A History of Celebrating the Insect Zoo

Child at Insect Zoo, 1977, by David Lee, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 371, Box 2, F

When you think of the National Museum of Natural History, what comes to mind are probably inanimate things—rocks and dinosaur bones, cultural objects, and stuffed animals. But did you know that the museum has a collection of live insects?

Today is the 35th anniversary of the opening of the permanent installation of the Insect Zoo, though the Zoo actually began as a temporary summer exhibit five years earlier in 1971. That summer, insects at the museum were housed in borrowed aquariums and volunteers provided information to the public. The exhibit was so popular that it was reprised annually and on August 23, 1976, the museum opened the world’s second Insect Zoo. (The first one was at the London Zoo).

Nora Besansky Feeding the Tarantula, 1977, by Richard K. Hofmeister, Smithsonian Institution Archive

The Insect Zoo in DC allows visitors to observe live insects and other arthropods, which are invertebrate animals that have external skeletons, segmented bodies and joined appendages, like spiders and centipedes.. Volunteers conduct feeding demonstrations, answer questions, and provide opportunities for visitors to touch certain animals. Some of the arthropods are obtained from museum professionals and biological supply companies, while others are collected in the wild by staff and amateur arthropod hunters. Many of the animals are exotic or of agricultural significance and require permits from the US Department of Agriculture.

At the Insect Zoo’s 10th anniversary party, held on December 3, 1986, the celebration included  congratulatory speeches peppered with humorous stories. The remarks made were tape recorded and transcribed in the January 1987 issue of Creature Features, the Insect Zoo’s monthly newsletter (see the Archives’ Accession #11-203). In his closing statement,  National Museum of Natural History Director Robert S. Hoffman said: “The evening really belongs to the six, eight, ten, and multi-legged people in attendance and we two-legged admirers will have to take a back seat to them.” Chocolate covered cockroaches and grasshoppers were served at the event.

Office Exhibits Central Modelmakers Paul Rymer, top left, and Carolyn Thome, top right, work on a mo

In 1992, the Insect Zoo was redesigned and renovated, thanks to a donation from the Orkin Company.  The redesigned exhibit reopened in 1993 as the O. Orkin Insect Zoo and placed its inhabitants into a larger global context, allowing visitors to discover the ecological importance of insects and their interdependent relationships with them.

On June 6, 1997, the Insect Zoo celebrated its 20th anniversary (10 months after its actual birthday). Staff and volunteers gave speeches and reminisced about the “early days.” Volunteer Bernice Hantman even wrote a poem for the occasion:

A Short Ode to Insect Zoo Volunteering

The wondrous smiles on their faces when they feel the pupa squirm,

The squeals they emit when they’re handed the hornworm,

Crowds, Humor, Joy and the people with whom you work –

Like Nancy, Allan, Fran, Ethel, Joe, and Nate,

I would wish for everyone who volunteers a similar fate.

We can’t speak for any other Smithsonian situation

But the O. Orkin Insect Zoo suits us to the point of celebration.

The celebration was recorded in both the June and July/August 1997 issues of Creature Features (see Accession #11-203). It was also noted that surveys had shown that the Insect Zoo was one of the three most popular exhibits at the museum, with over 1 million people visiting each year.  The dinosaur and gem halls rounded out the top three.   Today, the Insect Zoo continues to be a popular exhibit and was joined, in 2008, by another live exhibit, the Butterfly Pavilion. One of the Archives’ recent accessions, #11-192, documents the development, transformation, management, marketing, and activities of the Insect Zoo.

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