AUGUSTA — Abe Boulter was not planning to touch one of the many tarantulas in his vicinity, but he had no problem holding a Madagascar hissing cockroach.

Abe’s hands-on experience with the non-native cockroach was one of the many activities available at Bug Maine-ia at the Maine State Museum Tuesday.

Joanna Torow, the museum’s chief educator, said she expected more than 1,000 students and hundreds of teachers and chaperones for the all-day event. Children from as far away as Bangor to South Portland and Yarmouth to Camden spent hours exploring the museum’s displays of insects, bugs and other wonders of the animal kingdom.

“The kids really love insects, they love that it’s in a different setting than their school and they love meeting real scientists who are working with insects,” Torow said. “Plus they get to touch a lot of the insects, so this is really exciting for them.”

Throughout the multi-level museum, children learned about bees and beekeeping from the Kennebec Beekeepers Association, about reptiles and amphibians that help control the insect population from a water microbiologist and about tarantulas and scorpions from “the Bug Man.”

Jim Nutting walked around the lobby of the museum near his Maine Art Glass Studio and Butterfly and Insect Museum display and was approached by several children who were immediately taken aback. On his black T-shirt that read “Bug Man” were one, sometimes two tarantulas just hanging out.

Nutting let interested and brave students hold the hairy arachnids and assured everyone that they were harmless. He even took out one of his scorpions and allowed it to crawl up his arm while a giant African millipede pooped in his hand. It’s all part of educating children, and also adults, to not fear these insects.

“People have grown up being creeped out by spiders and things, so I try to expose as many people as I can to these different insects,” Nutting said. He added that in the last 10-15 years since he began working with live insects, he’s never been bitten or stung.

The same cannot be said for Bob Foster, vice president of the Kennebec Beekeepers Association.

“I’ve gotten about 12 or 13 this year already,” he said of the number of times he’s been stung. “Over the years, it’s probably around 60. Last week, I had thousands attack me. Why? Because they’re bees.”

Foster said being calm around a bee is the most important thing, because if you’re calm, the bee is calm, and you can actually pick them up sometimes.

“Parents too often mix up the stinging insects, like wasps, hornets and yellow jackets, with honeybees,” Foster said. “Honeybees don’t want to sting, because if they sting, they die.”

Following a winding “ant trail” on the museum floor, visitors stopped at retired science teacher Jon Wallace’s display of fossils from 550 million years ago, tarantula skins and Venus fly traps. Farther down the trail, Allison Kinney, a water microbiologist from New Gloucester, had two of her pet bearded dragons and a gecko, plus some toads and a garter snake she recently caught to show how other animals keep the insect population under control.

Outside the museum, kids were running around with nets and specimen containers trying to catch whatever insects they could find. Officials from the Maine Forest Service and Maine Entomological Service cataloged the spiders, ants, earwigs and beetles as each student presented their finds.

Joshua Villazana, a student at the University of Maine in Orono, explained to Abe Boulter, 9, and his siblings and first cousins that the cockroach species he was holding is actually kept as a pet. The cockroaches don’t bite because their mouths are too small and they don’t fly away.

Abe’s mother, Meagan Boulter, brought him and his two brothers and one sister from Sanford to the event with her sister, Amanda Doiron, and her four kids, who drove from Kingston, New Hampshire.

“They were so excited, and I think they’ll learn a lot,” Doiron said.

By around 11 a.m., hundreds of students had already gone through the museum. A family of four from Augusta was trying some roasted crickets at the Edible Insects table while second-graders from Frank I. Brown Elementary School in South Portland couldn’t contain their excitement about seeing all the insects, especially the tarantulas.

A group of eager students couldn’t wait to get inside and were pressing teacher Elizabeth Weeks to “hurry.”

“We’ve been talking about the trip since school started,” Weeks said.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ


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