Most kids go through a bug phase. Zach Lemon is still in his. He is an entomologist and the curator of animal collections at the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, where he indulges his lifelong love of both New Orleans and all of its six-legged denizens. So why does he live, breath and yes, even eat insects? We sat down with Zack recently to find out.
Why bugs? Is it something about living in New Orleans?
Well, if you’re asking about my personal interests, I would say why not bugs, if we all start out having some sort of affinity for them? The real question is why does it taper off, which is something that’s plagued me for a long time. Maybe it’s spending less time outdoors as we get older. I’m really not sure, but I was as fascinated with these things as the next little munchkin when I was younger and it’s stuck.
Did growing up in New Orleans perhaps give you a bigger laboratory from which to work?
I would have to say that because our active insect season is effectively March to October, the answer would be yes, I had a laboratory that was open for longer during the year. But I don’t know that you can’t have just as many bug people coming out of Rhode Island as Louisiana. We just get to have more fun for more months of the year.
Were you one of those kids who was constantly running around with an open jar and a fly swatter?
Not a swatter, a butterfly net. My mother knew a biology professor at Tulane who gave me my first butterfly net ever, which was silk, which was really kind of cool. The thing that I hear now that I’m older is that I would go around to the neighbors and turn over their stones. We don’t have rocks occurring naturally occurring in Louisiana. Unless you’re out in the woods, there aren’t any logs to turn over and these are great places to find insects and spiders. So I would lift up the stones and invariably I would not put them right back where they were supposed to be, so my neighbors always knew when I had been poking around their yard, which I wasn’t allowed to go into because I didn’t set things back the way things were supposed to be.
What’s your favorite New Orleans insect?
I’m a big fan of velvet ants. There is a red and black wingless wasp. The males have wings but the females, which tend to be more conspicuous, don’t have wings and you can’t help but notice this bright red, I mean Coke can red, and black-banded fuzzy thing that looks like a gigantic hand. It’s about an inch or an inch and some change in length and I love them for a lot of reasons. Being big and active and pretty, that always catches my eye. I’m a sucker for that. They are great big giant things with lots of lights on them and it’s like, look, there goes the float. Yes, it’s like that.
We do have kind of a bug season, right?
Well, yeah, as a general rule, it needs to be warm for most insects to be active. There are some exceptions to that, and some species that thrive in subarctic climates. But if it’s below 50 degrees, because insects are exothermic, basically they are built like reptiles and amphibians, most of them physically cannot be active. That’s why, when we have our spikes of warm weather in what passes for winter here, in November and December and January, you can actually see insects that you wouldn’t expect moving around — katydids and butterflies, sometimes, right around Christmas time. So, the real peak of our bug activity is June, July and August, but it is warm enough by the end of March usually, that’s when we start to see our butterflies that have overwintered and there are pupae coming out in force. Typically, if you’re going to really hunt for insects in earnest, I usually sort of hang it up as such by the time Halloween rolls around. So those are my benchmarks, late March to Halloween.
My concept of high season here has a lot to do with creature features and termite swarms and stinging caterpillars and all of those things that New Orleanians have loved to hate.
Our buckmoth season is March, April and May for the caterpillars and a lot of people don’t stop to think about how merciful that is — that we only have one generation of them a year. Because when it’s warm, which it is for eight months of the year here, insects can often develop very quickly. And if you have a species that can have multiple generations a year, you would expect to see buckmoth caterpillars in July and again in September. But what happens with buckmoth caterpillars, and it’s quite unusual, is that they are hardwired to go into the soil and form a pupa in the soil at the end of May. And even though it is as warm as can be in June, July, August, September, the moth does not come out until just before Christmas time. So we only must deal with the stinging caterpillars once a year. But you can set your clock to it, and the same is true largely with the Formosan termite swarms. We typically get our first really noticeable peak of activity from flying Formosan subterranean termites within the first 10 to 15 days of May.
