Big Bugs at the Desert Botanical Gardens

Way back in April or May I was invited to do an outreach event in Phoenix, one that would require my hauling live giant water bugs 100 miles and sweltering outside for two late summer evenings.  My participation was going to be part of an event held at the Desert Botanical Gardens (a FANTASTIC place!) to open their fall art exhibition.  So why did they want me there?  Because the sculptures were really big insects!  The museum was going to be open from 6-9PM two nights so that visitors could wander the gardens and view the Big Bugs exhibition before the exhibit was officially opened to the public.  As the visitors roamed about, they could learn about insects and other Sonoran Desert animals by stopping at various interpretive stations along the way.  I was going to be in charge of one of the interpretive stations, one featuring aquatic insects from Arizona.  So, the Friday before last, I packed up all the things I wanted to display and drove to Phoenix.

aquatic insect station

My aquatic insect station

The first night I was indoors.  In the same room where people were getting their dinners.  You know what people don’t like?  Being confronted with really big, live insects when they’re hungry and foraging for food!  I still got a fair number of visitors, but I was happy to be moved outside to a much better spot the second night.  I split my table in half.  Half was devoted to Arizona’s giant insects (real ones) in keeping with the theme of the art exhibit.  People could look at live giant water bugs and learn a bit about their parental care behaviors, their feeding behaviors, and how the bugs are eaten with gusto in some parts of the world.  I had a live adult dobsonfly for them to look at and talked about how it started out as a hellgrammite.  I had a chart that showed the relative sizes of some of the biggest insects in the world, including the largest insect ever, a giant griffenfly that roamed the earth over 300 million years ago.  The other half of the table was devoted to Arizona’s aquatic insects and featured many vials of insects from around the state, specimens of the most common aquatic insects in a box, and some bugs in plexiglass boxes the kids could pick up and look at more closely.  All in all, I think I talked to about 600 or 700 people over two nights and it was a lot of fun.

However, I didn’t have a chance to see the sculptures either night of the opening, and that was something I really wanted to do.  I was thankfully granted a pass to return the day after the event to see the exhibition myself.  I am so happy I went back because the sculptures were marvelous!  They were sculpted by an artist named David Rogers, who created his giant insect sculptures from found natural materials such as wood, bark, twigs, etc.  Several of his sculptures travel from place to place as part of a traveling exhibit, hence their presence at the Gardens.  I had seen the pictures of the sculptures on the artist’s website before, but I was very excited to have a chance to see them in person!

The first sculpture you see when you walk into the Gardens is Praying Mantis.  He looms over the small entrance garden.  Note that I was taking the photo standing at my full height of 5 feet, 4 inches and shooting up!  This is a BIG bug:


Mega mantid!

I loved Daddy Longlegs:

daddy longlegs

Humongous harvestman

You could see the top of this one from the road and I was very excited about the exhibit from the moment I drove in the first night and saw it.  Fun!  Two of my favorite insects were featured, the dragonfly:


Astronomical anisopteran

… and the damselfly:


Supersized spreadwing

They were all great and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to see them, but I didn’t come across my favorite sculptures until I made my way all the way to the back of the Gardens.  I didn’t have a map with me and didn’t know where all the sculptures were, so I wandered around aimlessly hoping I would see all of them.  After taking photos of some really nice cacti, I walked past the plants and saw this:

ants from afar

Astounding ants!

Considering Them! is one of my all time favorite movies, I instantly fell in love with the ants.  I couldn’t help but note the similarities between the sculptures and the movie.  Giant ants.  Desert.  The giant bugs crawling over a hill.  I LOVED the ant sculptures!  They looked even more amazing close up:

ants up close

Amazing ants

I think what I really liked about the ants was the positioning of the bugs so that they looked like they were walking on a giant anthill.  The sculptures themselves were wonderful, but their arrangement was what really sold them for me.

The last sculpture I saw on my way out was this fabulous spider in its web:


Super spider

Awesome!  Who doesn’t love giant insects?  (Well, probably a lot of people, but most of you reading this probably side with me.)

Between the great interactions with the garden staff and volunteers, the fun experience of talking to people in Phoenix about aquatic insects, and the chance to see the giant bug sculptures in one of my favorite places in Phoenix, the trip was a huge success!  I came away from the experience very happy and enthusiastic about being a part of my next big outreach event, the Arizona Insect Festival in Tucson on September 24.

Big Bugs runs at the Desert Botanical Gardens through January 1, 2012.  I highly encourage you to visit if you happen to be in the Phoenix area!  They’ve got a ton of great events planned in conjunction with the exhibit, including move nights, a masquerade, and several lectures.  Please visit the Big Bugs website for more information and the schedule of events!


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