, uses a kind of heat swarm technique to surround the much larger hornets that would kill them and take over their nests. The bees pig-pile on such an invader and, by massing busily around it, raise the temperature enough to roast it to death.

Giant bee and hornet models inside the dome demonstrate this while looking very much like the kind of things you might see fabricated for a horror movie.

Another dome details the way a jewel wasp “zombifies” cockroaches in order to lay her eggs in it and turn it into “living food for her young.” Such chilling behavioral tales are enhanced by the darkly atmospheric soundscapes, another nod to the filmmaking ethos here.

Surrounding the domes are a range of information stations designed in the exhibit’s striking style, which rests somewhere between Paris Metro station, melting candle and Gothic children’s picture book.

On the front side of these kiosks are fun bug facts, such as the sting of a bullet ant feeling “like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel,” according to the fellow who was willing to try it out. On the back you can go deeper by watching video of a scientist who studies said bug or bug topic.

All of this is augmented by a considerable number of bug specimens, including some of the biggest and most stomach-turning, from the Field’s own collection, which was at more than 17,000,000 insects at the time of the “Specimens” exhibition.

“Of course everyone in insects is excited about having finally insects on exhibit,” said Petra Sierwald, curator of, you guessed it, insects. The last one was on spiders in 1995, she said, and, yes, the Field’s curator of insects knows that spiders are not insects, but arachnids are part of her department’s purview, too, as are her research specialty, millipedes, which are arthropods.

She understands that it’s not easy doing bugs. “They are hard to exhibit,” she said. And among the public, she added, trying to be diplomatic, “in general the appreciation of insects is not very high.”

But they are also “the most species-rich animal group on the planet” and an ancient one that has demonstrated astonishing ability to adapt and survive.

She switched from studying spiders to millipedes, she said, in part because so little of even the basic descriptive work had been done on millipedes. Her most recent work has been micro CT scanning on the pretty amazing millipede “copulatory organs,” she said.

Even more basic: Despite the name, the millipede with the most legs has 750. A centipede is a predator with one leg pair per body segment, while the millipede has double the leg pairs and feeds on rotting vegetation, a “detritivore,” in the splendid term.

This makes the animal, Sierwald said, “the top waste management company on the planet,” turning fallen leaves into fertilizer for eons.

There is huge promise in studying bugs, a point both Sierwald and the exhibition make. Centipede venom, for instance, blocks human pain receptors. Spider silk is a ridiculously strong substance. And some caterpillar venom can keep human blood from clotting.

There is a monkey, the scientist said, that rubs millipedes on its fur because the arthropods’ secretions make a great insect repellent.

“This shows the fantastic adaptations,” said Sierwald. “So in a way it’s an evolution story.”

The exhibit even, at the end, makes the case for mosquitoes. Yes, some species carry malaria and other deadly diseases. But they are also pollinators and food for birds and fish, and many only draw human blood as a non-preferred option.

Thankfully, this mild mosquito evangelism does not go so far as to include them in the live menagerie. That honor is reserved for larger, flightless bugs of docile temperament. So go ahead, hold the Madagascar cockroach and listen for its distinctive hiss. See if the blue death-feigning beetle will do its possum trick in your open palm. I’ll be watching from over here.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Mr Brian Oldman, South Australian Museum PO Box 234 Adelaide, South Australia 5001 Australia, © CAMD 2022
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