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Life in the Bughouse

The Insectarium's keepers are mad about their charges


Tim O'Sullivan stops the cart at one of the exhibits. He takes a key and opens the lid on a terrarium containing a colony of live crickets. Reaching in, he exchanges their wilting produce for fresh stuff and -- spritz, spritz -- mists them with a sprayer. Suddenly they perk up, not unlike picnickers caught in an unexpected downpour. "These animals may actually prefer slightly rotted produce," says O'Sullivan, keeper of these tiny, twittering creatures, "but the guidelines say to replace food every day and mist every day."

The crickets, in O'Sullivan's parlance, are "veggie-eaters." The St. Louis Zoo's Monsanto Insectarium has, in terms of live specimens, way more veggie-eaters than carnivores. If they could count their blessings, these pampered on-display crickets certainly would, because, 10 feet away, in an adjacent room, is another container filled with brethren crickets whose hapless fortune is to get fed to the carnivores -- the centipedes, the scorpions, the praying mantises.

Actually, says O'Sullivan, "Insectarium" is a bit of a misnomer. "The Partula snails aren't insects, and neither are the tarantulas or the banana slugs. It probably should be called Invertebrate World." Whatever the designation, it is a relatively new concept in the zoo world. Including this charming facility, there are only five zoo-attached invertebrate houses in the U.S. Brimming with informative displays and enough live specimens to occupy a small patch of rainforest, the facility opened in May 2000 and was started on the premise that most people would appreciate -- even like -- bugs, if only they knew more about them. O'Sullivan, for one, is a tireless champion of bugs and buglike creatures.

"Either you know nothing about them at all," says the ponytailed, salt-and-pepper-bearded keeper, "or you stomp on them the minute you see them. Humans and insects coexist very closely, and yet most of us don't appreciate the largest group of animals. You take the entire animal kingdom -- 95 percent are invertebrates. The fact is, we would not exist without insects. The food chain would dry up. Honeybees alone pollinate plants that translate to billions of dollars in food each year."

O'Sullivan wheels the food cart past a color photo of an Indonesian girl munching on a tarantula. It looks crunchy, as though it's been cooked. An exotic version of chocolate-covered ants, that American confection found in novelty stores? The tarantula isn't poisonous, only venomous, he explains. "People can eat almost anything venomous," he offers. "And, in some parts of the world, they do."

He stops at the hissing-cockroach display. Spritz, spritz. The 3-inch-long Madagascar natives don't just hiss at random. Entomologists have determined that they hiss for perfectly good reasons: A hiss might say, 'Leave her alone, she's mine!' to other randy roaches, or it might broadcast a danger alert. Obligingly, O'Sullivan gently pokes one until it makes a sound like telephone static. In another glass enclosure, the giant prickly stick insect, looking like a desiccated leaf hanging from a twig, is, by O'Sullivan's assessment, "mild-mannered." This is not an apt description for the bullet-ant colony -- big, shiny black ants collected by a keeper on a trip to Peru. They are so called because, says O'Sullivan, "if one stings you, it feels like being shot by a bullet."

He passes over a static-pin beetle display. No feeding or misting needed there. That's one of the problems with an insect zoo, he explains. Certain species don't live long as adults but spend most of their lives in the larval stage, so it's hard to keep the displays filled with adult live specimens, which, after all, are far more interesting than burrowing grubs. The solution, he says, is to pin-mount the adults in lifelike poses. Most people don't even realize they are looking at dead bugs.

O'Sullivan's boss, curator of invertebrates Jane Stevens, holds a master's degree in entomology. O'Sullivan's experience with animals is nearly all practical. He attended St. Louis Community College-Meramec, hoping to become a veterinarian. "They had a work-study program," he recalls. "It was either the zoo or the Humane Society. I couldn't see myself euthanizing dogs and cats, so I chose the zoo." Ultimately he left college, putting aside the veterinary aspirations to don the khaki uniform of a zookeeper. He doesn't regret the decision: "The keeper sees the animals at their best. The vet sees them at their worst. As a keeper, you develop a relationship with the animals. You walk in the building, they walk up to you. They know you -- you're the guy with the treats. Some, like the big cats, want to be petted. You get some kind of a reaction. The vet walks in, they're skittish right off. They're thinking: 'He's going to do something to me that I don't like.'"

O'Sullivan, 44, and his wife live in nearby Dogtown and have two dogs, two cats and two rats. The preponderance of his 20 years with the zoo has been spent as an elephant keeper, where, in separate incidents, he sustained two ruptured discs handling pachyderm provisions and simply being around the huge animals. "I came from a place where I could get squished to a place where I can squish," he likes to joke. At least the bug house offers more variety: "With elephants, you get to know two species, the Indian and the African. Here, there are over 100 species. I did not have a great deal of knowledge about insects before starting here, and what I have discovered is that the information on insects is overwhelming. So I take it in chunks. I say, 'OK, now I'm going to learn about butterflies,' and I study the butterflies. I go to bees, then scorpions. I've yet to come across an insect that has not fascinated me by its behavior."

It's a safe bet, however, that George Winkler is not exactly fascinated by the behavior of the assassin bug. It was 10 years ago that Winkler, then-entomologist with the St. Louis Zoo, almost died as a result of the bite of the small, unformidable-looking insect. He was in the old entomology lab in the basement of what is now the Living World. If not for the perfect timing of another keeper who knew CPR and was able to administer it -- his colleague just happened to be walking by -- Winkler might have died. As it was, he spent a week in the intensive-care unit, and the story made the pages of the National Enquirer. "I have no recollection of the day it happened or the days after, because I went into anaphylactic shock," says Winkler, 67, now retired. "I was bitten before by this species and sensitized on that first one. But that's unusual. It doesn't happen to many people."

