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Fantastic Bugs and Where to Find Them (Hint: Chicago)

Field Museum of Natural History

The world of insects on full display at the entrance of the Field Museum. (Photo by Ryan Gott, Ph.D.)

By Ryan Gott, Ph.D.

Reflecting on growing up visiting the world-class museums in Chicago, I don’t recall seeing many insects on display. But luckily today we see amazing displays celebrating insects at institutions like the St. Louis Zoo and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. A recent addition in this arena is the amazing “Fantastic Bug Encounters!” exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. This exhibit, travelling all the way from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, puts entomology front and center. I was lucky enough to visit the last time I was back in sweet home Chicago, and I want to try to convince you to see it too.

Ryan Gott, Ph.D.

Ryan Gott, Ph.D.

After a brief background on arthropod biodiversity and evolution, the exhibit begins its journey through subjects such as mimicry, flight, swarming behavior, social insects, and defense. Each section features a giant rendition of an insect that exemplifies its corresponding topic. The beautiful orchid mantis Hymenopus coronatus represents mimicry, surrounded by activities such as a game that challenges visitors to guess which of a pair of insects is the mimic and which is the model.

In a section all about stings, back-lit cut-out panels depicting the process of an emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa) piercing a cockroach’s brain and leading it to its doomed fate as zombified larval food read like an entomological Stations of the Cross. Entering a Japanese honey bee (Apis cerana japonica) hive, guests get to help the bees generate enough heat and carbon dioxide to kill intruding Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarina). There is something fun, engaging, and educational around every corner.

Never forgetting the numerous connections between humans and insects, “Fantastic Bug Encounters!” discusses how insects inspire us constantly. Venoms become new medicines, behavior of social colonial insects inform our design and programming of miniature robots, and so on. There’s also a chance to make very real connections with arthropods at the live insect petting zoo also housed in the exhibit. Visitors can meet lubber grasshoppers, giant millipedes, death feigning beetles, and more.

And, finally, in an homage to the exhibit’s New Zealand origin, there is a section on the ethnoentomology of the Maori people. Insects have long been part of Maori culture. Beetle galleries in trees influence designs on woodcarvings. Traditional Maori tattoos used an ink derived from caterpillars infected with entomopathogenic fungi as one source of color. Even if this insect ink is no longer commonly used in tattooing, the connection to insects and the natural world persists in the culture and hearts of the Maori people.

“Fantastic Bug Encounters!” presents the fabulous diversity of arthropods, the mysteries of their habits, and their ingenious adaptations that humans adopted to solve complex problems and to inspire art. Everyone can find something to enjoy. But visit soon if you can, as this exhibit closes April 19, 2020, and you don’t want to miss it!

Ryan Gott, Ph.D., is the associate director of integrated pest management at Phipps Conservatory. Twitter: @Entemnein. Email: ryan.c.gott@gmail.com.

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