Where should our fears lie, where should our loves and our hates lie?
Well, for starters we should love termites in nature, because they break down wood, and they recycle organic components that are very important to return to the soil, so they become pestiferous when they get into trees we care about and buildings we care about. I’m no different than anybody else in that regard, I just want to make sure that I do the rah rah part for the all of the termites that are living outdoors at the onset. So, the dry wood termites that we have here are the least damaging, they tend to have the smallest colonies, they grow very slowly, they eat very slowly and you can have a fairly old and well established dry wood infestation in a structure and still not have bad structural damage. So, if you’re going to have a problem that’s the problem to have. The Formosans are like the super termite; they have extremely large colony sizes, they therefore eat more and they will forage at much greater distances than native subterranean termites and they don’t let obstacles stop them as readily. There are certain termites that will be in a colony looking for food, foraging and they will run into something that they decide they don’t want to dig under, crawl over, climb away or chew through and Formosans termites are much less likely to call it quits or put the white flag up. They’ll just go, yep, you know I want to go from point A to point B and this thing’s in my way, but darn it but I’m going to point B.
Why are people scared of bugs?
That’s a very good question. My humorous answer that I think has a little bit of basis in truth is that nobody likes to be surprised. So, everybody says I can’t stand roaches because I turn on the light and they scatter, and they fly at me and they run under my foot and they are trying to attack me and I know they’ve got it in for me, they know I’m there, they are trying to scare me. And my point is that what they are doing is they are moving in an erratic fashion that you can’t predict. And what I tell people is if there were a habit, where at 10 every night while you’d been sitting quieting at your computer in a dimly light room for an hour, of a puppy dog suddenly going woof and running under your legs and scaring the snot out of you, you’d probably have an issue with puppy dogs also. And so, I think that if you understand insect behavior as being that’s just what they do, it may alleviate some people’s fears, which of course is largely what I try to do at work.
It’s counterintuitive because we’re so much bigger than bugs and they’re proportionally not capable of inflicting the kind of harm other animals are, and yet we’re disproportionality fearful of them.
Yeah, and I never stop and tell anybody who is arachnophobic, you know are you really going to act that way with a spider, I mean what if it was a bear? Most of us would be really terrified if a bear were as close as a spider and didn’t seem pleased with our presence, whereas if the spider is as close as the bear sitting on a wall minding its own business, not coming after you and all you have to do is walk the other way most of the time.
I like bears and whales and tigers and elephants as much as the next person does, but you can’t go out your in backyard here in New Orleans or anywhere and see them. You have to travel for them and that might make the experience special when you do encounter them in their natural setting, but the great thing about being in love with insects and spiders is that, because they are everywhere, you’ve always got something to see.
You’ve introduced insect cuisine on The Today Show and The Tonight Show, The Food Channel, The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet; what went over the best?
The Tonight Show was the first time I’d ever done national TV and served insects, so it could have used a little more polish. It would have been nice if the host would have been game to try some. I did Maury Povich and Montel Williams in short order after that and those were both a little more circus-like. When I went on The Today Show Meredith Vieira was interviewing me specifically about Monarch butterflies and their migration. It wasn’t insect cuisine and it was a really good segment, I really liked it. The Steve Harvey Show, which unfortunately took place the day of the Boston marathon bombing and aired later, that was a weird one. He didn’t want to eat any bugs either. A lot of the Travel and Discovery channel stuff we’ve done at Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium and it’s been great because it’s been people who have been game for something new or interesting and they want to try stuff.
You serve insect dishes at the Insectarium. What’s the most popular?
In our edible insect area, which is called Bug Appetite, I would say the chocolate chirp cookies are definitely the biggest seller. We oven-roast the house crickets for about a half an hour at 350 and we then add them to the top of some cookie dough that we’ve already placed on a sheet. If you mix them in you’re going to have a very crickety cookie, but you’re not necessarily going to be able to see the crickets and we don’t want to hide that from people who are eating it. It’s really funny because if you hide it from folks, some people eat the cookie without reading the sign and they go oh, no there were bugs in there. And the flip side of it is the people who go, well, I didn’t see any bugs, how do I know they’re in there and they’ve very indigent. So we try to put crickets on top.