Certainly there are dangerous residents in the Insectarium, and precautions are taken that they remain there and not inadvertently hitch a ride to the world outside. For every animal in there, even the local ones, such as the roly-polies found on the zoo grounds, there is a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit. If an unknown species is collected -- say, on a foreign field trip -- and brought into the facility, a dead sample is sent to the USDA, which then determines whether the remaining specimens will be kept or destroyed. Even the dirt in the habitats, which is replaced after the insects have scarfed up everything edible, is sterilized on-site, first by freezing and then by cooking at 220° F for long periods. The dirt can then be reused or thrown out, but any eggs will be nonviable.

Actually, most insect eggs are carefully harvested and nurtured. Adjacent to the main exhibit floor and closed to the public is the containment room, a combination research lab and nursery. Kept here in labeled containers and terrariums are the extra specimens and their offspring, be they eggs the size of pinheads or grubs the size of smoky links. The adults drop their eggs in the soil and forget about them. When the dirt is used up and needs to be changed, volunteers sift through it, collect the eggs and put them aside to incubate. This is part of the zoo's plan to cultivate its own breeding stock instead of buying the animals from suppliers. Not that they want to be totally self-sufficient. "We'll always want to add new species," notes O'Sullivan. "We look at what the suppliers are offering, and, as new animals come up, we get kind of excited: 'Wow, let's try that one!' What we want here is a continuous revolving door, a place where there'll always be new animals to see."

Though insects are well studied as a group, knowledge is often sketchy at the species level, especially when it comes to basic care and feeding. Says Stevens, "Knowledge on husbandry, that's what we're short on. You can go out and pin-mount species by the thousands and learn a lot about them, but what we're trying to do is keep them alive -- and they don't come with instructions." Sometimes they simply fall back on the trial-and-error method of keeping. Take the case of the Peruvian grasshopper, a very picky eater. "In fact," says O'Sullivan, "it didn't want to eat at all. So I went around the zoo grounds and I picked a little of this, a little of that. It finally landed on honeysuckle." It's only recently, according to Stevens, that zoos with insect houses have started putting out instruction papers on husbandry. She says the St. Louis Zoo will soon become a contributor to that pool of knowledge.

There's also enough hanky-panky going on in the containment room to write a bug version of the Kinsey Report. In plain view, a shameless pair of jade-headed beetles copulate as the female eats a mooshy banana in the dirt. "Typical," says Stevens. "The males usually approach the females while they're distracted." Stevens is an expert on bug sex, and she enjoys talking about some of the more dramatic aspects of it. The conflicting urges of copulate/don't copulate in the praying mantis is a case in point. "Mantises have two brains," says Stevens. "The brain in the male's head says, 'Be careful.' Why? Because if the female allows the male to mate, she can turn around and eat his head off. But the other brain in the abdomen tells him to go for it, which he does. When she eats his head off, he keeps on mating. Actually, the males mate much better without a head. That fear is eliminated, and the other brain is saying, 'We're here! We're home! You're going to die anyway, so you might as well go with a smile on what used to be your face.' One mantis here mated with only his pulsating abdomen left after she had chewed the rest of him off. That is really a very focused male."

The keepers have to be careful in placing two animals together, because they don't want to lose any valuable specimens through carelessness. Another odd yet important task is determining sex in the various species. "You can sex them using a combination of things -- coloration, size and features," says O'Sullivan. "It's not easy to tell, but it's important to know when you're putting what you hope are the male and female together -- centipedes, for example. You put two males together, they might kill each other."

But, as the praying mantis demonstrates, there's no guarantee the poor male is going to survive sex with a female, either. Courting a female tarantula, according to Stevens, is about as safe as trying to dash across I-270 at rush hour. The male is placed in the female's habitat, and, if she's receptive, mating occurs within minutes. "It unfolds in a very predictable, almost machinelike fashion," says Stevens. "The female makes a web, which she lays out as a sort of welcome mat. He goes up to it and makes small, twitching movements: 'Hey, I'm over here. Are you interested?' And if she doesn't run over and bite his leg off, he knows she's interested. He has hooks on his front legs, and he runs over to her, and, as she rears up, he comes from behind and hooks her two fangs. He lifts her up," says Stevens, arms raised, arching her back to simulate the physical attitude of the female tarantula, "and pulls her back so she almost falls over backward. He has put a sperm packet on his pedipalps [specialized legs], and he puts that sperm into her sexual opening. When the job is finished, he runs like hell. He's practically climbing up the glass -- 'Help! Help!' -- because he knows she'll eat him if she can. Of course, we rescue him at that point."

One place in the Insectarium where the animals are not encouraged to reproduce is the Mary Ann Lee Butterfly Wing. "It's not that we don't want them to reproduce," explains O'Sullivan, "it's just that we have to have a USDA permit to reproduce them, and we have to be very careful that, with the public going through, no eggs or caterpillars escape from the dome." The plants in the dome act as a form of birth control. Butterflies require specific vegetation to breed, and these plants are selected because they are unappetizing to caterpillars and therefore the butterflies won't lay eggs on them. "We can't stop them from mating, but we stop the life cycle by not having the host plants in the dome," explains O'Sullivan.

Within the domed structure is a simulated tropical environment where water flows, flowers bloom and blue morphos, clippers, lacewings and other colorful creatures flutter about. Depending on the species, the butterflies live about two weeks. New ones are introduced weekly, however, and visitors may watch the fresh butterflies as they emerge from their chrysalises and dry their wings before taking flight.

It is a gentle place, one of the few on the zoo grounds where people can go in with the animals and perhaps be reminded that insects, if you take the time to look at them, are quite beautiful and intriguing.

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