Cooking Up Bug Bites At The Insectarium

Posted: January 07, 2000

You ever hold a whiptail scorpion in your hand? Would you like to? Oh, come on, he won't hurt you.

No thanks, I say. I'm at the Insectarium, 8046 Frankford Ave. Jennifer Bush, the director, is showing me around.

Bush invites another visitor, Ian Dahlgleish, to hold the insect. Ian, who lives with his family in Morrell Park, is 9 years old. He says no. I'm with you, Ian. Bush gives him the same pitch. Now Ian nods and extends his right hand. Very gently, Bush places the whiptail scorpion on his palm.

"He's very delicate, so we have to be very careful," she says. The insect, dark brown, about two inches long, starts crawling toward Ian's wrist.

"It tickles," Ian says, grinning.

"Look at that, he likes you," Bush exclaims.

Then Ian's sister Jill, 7, and his brother Derek, 6, take their turns. Jennifer Bush looks at me. Well, all right. I let her place the bug on my palm. It tickles.

"It squirts out a vinegary substance from its abdomen by way of its tail," she says. "Watch the abdomen and if it starts lifting up you put him down."

I think that's the abdomen. It doesn't seem to be doing anything. I hand the insect back, carefully.

The Insectarium is the largest insect museum in the nation, according to Steve Kanya, who owns it and Steve's Bug Off, a flourishing pest-control business. There are a million bugs here, give or take a few thousand. This is bug city.

Most of the bugs are dead, thank you, mounted in glass cases or put away in drawers and boxes. There's a vast display of butterflies from all over the world on the second floor. Some of the bugs, though, are very much alive, like the American roaches crawling there in the glass-enclosed mock kitchen. Ugly creatures. Can they get out? Director Bush says no. There's a Teflon strip toward the top of the glass, and above that a magnetic tape with an electrical impulse that would keep down any ambitious roach.

On the third floor there's a kind of zoo, with live creatures (behind glass) - to mention a few, African millipedes, a praying mantis, red velvet ants, a tiger centipede, a foot-long walking stick, assassin bugs and emperor scorpions. One case is home to a beautiful green and black birdwing butterfly from New Guinea. Another houses one of the biggest bugs, a Goliath beetle from Zaire, weighing in at a quarter of a pound.

There's a gift shop on the first floor where you can buy all kinds of stuff, from bug-printed boxer shorts and T-shirts to ant farms to insect games and puzzles to insect-collecting equipment to bug books, computer games and videos.

Owner Steve Kanya was a Philadelphia policeman in 1975, going after the two-legged kind of vermin, when he got the idea of starting up an exterminating business. Somebody had left a book in the police car called 100 Businesses to Start for Under $100. Exterminating was one. Kanya figured if he could make a couple thousand dollars a year to augment his salary he'd be happy.

He took some courses from Stanley Green at Pennsylvania State University's Ogontz campus and opened Steve's Bug Off. He started out with one vehicle, a 1964 Ford Falcon. Today he has a fleet of 26 trucks covering the area.

He launched the Insectarium exactly eight years ago Jan. 15. Now it has 10 staff members and, according to one of them, Kanya's wife, Karen, as many as 50,000 visitors, mostly schoolchildren, come and learn about our insect friends as well as our insect enemies.

This Saturday and the next two Saturdays, starting at 1 p.m., the Insectarium will present cooking demonstrations of such delicacies as mealworm pizza, caterpillar crunch and chocolate-covered crickets. You can sample chocolate-covered crickets as well as barbecue-coated and cheddar cheese larvets.

The barbecue-coated larvets taste like chips, says Jennifer Bush, munching one.

"Try one," she says. "They're good."

"No thanks," I say. "I'm really not hungry."

Cooking demonstrations at the Insectarium, 8046 Frankford Ave., at 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22. Free with $5 museum admission; no charge for children under 2. Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Phone: 215-338-3000.

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