It wasn't chemistry that brought together Corinne Parks and Lloyd Tydings, but entomology.
The friends not only see eye to eye with each other, but with New Guinea stick insects, fuzzy tarantulas, Madagascar hissing cockroaches and other esteemed members of the phylum Arthropoda, which includes all invertebrates with jointed limbs, segmented bodies and exoskeletons.
Neither Parks nor Tydings thinks twice about clutching creepy crawlies or keeping black widows as pets. But when an Australian stick insect lays a seed-like egg from its pyracantha perch, the "two bugs in a rug" are thrilled to pieces.
Parks and Tydings' fascination with the phylum's members -- insects, arachnids, millipedes, crustaceans and centipedes -- is the genesis of the new Insect Zoo, which opens Saturday at the Carrie Murray Outdoor Education Campus in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park. From noon until 4 p.m. visitors can explore the zoo, take an insect walk, watch a tarantula feeding demonstration and sample Tydings' cricket cuisine, among other activities. Entomologists from the Smithsonian's O. Orkin Insect Zoo and the Entomological Society of Maryland will also offer their expertise.
Parks, director of the center and an avid lover of all critters bright and small, called Tydings, a self-taught naturalist who raises snakes and breeds colonies of cockroaches and other insects, after reading a story in a community newspaper about his nature presentations in schools, bookstores and other settings.
"I called him up and said, 'I want to meet you,' " says Parks, whose office in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park is a wonderful jumble of dream catchers, feathers galore, a lizard named Hugo and an Amazon parrot named Bella. "He seemed to like all the things we liked. You get naturalists a dime a dozen, but not people who actually know how to handle wildlife."
Modeling comfort with wild creatures is an important part of education at Carrie Murray, where Parks and her staff tend to wounded eagles and hawks and teach youngsters about nature. If kids observe Miss Corinne, with her lipstick and nail polish, sporting a fat, armored cockroach on her finger like a dazzling diamond ring, it gives them confidence to hold it as well, Parks says. Children who pet a highly articulated cockroach, a k a Gromphondorhina portentosa, receive a "Bug Buddy" certificate as reward.
As Tydings and Parks worked together in developing programs at Carrie Murray, an idea took root: Why not devote a room at the center to an insect zoo? "It was kind of a dream," says the soft-spoken Tydings, who lives in Annapolis. "I have a lot of things at home, but I don't have a chance to show them to others."
Through their own contacts and collections, Tydings and Parks assembled the zoo where visitors can watch invertebrates molt, lay eggs, metamorphose. Several of its new inhabitants come from Tydings' collecting forays in Arizona, where he attends the annual Invertebrates in Captivity conference, sponsored by the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute. Specimens came as well from the O. Orkin Insect Zoo (a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit is required for such transfers), the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Aquarium Center on Reisterstown Road and the courtyard outside the zoo.
All around us
The Carrie Murray zoo is the latest addition to a growing number of insect zoos, butterfly houses and invertebrate exhibits around the country. "One of the interesting things about insects is that they're everywhere," says Nathan Erwin, director of the O. Orkin Insect Zoo. "All of us have insect stories, [whether it's about the] Japanese beetle on our roses in summer, fireflies at night, the crickets that get into your basement. We all have associations with them."
Invertebrates are the dominant life form on the planet, but only in recent decades have wildlife and environmental educators discovered they are an ideal catalyst for teaching and for inspiring wonder in the natural world, Erwin says.
"What really enthralls and engages people is when you have a staff, paid or volunteer, that have live insects to touch and hold. That's the whole thrust behind our museum setting: object-based learning and teaching." Holding an insect in your hand "usually conveys a lot more" than "object-based teaching with an elephant," which, obviously, you can't hold in your hand, Erwin says.
Conveying the importance of conservation is one goal for entomologists working with the public. You can use insects to "teach the concepts of all the different roles arthropods play in a variety of different kinds of eco-systems," Erwin says. Without them, "the eco-system, from marine to terrestrial systems, would collapse."
Another, less obvious goal is using insects to spark fascination in the world around us, Erwin says. Early exposure to insects may not turn you into an entomologist, but you will "go on to do interesting things through life."
The Carrie Murray Insect Zoo doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the O. Orkin Insect Zoo, or of other exhibitions found at zoos and nature centers from Washington to San Francisco. But size, Erwin says, is not the point. The Smithsonian arthropod exhibit began in 1971 as "a few tables in a corner of a museum with hand-written sign." Teachers may keep several containers filled with ants or beetles in a classroom, Erwin says. That's a zoo, too.
Visitors to Carrie Murray will be able to observe a giant millipede that looks like a long, black slinky toy, can live as long as 12 years, and has hundreds of tiny feet and a penchant for bananas. There are little wolf spiders, separated from their mother before she could gobble them up, acetic-acid-spraying whip scorpions, a giant crab spider and a terrarium bustling with local arthropods.
Keeping them alive
Tydings has learned how to sustain insects in captivity by tinkering with conditions such as humidity and food sources. For a while, he said, he was giving the giant millipede too much dog food and not enough water, and the poor creature just stayed curled up all day long. When Tydings introduced fresh fruit and more moisture, the millipede perked up considerably, as proven by its wayward journey through the naturalist's fingers and around his wrist as he speaks.
With some insects, Tydings has been all too successful. For example, how does he control his burgeoning hissing cockroach population? He asks in return, do you really want to know?
The most humane way is to "put them in the freezer and forget about them."
Tydings, who recently presented a paper called "Bringing 'Em Back Alive: Confessions and Ramblings of a Bug Hugger," at a National Tarantula Association meeting, is still puzzling over what to do with his cockroach carcasses. Maybe he can do something crafty with them, like making earrings, or assembling them in little tableaux. Cockroaches aren't the appetizing morsels crickets are, when stripped of their wings and limbs, baked, then sauteed with onion and garlic or added to cookie batter.
There is one hissing cockroach Tydings would never put on ice -- "Mel Gibson," a large, cocky fellow who has survived many a head-butting battle to defend his harem with antennae intact.
He's "very big, very strong, very aggressive," Tydings says. Already a year old, "Mel" has about six months to live before he is scheduled to die of natural causes.
When: noon to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Carrie Murray Outdoor Education Campus, 1901 Ridgetop Road. For directions and hours on other days, call 410-396-0808. To train as a volunteer, call Lloyd Tydings at the same number