Posted: January 7, 2009 in science
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A Large-Size Focus on Life Lived Small

insectsinsects2By NATALIE ANGIER
Published: January 5, 2009 NYT

NEW ORLEANS — Zack Lemann opened the thick acrylic terrarium marked “Dung Beetles” and began poking around in the dirt and, uh, beetle food with the delicate vigor of a practiced surgeon. A moment later he emerged with a piece of live jewelry balanced on his fingertip: Phanaeus vindex, the rainbow scarab. “Isn’t it a beauty?” Mr. Lemann said proudly. “Purple, green and gold — as close to Mardi Gras colors as you can get.”

Its party armor isn’t the only trait that suits Phanaeus to its bayou setting. For the ancient Egyptians, the sacred scarab symbolized resurrection and self-invention, the power to tunnel out from the tar-pit grip of the earth and back into the agile light of morning, and who better to counsel rebirth in the wake of inundation and obliteration than a civilization built on the floodplains of the Nile?

Here at the boisterous new Audubon Insectarium, a $25 million private nonprofit venture located on the shank of the French Quarter, metaphors and messages are easy to find, coin and liberally mix. Let’s start with the mixing of the large and the small. Opened just half a year ago, the Insectarium is the largest museum in the nation devoted solely to insects and their arthropod relations. It is also the first major attraction to open in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina howled through the city in 2005. “We want to let the nation know that we’re coming back as a city,” said Mr. Lemann, a staff entomologist who helped design many of the exhibits. “We’re not just coming back, we’re looking forward as well.”

The museum is also large with special effects, most notably a so-called 4-D movie theater where audience members are treated to a multisensory experience as they watch an insect-themed cartoon with voiceovers by Jay Leno, Joan Rivers and other celebrities, all while sitting in special $2,000 chairs that prickle and poke them, insect-style, and are spritzed with samples of insectile perfumes. And if at the end of the 4-D foray anybody can remember what the movie was about, I will happily spring for lunch at the museum’s Bug Appétit cafe, where the boyishly enthusiastic and slightly pushy Mr. Lemann shamed me into sampling the insect cuisine, like the “crispy Cajun crickets,” which consists of fried, spiced crickets, and the “waxworm chutney,” which consists not of worms but of plump white caterpillars that parasitize beehives. “The hardest part is convincing people to try eating insects in the first place,” Mr. Lemann said. The second hardest part is persuading people who don’t have a pet lizard to take home some leftovers.

Despite the museum’s large size and larger expectations, however, its true focus is on life lived small, on the insects that surround us and define the world we humans happen to inhabit. It can be easy to ignore insects or consider them insignificant, as exemplified by the museum visitor who, on hearing that all the work in an ant colony was performed by females, said to her son: “You see, honey? It’s just like in the real world.” The “real world”? You mean the one in which, for every one of us, there are maybe 1.5 billion of them, and for every pound of human there are maybe 200 pounds of insect? In the real world, insects account for nearly 90 percent of all living species, and there are as many varieties of beetles alone as there are plants. “Insects won’t inherit the Earth,” the renowned Cornell entomologist Thomas Eisner has said. “They own it now.”

Through a mix of live animal displays and artful arrangements of posthumous specimens, the museum emphasizes the spectacular abundance and diversity of the insect class, and how everything that can be done is being done somewhere in their ranks.

Insects are defined by a few salient features — the six segmented legs, the three body parts of head, thorax and abdomen, the exoskeleton that lends them their crunch — yum yum. But given 440 million years of evolution, very short generation times and extremely large litters, oh what an obscenity of riches can be wrought from the basic Insecta ingredients. You end up with the Costa Rican fairyfly, a parasitic wasp that is smaller than a single-celled paramecium, and with the Borneo walking stick, which at 22 inches is nearly as long as a human arm. You have flies that resemble wasps and metalmark moths that mimic jumping spiders and diving beetles that look like cute little turtles as they swim through the water but are voracious predators capable of devouring little turtles. If you can watch the walking leaf insects as they creep through the leaves of their display and not be agog at the precision of their evolved camouflage, with those fake leaf veins and those fake leaf cutouts that mimic the chewings of herbivorous insects past, then, sorry, you are already garden mulch.

And there is so much skulduggery among insects, so many iterations of the flea-upon-flea strategy. For example, in one species of velvet ant — which looks like a large, furry ant but is really a wasp — the female waits for the offspring of another parasitic wasp to fatten up on the host insect it has invaded and, just before the pupa is about to emerge from that hollowed host shell, lays her eggs in the pupa to begin their own evisceration. Dragonflies are brilliant aerial hunters, but robber flies can catch both dragonflies and their prey in midflight.

The Insectarium celebrates the essential roles that insects play, from the breezily lovable honeybees and butterflies that fertilize our crops to the less photogenic crews that clean up our filth. One mesmerizing time-lapse movie clip at the museum shows the industrious recycling of a rat corpse, as a fly lays her eggs in its blinded eye, and maggots boil out and reduce the carrion to a memory of fur, and, finally, fresh green shoots spring up from the fertilized ground. Insects remind us that the wheel of life keeps on spinning. Come sorrow and loss, breached levees and broken trust, there’s always a new year, another party, a bittersweet song.


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