Imagine a summer afternoon. You go outside, sit in your lawn chair with a glass of lemonade, and open the book you’ve been waiting to read. The cell phone, laptop, tablet, and all other forms of technology are in the house. You are enjoying peace and quiet in your world.
However, it soon becomes clear you are not alone. The birds are rustling around the birdfeeder. Bees are buzzing around the flowers, butterflies are gracefully lighting on your rhododendrons, and unbeknownst to you, other kinds of insects are all around you. You close the book and immerse yourself in the world of the outdoors.
The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium is creating such an outdoor world with a summer exhibit called “Insectopia,” consisting of bees, butterflies, and insects.
Adam Kane, executive director of the museum, talked about this year’s exhibits which, along with the indoor insect collection, will include live exhibits in the back yard.
The observation beehive was the first exhibit to arrive. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and the museum had to wait for warmer weather before setting up the hive. So where did they keep the hive until installation?
Adam laughs and said, “It was living at my home in the pantry. There was a tube going out the back of the case onto my porch so that the bees could come and go. My kids were pretty excited to watch all the activity.”
Individual bees are known to travel up to three miles. When they come back, their legs have little balls of pollen attached to them.
“It was a sad day when the bees left our home to come to the museum,” he added.
That event happened the morning of May 9. The observation beehive was installed near the museum’s handicapped ramp at the back of the building with the assistance of George Cobb. The case is antique-looking and specifically chosen to look like the dioramas in the museum. Measuring 30 inches by 20 inches by four feet tall, it has strips of wood near the top to simulate the inside of a tree. The bees live in the observation hive, create their honey combs, and raise their larvae in full view of visitors. Information about the hive, the queen bee, worker bees, and drones are posted around the case. On the morning of the installation three children, Willa Mantius, Lily Rossetti, and Nora Laverty, become the first visitors to view the bees. They excitedly watch the bees buzz around and agree to a picture in front of the hive. The children are part of the Balch Nature School, a pre-school program at the museum, directed by Carolyn Guest.
The museum worked with Mike Heath, one of the owners of Kingdom Crust, who suggested purchasing the bees from a breeding company in Georgia. The bees arrived in a small box about one foot long by six inches by eight inches with screens on the sides. Adam believes there were about three pounds of bees.
“Probably somewhere around 10,000 bees were in the box,” he said. The was delivered by someone who also delivers to beekeepers and commercial hives.
The bees arrived with a little can of sugar syrup, which they eat along the way to provide nutrition to keep them alive. The beehive is always between 90 and 95 degrees year round no matter what the temperature is outside. The bees generate heat by being together.
As one would expect, the queen bee is special, but this colony did not have a queen. The breeders selected a new queen and delivered her separately in a small wooden box with a screen over it. She was shielded from the other bees during the trip because if they had discovered her, they may not have recognized her as their queen and killed her. The queen’s box has a cork in one side, which after delivery, is pulled out and replaced by a mini-marshmallow. The bees eat through the marshmallow over the next few days and by the time they reach the queen, they think she is their queen.
Queen bees normally live a couple of years and lay thousands of eggs every year, which are then raised by the worker bees and within a matter of weeks there will be new bees in the hive. A worker bee tends to live for six to eight weeks. They are aptly named as they feed the queen, drones, and larvae. They also collect nectar and pollen. Although the worker bees are females, they cannot lay eggs. The drones are males and their duty is to mate with the queen. They are bigger than the worker bees and their eyes are about twice the size.
Bees are important to all of us. As well as carrying pollen and fertilizing flowers, they are also important to crops. According to the American Beekeeping Federation at www.abfnet.org, “As honey bees gather pollen and nectar for their survival, they pollinate crops such as apples, cranberries, melons and broccoli. Some crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90-percent dependent on honey bee pollination….” There are many interesting facts about bees, and Bobby Farlice-Rubio, one of the Museum’s educators and part of the team installing the exhibit, will be available to answer questions.
