Bugs. You either love them or you hate them. You view them either as the beneficial cohabitants of the Earth that they are, or as the yucky, creepy crawlers that they appear to be. Well…then there’s the mosquito. There’s a special place in Hell for the mosquito. A subject for another time.
The ABQ BioPark lies along the iconic Rio Grande in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The BioPark is an environmental museum that contains a foursome of must-see family attractions: the Zoo, the Botanic Garden, the Aquarium, and Tingley Beach. The Aquarium and Garden sit adjacent to each other, and a single ticket gets you into both. Within the Botanic Garden is an additional attraction, the BUGarium — an impressive collection of creatures of the many-legged variety with antennae, mandibles, and exoskeletons to protect them from the likes of us.
Would you be surprised to learn that you can actually go behind the scenes of the BUGarium and get so close as to touch, feel and hold some of these creatures? You certainly can! You can make special arrangements at the BUGarium for a behind-the-scenes tour of the growing and breeding facility — a lab that ensures a constant and healthy supply of exotic creatures like spiders, beetles, and butterflies. There are naked mole rats as well, but how or why naked mole rats are part of the exhibit is anyone’s guess.
The behind-the-scenes tours are not well-publicized, at least, not on the BioPark’s main visitor page. But with a little poking around, you can get directly to the BUGarium behind-the-scenes tour page, with prices, visiting hours, and contact information. All tours are arranged directly with the manager of the BioPark Society and are hosted by a genuine entomologist. Tours last an hour, but often go longer at the discretion of the entomologist. It’s not like the bugs have somewhere else to be.
Because of the many exotic species, the lab must be specially licensed to keep them. It must adhere to strict regulations about things such as the double door system that prevents critters from escaping from the lab or from sneaking in from the outside. Visitors may not carry bags or anything that insects might decide to crawl into. Not that they’re flying all over the place, but any number of specimens can slip out of an open cage and mysteriously disappear. While this doesn’t constitute a great financial loss to the lab — bugs are literally a dime a dozen — they can potentially be an environmental hazard.
The lab exists to supply the exhibit with fresh specimens — most insects don’t live for more than a few days or months — and to study the various habits of the different species. This includes physical development, diet, life cycle, environmental conditions, mating, and other social characteristics. For instance, would a beetle rather eat a pile of rotting leaves or a banana? Seriously. They write all that down.
The BUGarium behind-the-scenes tour is not for everyone. Mostly, you would need a strong sense of curiosity and a weak sense of smell. No, just kidding. What you really need is a generally comfortable feeling about being around bugs, especially big ones. Most are slow and gentle. Some are skittish. Some appear to be downright friendly, although it’s most likely the impulse to climb in the general “up” direction and not so much because they want to give you a peck on the cheek.
The lab is a large room with wall-to-wall cages of plexiglass and mesh. It’s a balmy 78° and humid but not unbearably so. Perfect growing conditions for these exotic specimens. Your host will open each cage and bring out a sample critter, invite you to touch it, or to hold it, all the while assuring you that it won’t bite, sting or poop on you. And, generally, he’s right. What you can expect them to do is to hold on to you for dear life with those tiny claws that they use to climb branches and walls. This can be a disconcerting experience for someone with a low pain threshold, and an outright disaster for someone with a penchant for flailing his or her arms about in panic. But seriously, if your life were in any real danger, you wouldn’t have been handed that huge bug to begin with.
Up to 125 species of arthropods (which includes both insects and spiders) may be housed in the lab at any one time. Some have familiar cousins that inhabit your own backyard. Others are incredibly fascinating creatures: the Goliath beetles, the stick insects, the Tanzanian pink leg millipedes, and of course, the ever-popular tarantula. To describe everything in detail would not do them justice, so enjoy the photos. Better yet, take the ABQ BioPark BUGarium behind-the-scenes tour and capture some precious moments of your own.
Author’s Note: All BioPark facilities will be closed until after April 15, 2020 including indoor and outdoor exhibits.