We typically have seven different things that we offer people at our Bug Appetite area at Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, and if someone is hesitant to expand their gastronomic horizons we can sometimes convince them to try a try a chocolate chirp cookie. We have a mango and apple chutney with poached wax worms that we put in it and it’s fabulous. We have a humus and an herb dip, both of which employ crickets. We have a six-legged salsa which has mill worms, which is a type of beetle larvae. We also take our crickets and our wax worms and either by frying or by roasting we make them kind of crispy and we season them with kind of like a taco seasoning. We have cinnamon bug crunch, which a play on a well-known cereal name and as it suggests it’s very sweet and sugary, and we do crispy Cajun crickets.
You work in the world’s largest museum devoted to insects. Is this like a dream job?
It is. I remember as a 7-year-old kind of having the switch turned on to where I was crazy about all things of and related to bugs. I love my home, I’m from New Orleans, so I never wanted to do anything but, well, let’s just say work with bugs, but I like to call it playing with bugs, and I never wanted to live anywhere else and low and behold Ron Foreman, instead of making a little bug house at the zoo which was his initial thought. He saw the Insectarium in Montreal in ‘90 or ‘91 and decided, oh no, we don’t need a 2,000 square foot space at the zoo for insects, we need a whole facility for them. So yeah, thanks to him I’m very happy.
If this isn’t the bug capital of the United States just by virtue of how many we have all around us, it can’t be far away from whoever would be first.
I hear you’re a sometimes rap artist.
Oh yeah. I am a sometimes rap artist, that is about the best way to describe it, that’s right.
It’s just sort of off the cuff and freestyle and sometimes, on rare occasions, I will take existing songs and redo them. So, if your listeners want to see something that I think is relatively humorous that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to put out there if you go to YouTube and type in Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium you’ll see little thumbnails and when you see two guys in black T shirts click on that, and that’s GWE, my rap group which stands for geeky wacky entomologist. We are, I think, the world’s biggest and most popular insect rap group. You know it’s a tight genre.
You don’t want to give us a little sample?
Oh shucks, okay. Actually let me do something that when we were promoting the Insectarium prior to it’s opening we used to do. Now listeners please keep in mind I would normally have the director of the Insectarium who is a great beat box accompanying me for percussive purposes and he sounds awesome, so this is without out that whole stuff going on that you would otherwise like.
Here’s the Audubon Institute take on this aspect of Lemann’s life:
Is it true that the Insectarium has a cockroach cam?
Yes, the people at Animal Planet approached us I think three or four years ago, and they have webcams around the country. They wanted something that was either numerous or active, so that if you woke up at 2 in the morning and you wanted to know, hey, what is this bug doing, it had to be something that didn’t have much down time. So, we have a cockroach cam in our American cockroach exhibit, one of five different roach exhibits we have at the museum, and then also we have at Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium a great leaf cutter exhibit and there is a cam in there as well.
The roaches are several in number, so there is a roach that we’re waiting for a birth from but the trick with insects like a lot of animals is you may know they’re about to produce offspring, but it’s pretty hard to time that.
Do your insects get names, any of them?
A lot of insects don’t live long enough to where a name is going to stick, per se. Tarantulas do, you know they live nice long lives and we have a tarantula named Penelope. We have some giant weevils from Malaysia and I think somebody named one Tony when we first opened and as they passed on, we just kept naming them Tony the 2nd, Tony the 3rd, Tony the 4th, Tony, because we liked the name Tony.
So, you’re on Tony the …?
Oh gosh, let’s just say I’ve lost count. Not because of any poor husbandry mind you, but just because weevils, they last about 4 months and we’re almost 9 years old.