Insects ‘dead and alive’ at Academy of Natural Sciences’ Bug Fest

    The insect collection at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences is coming alive this weekend.

    This year, beetles get top billing. When it comes to biological architecture, they are some of the “showiest” bugs in the insect world.

    “They’ve got horns and projections and spines, and different color patterns. I think people are just gravitated to it, either they appreciate it or there’s a little bit of scare factor there,” said entomologist Jon Gelhaus.

    He’s the “fly guy” at the academy, but he knows beetles too. The Academy of Natural Sciences has four million bugs in its collection, including specimens from the 1820s.

    In one tray of ground beetles from Southeast Asia, the insects are so tiny, you need a microscope to see their detail.

    “And right next to it are these incredibly flattened, other worldly looking things that people might have a hard time saying they are beetles. They’re kind of shiny and a dark brown. They almost look like a flat shiny brown leaf,” Gelhaus said.

    Like most insects, beetles have two sets of wings.

    “In beetles, that first pair of wings are thickened and very strong, we call them elytra, and then the second pair of wings, the ones used for flight are usually tucked between that first pair of wings, so all we see is that shell,” Gelhaus said.

    A beetle maneuvers on whispery wings in the air. Curatorial assistant Greg Cowper says on the ground, a beetle is armored like a tank.

    “It can do things like fly, and then duck into a crevice or something, or a piece of rotten wood, or into a little corner between the Wawa and the pet store and get out of the way of a predator,” he said.

    Cowper has been studying bugs since he was four.

    “Things like stink bugs assassin bugs, and plant bugs and those kind of creatures,” he said.

    Lots of exotic dead insects will be on display at Bug Fest, but kids can also meet some live specimens. Cowper lets one scarab beetle climb up his arm, maybe because it’s kinda cute.

    “It’s a very beautiful lime green with lilac legs, it’s just gorgeous. The coloration helps them blend into things that they are eating, lighting on desert flowers, fruit that has fallen to the ground, and stuff like that,” he said.

    Cowper handles a mahogany-colored pinching scarab a little more carefully.

    “It kind of reminds me of some of the insects we fought in the movie ‘Starship Troopers,’ when they went to the bug planet,” he said.

    “The common name for this is the Siamese rhinoceros beetle, and they actually fight these guys,” Cowper said. “The males are horned so they can joust and wrestle with each other to win the favors of the females.”

    If you don’t make it to Bug Fest, there’s probably plenty of everyday examples in your backyard. Lady bugs, June bugs—even Pennsylvania’s official state insect: the lightning bug. They all are beetles.

    Beetlemania at Bug Fest is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 13 and 14 at The Academy of Natural Sciences.

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