With their weird appearance and bad reputation, it's easy to be afraid of insects. The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum's exhibit Backyard Monsters tries to combat that attitude by bringing visitors face to face with a huge variety of bugs.
Visitors start by walking off an oversized backyard deck to give them the feeling they've been shrunk as they step into a yard populated by giant animatronic creatures. They can gaze up at a massive monarch butterfly resting on a flower, getting a realistic view of its multifaceted eyes and fuzzy body. They'll also see carpenter ants pop out of tunnels, a menacing scorpion and a towering praying mantis.
Backyard MonstersBackyard Monsters
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago, (773) 755-5100; naturemuseum.org
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Jan. 22
Admission: $9; $6 for kids ages 3-12; $7 for seniors and students; free Thursdays
"So often people look at insects and they're creeped out or want to squish them," said Steve Sullivan, curator of urban ecology. "We have a hard time understanding these animals. When we are able to be their size it gives us an opportunity to look at them as cohabitants on this earth. Fear comes from things that you just don't understand."
In addition to the lifelike robots, Backyard Monsters offers viewers the opportunity to check out plenty of live insects. You'll encounter some odd creatures like fuzzy velvet ants, actually a type of flightless wasp, which would be cute if not for their painful sting, and the bizarre tailless whip scorpion, an entirely harmless cave-dwelling creature that uses an antenna-like leg to sense prey.
You can see longhorn beetles snacking on cactus, and rhinoceros beetles coming out of their burrows for a bit of banana. On Thursdays, you can see some of the predatory bugs snacking on crickets at one of the museum's feedings. Each display is labeled with information on the animal's life cycle and where they live, which might be closer than you think.
"People look at the urban setting and think there's no nature here," Sullivan said. "Things like this can actually be common in the environment, but you don't see them. If you're motivated to find them, that's something you can do even if you're in an urban environment."
While most of the bugs are just at the museum for the temporary exhibit, a colony of leaf cutter ants will become permanent residents. The fascinating creatures show how agriculture isn't unique to humans, living almost entirely on fungus that they farm and carefully regulate by removing parasites, stacking leaves to control the humidity and even sorting their garbage.
The museum also used more than 100 specimens from its own collection of insects to supplement the traveling exhibit, decorating a wall with a family tree that shows just how there are many more species of bugs than mammals.
Interactive elements let kids consider how insects live as they maneuver six-legged robots to see how they walk or look out from a giant grasshopper head to view the world through compound eyes. They learn how insects make noises by rubbing wings together like a cricket, legs like a grasshopper or thumping a hammer's head into wood to imitate a termite.
Older visitors are sure to learn something new from many displays of insects and arachnids organized by families. You can see scorpions engaged in a courtship dance, learn the differences between tarantulas, horseshoe crabs, beetles and centipedes and see how different bees from the same colony look depending on their role.
The exhibit shows off the diversity of insects, including brilliantly colored day-flying moths, huge bees with gem-green bodies or wasps that would stretch across the palm of your hand.
If you find the showcase fascinating, you can get tips on how to collect and display your own bug collection.
"This exhibit makes it so the adults will be excited," Sullivan said. "They'll be interested and they'll learn things."