K-State entomologists control insects and show 'em off, too
They creep . . . they crawl . . . they fly . . . many of them bite or sting.
At Kansas State University's Insect Zoo, they're also the stars of the show.
Many U.S. universities have collections of insects that travel to schools for presentations. But, Kiffnie Holt, K-State zoo coordinator, isn't aware of any other permanent exhibits.
The zoo was the brainchild of Sonny Ramaswamy, former head of the Department of Entomology, and Ralph Charlton, a behavioral ecologist who once worked for the department.
"Ralph always had a collection of tarantulas and snakes and whatever else he'd caught outside," Holt said. "Whenever we had people visit the department, he would take them up there and show them something. Let them pet a tarantula.
"Then he got together with Sonny, and they wanted to make it more formal. They wanted to have a place to put things--where Ralph could really just go crazy and come up with all these displays."
The zoo is housed in the old dairy barn on the northwest corner of the K-State campus, down the street from Throckmorton Hall. Visitors can view a wide variety of insects, arachnids and even some aquatic life there. The exhibits include large framed collections of native insects and the requisite "butterfly collection." There's even a live honeybee colony, encased in plexiglass.
But, the centerpiece of the zoo is a leafcutter ant colony, housed in part of a dividing wall that bisects the museum floor. Toward the front of that wall is a terrarium, regularly stocked with tree branches, debris and small pieces of fruit. A long stretch of clear tubing connects the ants' two living areas. Holt believes the display is easily the zoo's most popular.
"Especially when the ants are really interested and they find something to start cutting, they'll be carrying pieces of leaves through their tube and into their colony," she said. "That's everyone's favorite time. It's such a fun thing to watch."
At K-State's zoo, experiencing is just as important as watching. So, Holt always has some Madagascar hissing cockroaches and a tarantula at the ready for interested patrons to hold or touch. For the youngest visitors, who may still be a bit too squeamish for the real deal, Holt also has some oversized foam rubber creatures, including a tarantula measuring 2 feet across.
"If you're scared and angry about having a big rubber tarantula," she said, "you could hit it first. By the end of their visit, though, I like to see the kids pick it up and play with it. Some will hug it and take it over to read it a book.
"That's just a wonderful way to get the kids a little less scared of something they may be afraid of."
Despite being surrounded by the research greenhouses operated by the Department of Horticulture, the K-State Insect Zoo isn't involved in any research. The facility is solely dedicated to public outreach and education. Holt or another staff member will even identify insects brought in by puzzled gardeners and homeowners.
The zoo hosts plenty of organized field trips from area schools, she said. But it's the small groups of family and friends that have really latched on.
"The public is coming - about 8,000 a year. Our biggest audience right now is just a small family group, four to six people. Parents and grandparents come here to spend time with their kids, so we've changed the hours. We've shifted them later in the day."
Now tucked away in one corner is a small gift shop, offering toys, books, T-shirts, and a couple of insect zoo exclusives. The latter include containers of locally-produced honey, as well as baby tarantulas (care and feeding guide included) for those who desire a more unique pet.
The zoo is open noon to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and it charges a small admission fee.
It features live creatures, Holt said, so somebody has to be there to feed and care for the insects on a daily basis--even when winter storms close area schools, businesses, and roads.
"On many of the days that people might expect us to be closed, we're actually open," she said. "You can find out the holidays when we're open to visitors by checking our Web site."
That site, which include "fun links," on-site photos and information on scheduling guided tours, is at http://www.ksu.edu/butterfly.