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Natural History Museum Turns Angelenos Into Spider Catchers and Ladybug Hunters

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Thu, Jun 6, 2013 at 12:50 PM
click to enlarge Natural History Museum's gardens - COURTESY OF THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
  • Courtesy of the Natural History Museum
  • Natural History Museum's gardens

On a May afternoon, the butterfly pavilion at the Natural History Museum is buzzing in the heat — with kids, with insects and with lust. Two zebra longwing butterflies are perched on a vine in the corner, stuck together in a twist of sex.

Close to the heart of downtown Los Angeles, the Natural History Museum is experiencing a new source of fluttering and buzzing. The museum, which has traditionally been an indoor affair, is opening a 3.5-acre garden this month. "Though we're in the heart of L.A., we still find so many cool insects, birds and other creatures with camera traps," Lila Higgins explains.

The museum's citizen science coordinator, Higgins confidently clomps through the still-under-construction dirt paths in platform wedges, oversize sunglasses and a pencil skirt.

She explains that the traps, triggered by motion, have captured glimpses of birds that weren't even known to exist in this part of Los Angeles. Scientists have tabulated nearly 170 species in adjacent Exposition Park.

Higgins walks back to the insectary, where butterfly pupae are Fed-Exed in each week from growers in California and Florida. (Yes, there are farmers who specialize in growing butterflies.) She estimates that the museum receives about 200 to 300 pupae per week.

Pinned or glued to the tops of aquariums, they look like dead leaves flecked with gold.

They stay in the insectary a week or two until they hatch. Then the butterflies are featured in a pavilion that opened in April and will welcome visitors through September; when it's over, the fluttering insects will become fodder for denizens of the spider pavilion. You might call it the museum circle of life.

The museum has taken on science projects to get the public interested, Higgins says — and found some interesting results.

The spider survey, which started in 2002, documents the arrival of new spiders and the effect they have on native species. Since L.A. is a giant, international port, new species are always climbing on land and setting up shop. Over the past decade, the public has mailed more than 6,000 specimens to the museum — including the first record of a brown widow in Southern California. The native of South Africa is twice as poisonous as its black cousin. "It's like crowdsourcing a museum collection," Higgins says.

Another citizen science project asks the public to study how parasitoid flies infect and kill native honeybees. People are asked to find dead or disoriented bees they suspect may be infected with fly parasite eggs. Participants pop those into a container and wait for the maggots to crawl out of the dead bee, then count the flies as they go from pupae to adults over the course of a few weeks.

Ladybugs also are on the menu for citizen scientists — the museum has asked people to hunt for and photograph them. Zeroes are OK, the instructions gently remind the public, because if you looked and didn't find anything, that's also good to know. (Participants also are informed that this is not a ladybug fashion shoot — the point is to get many photos of different bugs, not the cutest snaps possible.)

The goal of these science projects, as Higgins sees it, is to get the public engaged in real science in their backyards — something that ties in directly with the gardens.

click to enlarge From the Natural History Museum's Butterfly Pavilion - COURTESY OF THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
  • Courtesy of the Natural History Museum
  • From the Natural History Museum's Butterfly Pavilion

Pollinators, after all, play a big role outside in the new nature gardens, which open Sunday; the edible garden showcases beneficial bugs like ladybugs and native bees and shows that a garden can be beautiful while also growing food. Next to that, the pollinator garden is buzzing and flitting with the same ferocity as the butterfly pavilion.

The garden's elaborate insect trap is one of about 30 that the museum has set up between downtown L.A. and the Griffith Park area as part of a biodiversity project.

The goal is to develop a good inventory of L.A.'s insect diversity, determining how it differs between inner urban areas and their less-urbanized counterparts.

The museum also has asked people to snap photos of butterflies and moths in Los Angeles to see which of the 236 local species they're likely to find in the outdoor garden.

Surrounded by the smells and sights of spring, the path through the garden feels far from the city. Higgins comes upon a wooden column with pencil-sized holes in it. "This is a bee hotel, where bees can lay their eggs," she explains.

Native honeybees are solitary, and have no hive. Usually they lay eggs in muddy banks, but in the city they need a little help. Hence the man-made column: Each bee lines the inside of a hole with mud, deposits her eggs and seals the entrance with mud.

A few steps later Higgins comes to the Get Dirty Zone, a chance for kids to experience a tiny sliver of nature — they're encouraged to dig, explore and learn about erosion. The museum allows any LAUSD student to come to the museum for free, and part of the garden space is free to the public, too.

click to enlarge Lila Higgins - COURTESY OF THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
  • Courtesy of the Natural History Museum
  • Lila Higgins

Higgins grew up on a farm in England and recalls a childhood of "climbing trees, picking blackberries and crawling around logs." After her parents split, she ended up in high school in Southern California with a bit of culture shock.

She studied entomology at UC Riverside after discovering a pamphlet discussing the biological control of a citrus pest using beetles. "And I was, like, what, you can study bugs? So I switched my major to entomology," says Higgins, who still has a lingering British accent.

"When I talk to scientists, the one thing they all remember from childhood is getting their hands in the dirt," she adds. "And here in South L.A., there aren't many outdoor activities for kids."

It's easy to imagine the gardens full of children exploring and wandering in the dirt, but for now the air is filled with the happy buzzing of bugs finding new homes among familiar plants.

Follow me on Twitter at @kategammon, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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