DES ALLEMANDS, La. (AP) — Whirligig beetles skittering atop the slow water of Bayou Des Allemands were the first target of an evening bug hunt for the Audubon Insectarium as scientists sought to replenish its stock of swamp-swimmers.
Each of the bugs was only three-eighths of an inch long, but ripples from hundreds of random darts and circles along the bank showed up across the bayou.
The beetles, with their compound eyes divided to see both above and below the water, are tough to snag as singletons, said Jayme Necaise, the New Orleans museum's director of animal and visitor programs.
The trek to the bug-infested bayou area southwest of New Orleans is one they make six to eight nights a year during the warm weather months from May to October. Some of the bugs are raised to exhibit later at the insectarium, while others are shipped to other museums. Much of an insectarium's stock dies in a year or less, so the replenishment missions for local species are essential.
The whirligigs' confusion bewilders most predators, but Necaise and Zack Lemann collect them by sweeping nets back and forth from an airboat into crowds of the insects. Driver Greg Dufrene knew just where to go: He'd kept an eye out while giving daytime tours.
After chivvying a batch into a food storage box, Lemann, manager of animal and visitor programs, sniffed his fingers. The beetles emit a chemical to deter predators, but they're no stink bugs: "It smells like sour apple candy. I love it."
Necaise and Lemann get a few replacements, like the red-and-black wingless wasps known as velvet ants, from enthusiasts. Mostly they collect them, acquire surplus from other zoos and buy from suppliers.
In the days after the swamp trip, Lemann headed out to a pasture to hunt out fresh cowpats for the insectarium's dung beetles and to the Audubon Species Survival Center on New Orleans' west bank to turn over rotting wood for glossy, black patent-leather beetles.
It's a joy of museum work, Necaise said: "When you're in academic entomology, there's a lot of pressure to publish. When you're in a museum, it's more about education and collecting for the collection."
The insectarium, which attracts about 200,000 visitors a year, opened in 2008 to teach people about insects and their place in the world, such as pollinators, janitors and prey. But only a fraction of the 900,000 species can be shown. Many are too tiny or simply too dull — the museum needs animals that are big, brightly colored or do interesting things.
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