Bugging Out at Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans

6:54 PM Life in Between 0 Comments

March 7, 2016

"It tastes just like a Rice Krispies treat!" said the man in the chef's hat. He handed me a tiny, misshapen chocolate. "Eat it!" he said again with enthusiasm. And so I stood there, staring at my hand and wondering if it would make a move and place the candy-coated grub in my mouth.

Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans is an experience that differs from your run-of-the-mill art museums and aquariums; it offers a chance to get involved with the exhibits. In fact, you can get up close and personal with the bugs on display...really close. Located on Canal Street, the Insectarium was a necessary stop during my time in The Big Easy. Built after Hurricane Katrina, the museum attracts locals and tourists alike. I had come to complete a mission. After watching Samantha Brown successfully eat a plate of worms, larvae, and crickets on her TV show, I was determined that I could do the same. Sometimes, I wonder about my life choices...

"Go on, eat it," he urged. I looked over at my cousin who had already shoved three different kinds of bugs on her tongue without flinching. Who was this woman and how are we related, I thought?

"It's not bad," my cousin assured me. "Tastes a little crunchy, but not bad at all." Whatever. We can't all be carbon copies of Andrew Zimmern. But I was determined to do this. Thank goodness it was just a grub and nothing like the other insects in the exhibit.

Our tour of the Insectarium spanned millions of years, from the fossilized remains of prehistoric bugs to the modern-day cricket. We watched a praying mantis stalk its pray, dung beetles rolling dung, diver beetles swimming and hissing cockroaches hiss. We even watched as the ant exhibit broadcasted a live web cam to Animal Planet. I learned more about bugs than I ever thought possible.

In the far corner of the first room, there was an older man sitting at a table with three clear boxes punched with air holes. He was drawing a crowd so, naturally, I inched closer to see what the fuss was about. In front of me I saw a giant millipede, a scorpion, and a tarantula. I thought I had walked into an episode of Fear Factor.

"This is Penelope," he called me over and gestured toward the hairy spider who, as I interpreted it, wanted to eat me alive. But he grinned and picked her up without a problem. "Penelope is a 14-year-old rose-haired tarantula," he explained. "See how her back glistens pink when I shine the light on her?" Sure enough, old Penelope shimmered as she crawled on the back of his hand.

"Want to see something else?" he asked. I nodded, mesmerized that someone was so nonchalant about handling these creatures. He picked up the scorpion like it was his grandkid's baseball--no big deal. "He could break my skin if I put my fingers near his pinchers," he said. "But here is the neat thing about scorpions. They all glow fluorescent under black lights." He pulled out a black light and shined it on his reflective back. "No one knows why, really. They can't figure out how they have evolved this way." It remained a mystery for me, because my eye was being drawn to the next exhibit. It was an underground exploration of what the world would look like if you were a bug.

Inside the dark hallway I found numerous giant bugs--human-sized bugs. Kids were crawling on worms the size of a small car, and it was as if I'd been transported into Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Suddenly, I heard my cousin scream. In the darkest section the room there is a surprise waiting for everyone. I won't ruin it here. You have to go see for yourself.

We moved on because there was much more to see on the tour. Of course my favorite part was coming up--the Butterfly Garden. First of all, I have never met friendlier butterflies. Several of them floated in front of my face before one landed on my shoulder. We had a special moment before the museum staff made me say goodbye. I have been to butterfly gardens before, but this one has the most variety of any I'd been to. Small yellow ones, giant iridescent blue ones, brown and red--it was a rainbow of sociable butterflies ready to go home with me. Sadly, the staff made sure that didn't happen. It's ok though, I'm sure he's much happier there.

Perhaps one of the more terrifying moments was my encounter with a Brown Recluse spider. Only separated by a clear plastic box, the Brown Recluse looked me up and down as the museum volunteer explained the unspeakable things the miniature devil could do to me if given the chance. Nothing that small should have that much power. "Don't worry," she smiled. "They usually only attack if they are provoked." This is a chance I will never be willing to take.

I instinctively flinched as she held up the box and showed it to the crowd. All I could think about was how fast I'd run if she dropped it. Luckily, that never happened.

As the tour came to a close we had one thing left to do. I had to eat from the array of buggy confections at the Bug Appetit station. There was no turning back now.

I slowly shoved the grub in my mouth, immediately pushing it to the back of my teeth to prevent it from touching my tongue. I chewed. I managed to keep it down. "There's more," the chef exclaimed as he handed me a chocolate chip cricket cookie. A little more confident this time, I went for it. To my surprise, you couldn't even taste the dead cricket lodged in the perfectly good dessert.

Finally, it was time to move on to the sauces. The chef had lined up a buffet-style sauce bar with crackers. And what was on the menu? Mealworm salsa. I decided that seeing a fully intact worm sitting on my cracker was the most disgusting thing yet. I hesitated, but I completed what I came to do.

Not to be outdone, my cousin approached the chef for more. "What else do you have?" she said. He moved swiftly to our table with a smirk on his face.

"Did you know that the FDA allows a certain amount of bug parts in all of our food?" he pointed up to a screen on the wall. "Check out those facts," he said. "You are eating bugs every single day. A leg here, an antenna there, but you don't even know it." Suddenly, food seemed a little less appealing. I quickly rationalized this new information. Protein, I thought. Just extra protein.

The chef pulled out a final morsel and handed it to my cousin. "What is it?" she examined the unusual treat in her hand. "Just eat it!" he urged. (The last thing you want to hear when you are about to eat something new.) She went for it, and her face melted into disgust.

"It's a Queen Weaver Ant from Thailand!" he cried with excitement. He looked at me and smiled. "Would you like one?" I looked over at my cousin who was picking ant legs from her teeth.

"No." I gazed at the stamp on my arm that read, "I ATE A BUG!"

For that day, three bugs was enough for me.

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