Maddy Helgren, 7, of Rosemount, stood stock still, mouth agape, in front of an 8-foot-tall giant devil’s flower mantis whose mandibles were waggling as if it was about to devour her.
“You are a-MAY-zing!” said Maddy, who knew that the fearsome monster was a fake, but still looked poised to spring away, just in case.
The mega-mantis is one of 13 much-larger-than-life animatronic insects in the Minnesota Zoo’s “Big Bugs!” exhibit, which opens Saturday. Others include an elephant-sized tarantula that waves its hairy limbs and a behemoth of a bombardier beetle that sprays steamy water from its undercarriage (in place of the noxious gas that the real, ant-sized beetle spews when threatened).
At a preview for zoo members this week, costumed street performers roamed the newly created Monarch Village, getting visitors to play a “pollination game” — tossing tennis balls into a basket representing a flower. Kids seemed just as interested in the live insects at a “bug house” created by zoo staff to augment the spectacle of the giant bugs with a learning experience. They got close-up looks at little masters of disguise resembling sticks and leaves, as well as the shiny green cetonid beetle, the blue death-feigning beetle and the dermistid beetle, which eats dead flesh till there’s nothing left but bone.
Zoo conservationist Cale Nordmeyer gathered a crowd with the vinegaroon crawling placidly around his palm. A native of the Southwest desert region, the non-venomous critter looks like a scorpion and squirts an acetic acid that smells like vinegar.
“What’s his name?” asked Noah Smith, 4, of New Prague.
“I call him Vinny,” said Nordmeyer. “When he was a baby he and the other little vinegaroons rode around on their mom’s back all day.”
“No, thank you!” said Gretchen Smith, Noah’s mother.
Gathering the live insects and arthropods, which came from as far away as Malaysia, was a complicated process requiring the approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said exhibit supervisor Jamie Ries.
“First we give the USDA a list of the species we want and they say yes or no, because they have to protect our crops,” she said. “Then an inspector comes to see where we’re keeping them to make sure that even the tiniest of mesh holes won’t let them escape.” The bugs also must be handled only over white surfaces so zookeepers can spot if any eggs drop, and scoop them up.
Ries and Nordmeyer grabbed a couple of Coleman coolers that contained exotic surprises — a chartreuse-hued jungle nymph from Southeast Asia and a giant prickly walking stick from New Guinea. The nymph swayed gently back and forth, probably reacting to all the commotion around it, while the walking stick stretched its front legs out and up, as if looking for a hug.
What will happen to the bugs when the exhibit closes?
“We’ll find homes for some of them, but many of the adults will have lived out their life cycles,” Ries said.