It’s not every day you get the chance to cuddle with a cockroach. But at the Arizona Insect Festival Oct. 1, you can do just that — while seated on cockroach-shaped cushions, to boot.
This Joy of Cockroaches booth is just one of more than 20 at the University of Arizona’s Department of Entomology’s seventh annual Insect Festival. The festival will include panels, speed talks, hands-on activities, vendors and exhibits from scientists and local organizations.
As many as 6,000 have attended in the past and are expected this year, says Cara Gibson, director of the festival and assistant professor in the UA’s Department of Entomology. She has been involved with the event since 2012.
Attendees will be treated to bugs that are common, as well as uncommon.
“Our planet is mostly insects that we know of; that’s a huge range of diversity,” Gibson says.
“So there’s a few pest ones that we always think about, but there’s all these other ones that are involved in critical roles that help make life on earth possible.”
Gibson says she thinks that while some people may come to the festival out of that same kind of curiosity that draws them to a circus, people’s attitudes are changing about insects.
“More and more it’s becoming kind of a badge of honor to be understanding and to be more of a steward of our natural environment, and I think that’s part of all the education that’s gone on, in terms of recycling and understanding our planet better,” she says.
One of the most popular booths at the festival has been the Joy of Roaches. People line up for the chance to cozy up with a Madagascar hissing cockroach on the cockroach-shaped cushions Gibson sewed herself in 2012.
“People are much more accustomed to snuggling a puppy, so the idea you can snuggle a cockroach just sounds weird,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to learn more about this group that has so much more to offer than” a chance to smack a roach on the kitchen counter.
Although the cockroaches may steal the spotlight, they won’t be the only insects at the festival. Gibson estimates there will be thousands of live insects there, ranging from aquatic ones to those who call the saguaros home. Many of these insects will be at the Life in Miniature booth, which features examples “the size of a freckle on the back of your hand,” Gibson says.
“You can have so many insects in such a small area that it makes it fun to display because you can have this kind of thriving city of bugs,” she says.
The festival will also feature stinging insects in containers for attendees to view up close and personal at the Stings ’N Things booth. It is manned by UA adjunct faculty Justin Schmidt, who has made researching stinging insects his whole career. Festival attendees can observe velvet ants, centipedes, harvester ants and scorpions and will have the chance to touch tarantulas.
“It’s amazing just to see the joy and awe on a kid’s eyes and expression the first time he actually holds a tarantula, and they’re just so brave and so proud,” Schmidt says. “It really makes your day when you see kids like that.”
Schmidt adds he wants people to understand what stinging insects do and why they do it so one can appreciate them without getting in trouble.
“As long you don’t really threaten them, you can see these are wonderfully beneficial animals, and we should all share in the joy of having them in our environment,” he says.
The festival has had an impact on some of the children who have attended.
“In 2011, we had a lot of kiddos that came, and they were barely walking, and now some of those same kiddos come to the event, but they’re volunteering with the scientists, side by side,” Gibson says. “So they’re embedded in communicating the science to their community, and it’s just so powerful for everyone. It’s great for the scientists to be able to teach it to the community members that then can turn around and teach it to other community members.”
One such kiddo is 9-year-old Eduardo Guzman, who first visited the festival four years ago.
At age 2, he got his first pet tarantula. At 4, he toured the insect collection at the UA. Later, at a UA entomology camp, he was invited to volunteer at the festival. He has been a volunteer every year since, working with arachnids.
Eduardo, who now has eight tarantulas and one giant hairy scorpion, likes volunteering at the festival because he gets to handle the arachnids and be with entomologists.
What’s his favorite thing about insects?
“Just that they’re probably going to be around longer than humans,” he says. “I just like how they look, and they’re cool.”