In the basement of Colorado State University’s Plant Sciences Building is a program dedicated to creepy crawly things. Well, things that creep and crawl anyway. Whether they’re actually “creepy and crawly” is up for debate.
Bugs are not nearly as spooky as Hollywood or Halloween make them out to be, said Maia Holmes, an entomologist and director of the University’s Bug Zoo, part of the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Department of Agricultural Biology.
At the Bug Zoo, Holmes and her team take care of more than 40 different species of arthropods, ranging from palm-sized tarantulas to tiny Kenyan cockroaches, barely visible to the naked eye.
“Our main goal is to share the wonderful world of arthropods,” said Holmes, who began as a volunteer at the zoo in 2013. “It’s an education collection to get people excited and help people fall in love with bugs.”
Holmes said she uses the term “bug” pretty loosely for an entomologist. But the goal is to make arthropods more accessible. That’s why, in addition to its home base on campus, the zoo also has a mobile unit so Holmes and her team can travel with a few select specimens to schools and events to educate people on the wild world of insects.
The idea for the Bug Zoo began about 30 years ago when then-CSU graduate student Michael Weissmann created a traveling bug mobile, which eventually became Westminster’s Butterfly Pavilion. CSU’s zoo was the first and last home to the pavilion’s original Rosie. The Chilean rose hair tarantula was made famous for being held by hundreds of thousands of people over the years. The first Rosie came from the zoo and later retired there, living to be approximately 35 years old, Holmes said.
But the goal of the zoo is not just about letting people experience things like seeing and hearing a Madagascar hissing cockroach hiss. Holmes admitted that she has an “ulterior” motive.
“I bring them around to hopefully get people excited about arthropods, but also to help them understand that they’re not just gross, creepy things that scare people,” she said. “They serve a purpose, and they are really important to basically every facet of life. And they’re also genuinely, really interesting and cool animals.”
People are taught to be afraid of bugs early on, Holmes said, adding that research shows that for a child, it just takes one adult in a position of trust — like a parent or a teacher — being visibly afraid of something one time to make a child afraid of that thing as well.
“But the good news is, because being afraid of spiders or bugs is a learned behavior, that means you can unlearn it as well,” she said. “So, coming into the Bug Zoo and looking at all these things helps a lot of people.”
The clear plastic containers that line the zoo’s walls are filled with every bug who’s ever made an appearance in a B horror movie — black widows, tarantulas, scorpions, cockroaches. All labeled with names like Peter Parker and the cast of the TV show “Friends.”
“I name them all because that makes them so much less scary,” Holmes said. “Like if I say, ‘Hey, this is Joey, he’s an Aphonopelma hentzi, an Oklahoma brown tarantula.’ That’s so much less scary than me saying, ‘Here’s a tarantula. Let me fact-bomb you about it.”
Much a-Boo! about nothing
Too often, especially around this time of year, spiders are more likely to be the subject of scary story than a topic of genuine curiosity.
“There is a big fear, especially with spiders like tarantulas,” Holmes said. “Black widows are also considered one of the more iconic ‘scary spiders.’ A lot of people think they’re much bigger than they are.”
They also think they’re more dangerous than they are in reality, she said. While the Black Widow spider’s venom can kill, it very rarely does.
“In the past 100 years, there have only been three recorded deaths from black widows,” Holmes said.
But if you believe the hype from movies, the news and social media, the spiders should be on a most wanted poster marked public enemy No. 1. In addition to assassin bugs and praying mantises, Holmes collects fake spider posts, featuring a host of stories about terrifying exotic arachnids supposedly “invading” the country, which — upon further inspection — most often turn out to actually be your run-of-the-mill, extremely harmless spider. In October, that number goes up as the holiday adds fuel to the fire.
“Fear is fun, and scary and Halloween go hand in hand,” she said. “We pay to get scared at corn mazes and in movie theaters. And because spiders are everywhere, it’s an easy way to get safely spooked.”
Holmes said that she gets it. Spiders have a lot of legs. They move kind of weird. They eat stuff that’s gross. But the truth is, among the thousands of species of spiders out there, only about three species are actually truly dangerous. And none of them are found in Colorado.
For those saying: What about those aforementioned black widows? It’s actually pretty hard to get them to bite a person, Holmes said. If they do bite, they are venomous. But the venom itself is not that dangerous, just painful. Potentially, very painful.
“It can make you vomit from the pain, but it’s just pain and then it goes away and you’re fine,” she said.
The same goes for that other infamous spider, the brown recluse.
Less than 5% of the population reacts to recluse venom, Holmes said. And you’re even safer here in Colorado, because despite popular opinion, they are not found here.
The other exotic pet problem
Another goal of the Bug Zoo is to educate those who aren’t afraid of spiders, Holmes said.
While tigers and snakes may be the exotic pets highlighted by the media, there is also growing interest in arthropods in the multi-million dollar industry. While owning animals like tarantulas, in and of itself, is fine, Holmes said that there is concern about where those spiders are coming from.
A few years ago, the rose haired tarantula was the “must-have” spider, she said. Then their numbers in the wild began to dwindle, partly due to climate change, but also because of the pet trade. Now Holmes is worried that the Asian forest scorpion — the new hot pet to get — will meet with a similar fate.
The zoo has become a place to teach arthropod and arachnid enthusiasts how to properly care for their pets, including to ensure future populations by only purchasing tarantulas and scorpions that were captive-bred responsibly.
“I get concerned when there are pet trends,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic, the exotic pet industry has blown up and the demand for exotic reptiles, arachnids and arthropods has quadrupled. People get really obsessive about getting the newest, weirdest, most rare thing, and so a lot of these tarantulas are hitting the market, and we don’t even know their populations in the wild.”
Ensuring proper care for spiders is another concern, Holmes said. Because while people have a pretty good understanding that not properly caring for a cat or dog is not OK, that same understanding doesn’t always extend to spiders.
“There’s a whole different feeling ethically about arthropods,” she said. “Some people don’t think they can feel pain and so that’s why they can treat them differently. I don’t think that’s a very ethical approach to animal care.”
And tarantulas can live for decades. The zoo’s Rose hair tarantula, Machi, is over 40 years old.
Connecting with other bug enthusiasts and educating them is one of the best ways to fight the problem, Holmes said. During the pandemic, the zoo’s ability to do outreach suffered. Now that it is back open for public tours, Holmes hopes to return to more outreach education soon.
“My job is to fulfill the land-grant part of the University’s mission — talking to the public, sharing knowledge with the public and also being a resource for people who want to know more and hopefully inspiring some future entomologists,” she said.
A world without bugs
Because what people should really be scared about is how bad things on this planet would be without them, Homes said.
“They’re fundamentally important to everybody,” she said. “If you like to eat food, you need bugs. If you like having things that grow in dirt, well, where do you think soil comes from? It’s from bugs. If you like chocolate, thank bugs. Cocoa beans are exclusively pollinated by flies.”
A world without chocolate, now that’s scary.