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Get to know your local 'Backyard Monsters'

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published February 22. 2014 4:00AM
Dana Jensen/The Day
One of the giant, robotic carpenter ants on display as part of the traveling exhibition "Backyard Monsters: The World of Insects" at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center in Mashantucket.

This gives new meaning to the phrase "all creatures, great and small": in the exhibit "Backyard Monsters: The World of Insects" at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, pristine real specimens of various insects and arachnids are displayed under glass ... while looming nearby are radioactive-sized behemoths — variants of a few of those same beings, revved by robotic power.

Real, dead tarantulas, for instance, can be viewed up close in a wall case. Next to them is an animatronic Mexican red-kneed tarantula that's so big it easily would dwarf a Mini-Cooper — heck, it would dwarf a van. The fuzzy mechanical spider rises up, and its fangs move menacingly — or maybe they just move, and those arachnophobics among museum-goers will interpret it as menacing. Kids, on the other hand, will probably find it endlessly entertaining.

"Backyard Monsters" is a traveling exhibit from California-based Garner Holt Productions. It's been in other venues such as the San Diego Natural History Museum and has been endorsed by the American Entomological Society.

Betsy Peterson, who is head of the Pequot Museum's information resources and exhibit projects, says the exhibit "looked like it was something that would be a little different for us, to appeal to families and kids. Many of our shows are for more adult audiences. We wanted to do something that was consistent with our exhibitions, and our permanent exhibitions look at both Native history and natural history. The insects are a part of natural history, and it's an often overlooked aspect of natural history."

Many stories that Native Americans have told - even creation stories — include insects, notes museum educator Candyce Testa. Native peoples have taken lessons from the insect world, too.

"All creatures have different characteristics. You can learn about change and transformation from watching the butterfly and realizing that nothing stays the same and that you're going to experience change throughout your life," Testa says. "The ants represent hard work and being a community member — they're very social creatures."

"Backyard Monsters" offers plenty of information aimed particularly at youngsters. For instance, in the beetle section: "Is the longhorn you're looking at drab? It probably lives in trees. Is it colorful? Brightly colored beetles make flowers their homes."

There are facts to be had, but fun, too.

Kids can spin a wheel and hear the sounds various insects make.

They can turn a crank that mimics how a butterfly unrolls its proboscis — its version of a tongue — to sip nectar from flowers.

They can use joysticks to get Robo Bugs walking, and they can learn this kind of related info: "It's easy to stay balanced walking with six legs. A walking insect keeps three feet on the ground to balance like a tripod."

They can put together a three-dimensional puzzle of an ant.

They can press the buttons on the Bee-lieve It Or Not machine to light up various internal systems — digestive or circulatory, for example.

The biggest draws — and we mean biggest literally — are the seven oversized robotic beings. A giant monarch butterfly, which measures 19 feet wide and 11 feet high, gently flutters its wings. Two moving carpenter ants, at 12 feet high, are 96 times the size of actual carpenter ants; accompanying text explains that there are more ants than any other animals in the world and that some colonies have a million members.

Peterson says adults who visit the exhibit tend to be very interested in the specimen cases, which feature a huge range of insects, many of which are remarkable in their size or coloring. Butterfly specimens, with eye-catching shades and patterns on their wings, are showcased, along with various types of insects — bees and wasps here, spiders there.

Testa encourages people who see the "Backyard Monsters" exhibit to then visit the museum's "Arrival of the People" exhibit.

"You can see how the insects are woven into the traditional stories," she says.

SPECIAL EVENTS

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum is hosting a number of special events in conjunction with "Backyard Monsters: The World of Insects." Coming up:

• "Bugs Alive! Harris in Wonderland," 1-2 p.m. March 29, April 12, May 17. Meet spiders, centipedes, scorpions and more. Free with museum admission, free to museum members.

• "It's a Bug's Life," 11-11:45 a.m. April 25. The Beardsley Zoo Wild Assembly program features rare and diverse species. Free with museum admission, free to museum members.

• "Bugs & Suds: Saving the World with Insects & Beer," 3-5 p.m. May 3. Dave Gracer talks about the consumption of insects as food. Grey Sail Brewery of Westerly provide samples of their beer. Limited to 70 people; cost $10 (free for museum members). RSVP by April 26 at 1-800-411-9671 or email rsvp@pequotmuseum.org.

MORE

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "Backyard Monsters: The World of Insects"

WHERE: Mashantucket Pequot Museum, 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket

WHEN: Now through May 17; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., with last admission at 4 p.m.

HOW MUCH: $20, $15 for seniors (55 and older) and for college students, $12 ages 6-18, free kids under 6

CONTACT: (800) 411-9671, pequotmuseum.org

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