All bees have colonies, whether in a tree, slats of a barn, or the inside of a garage. They do not operate on their own but instead work together as a community. Adam has not seen the queen bee since they put her in the hive. She has many bees around her all the time supporting her, feeding her, and making sure everything is going well. On the backside a tube reaches out about 8 feet so that the bees can come and go easily and not bother people in the front who are looking at the exhibit.
When asked whether there is the possibility of bee stings among visitors, Adam replied, “I corresponded with the London Museum and they have several observation hives. They had had two stings in the last five years. Of course, people allergic to bee stings should bring their EpiPen.”
Recently, the museum cut down a 120-year old oak tree due to its deteriorating condition. A second observation beehive will be installed inside the hollow of the tree with a glass pane for viewing.
Another exhibit that should prove delightful is the native butterfly house. It will include five different species of butterflies plus one species of moth native to this area. The most popular butterfly in this area and the one most people are familiar with is the Monarch. The other butterflies include the American Lady, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, and Eastern Black Swallowtail. In May, the butterfly chrysalides arrive. Prior to going into the butterfly house, they will be hatched in terrariums. There are four stages of a butterfly’s life–eggs laid on a host plant, larvae (or caterpillar), chrysalis (a development stage between the larvae and butterfly where the insect is enclosed in a cocoon), and the emergence of the adult butterfly. The milkweed is an extremely important plant on which a butterfly can lay an egg. The milkweed provides toxins to the caterpillars that later will protect the butterfly from predators.
The butterfly house will be 20 feet by 36 feet and located next to the William D. McGuire Center (the building housing the Museum’s administrative offices) and across the yard from the beehive. The butterfly house will be a screen-covered hoop house. You will enter through an arbor that has screening around it and then through another door. There will be a small pavilion in the middle with descriptions of the butterflies and the moth. Benches will be available so that you can sit and relax while looking at the butterflies, caterpillars, perhaps the moth if you can find it, and their interaction with all the plants. The plants are currently growing at Adam’s house and four other employees’ houses. There will be a public event in mid- to late June to announce the opening of the butterfly exhibit.
The other attraction is a traveling insect exhibit arriving from the Montreal Insectarium called “We Are the Insects.” Six different species of live insects that are not native to this area will be showcased including a tarantula, scorpions, flower beetles, cockroaches, stick insects, and mantises. Rest assured that they will all be behind glass for viewing. These insects will be located in the main hall as you walk into the Museum.
The idea for the insect program started with Leila Nordmann, the director of programs, who previously worked at the Boston Museum of Science in its butterfly house. She suggested setting up a butterfly tent here. The group started with that idea, did some research, and found the bees and insects that they could link to the core piece of the exhibit.
The museum also has a series of insect–related classes. Since some exhibits started at the end of the school year, many classes will not see them until fall. The classes include The Spider Enigma (grades K-5); The Real Vampires: Parasites! (grades 3-8); Ancient Insect Mythology (grades 3-8); Among the Honorable Orders of the Insects (grades 3-8); Entomophagous (grades 4-8); Are You an Insect? (grades K-2); and Insect Biomimicry (grades 1-3).
Along with the exhibits will be three lectures presented as part of the William Eddy Lecture Series. On June 15 and June 22 there will be evening presentations at St. Johnsbury Academy on native and invasive insects. On July 15 a day-long insect field expedition will be held. Those going on the expedition will meet at the Sherryland Farm in Danville.
The Museum is very thankful for all the individuals and companies underwriting this program. “When all is said and done, including installations, staff time, and resources, the cost will be in the $80,000 range,” Kane said.
At the end of the exhibition, the bees in the tree will stay there permanently, and the ones in the exhibit will go to a beekeeper or staff member. Butterflies will be set free. The insects will be returned in September to the Montreal Insectarium or sent to another institution along their tour.
Bring your children to the museum this summer and enjoy Insectopia. Admission is free if your town supplies appropriations to the museum. Otherwise, the fee is $9 for adults, $7 for senior citizens and children under 17 years old, and free for children under five years old.
It’s a fun place. Come, observe, and learn lots of new facts about the insects that share our world.
Check the Museum’s website at www.fairbanksmuseum.org for further information.