The historic U.S. Custom House in New Orleans is teeming with pests—ants, termites, beetles, spiders and more. The place is infested, but in this case most folks couldn’t be happier. A year ago, a section of this 160-year-old Greek revival building on Canal Street was transformed into the Audubon Nature Institute’s goal is to exalt these tiny creatures and show how vital they are to our ecosystem.
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“If all were to disappear,” famed entomologist Edward O. Wilson wrote in 1992, “humanity would probably not last more than a few months. …The land surface would literally rot.” Insects dispose of our waste; they pollinate our crops. They aerate the soil and recycle nutrients.
“Insects are often misunderstood,” says Insectarium entomologist Jayme Necaise. “People think they’re icky and gross. We want to change their minds about insects.” And that even includes getting visitors to eat a few of the critters.
The museum’s 70 educational and often whimsical live exhibitions cover more than 23,000 square feet of the Custom House. Exploring them is an up-close interactive experience that occasionally may become a bit uncomfortable for the very squeamish. You can face off against a 15-foot animatronic centipede, get a whiff of a whirligig beetle’s defensive odor, walk atop a scorpion pit, peer into the core of a termite-infested tree or stick your head into grocery store mock-up where roaches are crawling all over the products. The tabletops in the museum café are glass display cases housing giant tarantulas, silkworms or other insects that creep and crawl in full view just beneath your lunch.
A film spoofing Hollywood’s Oscars honors exceptional insects—best bug in a supporting role goes to the hardworking honeybee. In addition to making honey, bees pollinate a large percentage of the earth’s food plants. And to help visitors really feel that they’re in the presence of insects, the theater’s simulation seats deliver a few pokes and tickles and a puff of insect odor. In the Bug Hall of Fame, visitors learn some fascinating factoids: that a male horsefly was once estimated to be going about 90 miles per hour; that one type of midge beats its wings almost 63,000 times per minute; that the spittlebug can leap 28 inches in the air, with a force 400 times greater than gravity.
A Louisiana swamp exhibition is devoted to local insects, showcasing water scorpions, whirligig beetles, velvet ants, and lubber grasshoppers. Apparently, insects play a role in hurricane defense, surely a topic of great importance to the people of New Orleans, who have endured Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav in the last four years. Insects recycle nutrients by decomposing dead animals and vegetation to help maintain healthy coastal wetlands, which act as a buffer to the surge of water that accompanies a hurricane.
One room is filled with dazzling preserved specimens, arrayed fancifully in display cases. “We call them ‘wow’ bugs,” says museum manager Zack Lemann. “There’s a lot of eye candy.” Here are hundreds of brilliantly colored beetles of several varieties. There is also a pair of Queen Alexandra's birdwings, “the rarest butterfly in the world," according to Lemann. "It lays its eggs on one type of vine on the side of one mountain in Papua New Guinea." The specimens were collected in 1917, and the female’s wingspan is nearly a foot wide. In the next room, the Metamorphosis Gallery, you can watch live adult butterflies emerging from hundreds of hanging chrysalises. And further on, in a serene, beautiful Japanese Garden, several hundred butterflies—blue morphos, zebra longwings, swallowtails, and others—flutter freely from plant to plant, sometimes perching on visitors.
Should you want a closer encounter, stop by the “Bug Appetit” buffet to sample cuisine concocted from insects. “Our chef Kevin whips up some mean cricket beignets—fried dough with crickets,” says Necaise. “It adds a nice little nutty flavor.” Also on the menu are “chocolate chirp cookies,” “buggy banana bread,” and “crispy Cajun crickets.” For Thanksgiving, Bug Appetit’s chefs made a turkey with waxworm stuffing and mealworm cranberry sauce. Lemann admits it’s often difficult to persuade visitors to “expand their gastronomic horizons.” We happily eat crustaceans, he points out, which are “the closest relative to insects on the planet.”
A chef stands before a stove, stirring a skillet of something with a vaguely Chinese food aroma. A French cookbook called Delicieux Insectes: Les Proteines du Futur sits at the edge of the stove. As he spoons out waxworms sautéed in Asian spices, I politely decline and move on to other fare. I finally manage to nibble a tiny, apple-and-cinnamon flavored cricket. It tastes like Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Moments later, I am outdone by an eager 10-year-old, who scarfs down a sliced bagel topped with plump caterpillars.
I’m impressed by the kid’s intrepid palate, but I wonder if he’s consuming future monarchs or blue morphos. Not to worry, Lemann says later. Those tasty larvae were destined to become plain brown moths.