We’ve all done the classic jaunts down to Philadelphia with (or without) the kids to see the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Please Touch Museum. But by late summer the tried and true becomes tired. Time to move beyond the traditional and try something different – a visit to the Insectarium.
The Insectarium, located in northeast Philadelphia, is a small, quirky, privately owned museum. It features an amazing collection of bugs, bugs, and more bugs both dead, as mounted specimens and alive, in all their wriggling, crawling, scurrying glory.
The best time to come is during the warmer months when the number of live bugs on the premises peaks, owner Steve Kanya says. The collection at the Insectarium includes the ordinary and the exotic. Examples from around the world are Madagascar hissing cockroaches and Egyptian scarab beetles. Scorpions live in boxes flooded by black light to display their spooky florescence. Thousands of butterflies and moths are painstakingly mounted in glass-topped display cases.
For over the top shock value there is nothing like a good look at the cockroach kitchen, a life-sized roach motel in the middle of the second floor. The full-sized kitchen complete with linoleum floors, cabinets, and a sink loaded with dirty dishes stands back to back with a grubby bathroom. Both are enclosed in Plexiglas with an electrified metal strip running along the upper perimeter to prevent the more adventurous residents from escaping.
The fun starts with a spritz of water that activates the black beauties as they begin to race around. The colony is self-breeding, similar to a home infestation. Kids are fascinated. But this adult felt a bit itchy to leave and readily admits to the distinct sensation of a bug crawling around on me somewhere after a few minutes of show time. Kanya confirms that my feeling is not uncommon. He says he often observes "adults start scratching themselves subconsciously" while viewing the exhibit.
My own initial visit was somewhat involuntary in nature. Markedly bug-phobic since childhood, I caved in to the pleas of a second grade teacher desperate for parent volunteers. But my good deed was rewarded for it was at the Insectarium that I finally found a scale I could love. After stepping on, the dial spins and the results are displayed not in pounds but in bugs. Fully dressed, forgoing my usual tricks of removing my shoes, all jewelry and then exhaling, I tipped the scales at 1.9 million mosquitoes, a number somehow more tolerable than my usual reading. My average-sized eight-year-old daughter weighed in next and came in at a shocking 125,000 butterflies.
The kids all loved crawling through a scaled-up spider web, tunnel shaped and made of bungee cords, and visiting with Vinny, the whip-tailed scorpion from Arizona about as large as a man’s pinky. He has no stinger and instead sprays a liquid that smells like vinegar in self-defense.
Death-feigning beetles that roll over and play dead when accosted and a black millipede, half the width of my palm, were some other hits. The staff allows visitors to touch these bugs as well as look them over. On the second floor there is a functioning honeybee colony. Worker bees ferry pollen and kids enjoy trying to spot the queen within the teeming mass of activity.
In addition to a high "wow" factor, Insectarium exhibits explain scientific concepts such as cryptic coloration, the natural world’s predecessor to camouflage, using the characteristics of insects as an illustration. Free educational materials are available on all kinds of insects and animals commonly considered pests including squirrels (Pennsylvania is home to at least eight species), ants, and meal moths (There are four dozen types including earwigs).
The insect motif predominates throughout the building. The welcome sign near the entrance to the second floor is made of hundreds of bugs. Colorful floor-to-ceiling murals of outdoor scenes with bugs flitting adorn the walls of the second and third floors.
The tarantulas and scorpions that were for sale as pets at the tiny gift shop at the time of our visit are no longer available. (Luckily, my child was smart enough not to ask.) Mounted insects are an alternative offering.
Located at 8046 Frankford Avenue, the first floor houses the offices of a pest control business along with a glass counter devoted to gifts and souvenirs. There is a large lunchroom in back for school groups. Exhibits occupy the second and third floors.
This tribute to insects, which opened in 1992, is the brainchild of Steve Kanya, an exterminator with a scientific bent. Kanya started his pest control business 29 years ago while he was working as a Philadelphia police officer and "trying to supplement the income." He launched the company in January, not high season for bugs. It was a rocky beginning and he confides his income for the first three months totaled $88.
Things grew slowly and Kanya got in the habit of putting his most interesting catches, like a nest of baby squirrels or rats or a big hornet’s nest, on display in his storefront. "Whenever I went out and caught something unusual, I would put it in the front window."
The window attracted the attention of passersby and motorists who would pause to have a closer look. Area daycare providers made it a regular stop on their walks.
When the business moved into its current location, Kanya decided to take advantage of the interest and make a floor of the new building into a bug museum. "One floor we kill the pests and the other floor we raise them," he jokes about the arrangement where the museum and extermination company share the same building.
It was a project that was easier conceived than executed, taking seven years before opening to the public. Kanya approached both domestic and foreign collectors and entomologists for specimens.
In April, Kanya sold his insect extermination business, Steve’s Bug Off, to Terminix to focus on animal pest control and the museum. In addition to hosting visitors, the Insectarium offers a traveling show and leases insects to Disney World, zoos, movies and TV shows. Kanya describes a soap opera episode where an Insectarium tarantula was placed as the menace lurking within a lush bouquet of Valentine’s Day roses.
Nearly 40,000 people visit the Insectarium each year, estimates Kanya. The number includes school and camp tours, private visitors, and kids attending birthday parties on site. The clientele also includes those trying to defeat their fear of insects via a desensitization process. These folks make repeated visits of steadily increasing duration to fight the bug frights. "Until they really see it, they don’t understand it," says Kanya when describing this spin off creation.
The Philadelphia Insectarium, 8046 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia. $6 admission. 215-335-9500, www.insectarium.com.