Polly, a goliath bird-eating spider the size of a man’s hand, sat motionless in her tank looking like a giant, fuzzy fist while an audience of five kids stared and called more people over to her. Turns out she doesn’t eat birds, however, just cockroaches.
Fifteen kids with the Camp Fire organization entered the Missoula Insectarium Wednesday and immediately glued themselves in front of one of the 20 other creatures on display.
For their field trip, the kids received a lesson in animal mimicry courtesy of the water strider. After drawing pictures of the local aquatic bugs, they practiced their own mimicry in the classroom, trying to design boats based on how the insect managed to stay afloat.
Wednesday marked the last field trip and the last class for the Missoula Insectarium’s location on Front Street. After the class, it hosted its last birthday party.
“There’s a lot of lasts today,” said the insectarium’s executive director, Jen Marangelo.
The Missoula Insectarium will host a “Metamorphosis Celebration” Saturday before its space on Front Street closes permanently. Those attending can get one last look at Polly, hold Australian walking sticks that seem to dance as they climb across your hand, or try roasted crickets.
The Missoula Insectarium launched in 2009, with its four board members establishing the nonprofit with the aim to open an entire zoo, complete with a tropical butterfly house. In 2015, it completed the first phase in its organizational plan when it opened a zoo and classroom in downtown Missoula.
For the past four years, the facility has hosted field trips and birthday parties, as well as predator feedings and regular visits from locals. For its “Bugs and Brews” series, adult bug enthusiasts gathered in the classroom after business hours to grab a pint from a local brewery and listen to experts share their knowledge of the arthropod realm.
According to Marangelo, who was a founding board member along with her husband, Glenn Marangelo, the Missoula Insectarium will be entering a kind of chrysalis for the next two years. Although she and the rest of the staff wanted to keep the Front Street zoo operating, they could not continue leasing the space.
By partnering with Missoula County Weed District and Extension, the Missoula Insectarium will find a new home at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. Construction plans include a 2,000-square foot-zoo and 2,500-square-foot butterfly house. It will also house both indoor and outdoor classrooms.
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The indoor classroom will be named after Byron Weber, another founding board member who appeared for years on Montana Public Radio's "The Pea Green Boat" as the Bug Guy.
“We expect to break ground late next years and, if all goes well, open in 2021,” Marangelo said.
“When we first started out, we weren’t even sure about opening an insectarium,” she said. “But, now we know that when we open that larger facility, we’re going to be getting a lot more traffic.”
Until that facility opens, the residents of the insectarium will still have a home. Some will be given to the biology department at the University of Montana. Others will remain with staff members, who will continue to visit schools for the next two years.
The Missoula Insectarium plans to participate in community events hosted by organizations like spectrUM and the Empower Place. In fall of 2019, it will also launch an exhibit at the Montana Natural Science Center.
“It’s important for people to know that we definitely aren’t going anywhere,” said Carolyn Taber, the insectarium’s museum educator. Taber has been with the Missoula Insectarium since it opened on Front Street, and helped designed the classroom for its Missoula Fairgrounds location.
Since it opened, Taber said the Insectarium has seen regular visits from ages ranging from high school students on their first date to retirees. While hosting classes and field trips, she’s been able to watch hundreds of visitors to work up the courage to finally hold a bug.
“Kids learn in all kinds of different ways,” she said after telling one of the Camp Fire kids to find his favorite bug to draw. “I love doing this, because a lot of the time kids will come in scared, but leave having held a bug and told they’d be a great bug scientist.”
It’s hard to pick her favorite bug, but Taber herself is partial to Milton, an 11-inch African giant millipede.
“If you take a look at him,” said Marangelo as she let the millipede stretch out across the top of her hand, “you can’t help but feel something.
“Whether it’s awe or fear, that emotion can be a powerful tool in learning about these animals that are so important to our planet.”