Wildlife

Bug Adventure: The six superpowers of bugs

The newest exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature invites visitors to experience the world from a bug’s perspective through immersive, sensory experiences

  • Mar 18, 2024
  • 1,407 words
  • 6 minutes
The Orchid Mantis Chamber in the new Bug Adventure exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
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A creepy crawly exhibit has arrived at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature, featuring some of the Earth’s earliest residents. 

Bugs are some of the most dynamic creatures on the planet, fascinating many and striking fear into others. And now, visitors can delve into their intriguing world like never before.

“Insects are the most diverse group of anything on our planet,” says Andrew Smith, an entomologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature. “They do everything. They’re involved with every different kind of food web and ecological or any different kind of habitat at all that you can find.”

A model of a jewel wasp injecting her venom into a cockroach’s brain, rendering it complaisant and easily manageable.
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Bug Adventure was developed by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Wētā Workshop, the creative team that worked on the Avatar and Lord of the Rings movies. The larger-than-life bug models, interactive elements, and engaging content are set up on the museum’s fourth floor, with surprises around every corner.

“Insects are everywhere. There’s lots in your backyard and underfoot all the time that are down there doing amazing things that are really super interesting and fascinating,” says Smith. “But you have no idea because it’s all small, and maybe you have to stop and really look carefully to see what’s going on.”

Upon arrival at the exhibition, the information and displays are all presented in both French and English, which had to be translated to adhere to a Canadian audience.

“It’s quite an endeavour. And the exhibition, of course, comes in English only. So, we have to translate everything and reprint all of the panels. We do all of the interactives bilingually,” says Caroline Lanthier, exhibitions project manager. “So do the programming for some of these interactive [displays], do the subtitling for the video. So it’s a big job. We start several months in advance to do the translation.”

Bug Adventure will be open from March 15 to October 14 and is suitable for all ages. Below is a sneak peek of the experience, showcasing the bugs’ world and teaching us about their natural superpowers.

The six superpowers of bugs 

Flight

The display of the hearty dragonfly in the Flight section of the Bug Adventure exhibit.
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Bugs, led by the hearty dragonfly, were the first creatures to take to the air, allowing them to cover longer distances, find more food, and evade enemies. Flying insects can propel themselves in any direction with flexible, fast-moving wings that shape the air into swirling spirals.

Visitors can examine the dynamic power of a bug’s wings and learn how they have impacted modern human inventions. An interactive station called the Flight Test Zone allows visitors to craft their own “bugs” out of sheets of paper, slide them into the cylindrical wind tunnel, and watch as they fly into the air. Bug-inspired drones and the insect-scale air vehicle RoboBee are also available with interactive text displays.

Venom

The western black widow spider, a native Canadian species, on display close to the Venom station.
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Venom is a poison injected into a bug’s victim. Many different bug species, ranging from arachnids to myriapods, use venom to attack and defend. Venom has several purposes, such as warning stings from the common honeybee or frightening zombie-inducing stings from the jewel wasps. By targeting the nervous system, venom can have different effects, such as neuromuscular transmission issues from a scorpion sting or the debilitating pain of a black widow spider bite as it fries your nerve endings.

The venom interactive station features research by Justin Schmidt, an American entomologist who has let 83 Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) sting him and marked them on a pain index from one to four. The station allows visitors to discover the different uses for venom through an interactive guessing game.

Swarm

Two is a party, three is a crowd and anything more than that? Well, that would be a swarm. There is power in numbers, and bugs such as honeybees and locusts have used that to their advantage.

Visitors can discover the art of organized systems and the inventions inspired by termites and swarm behaviour through the interactive displays featuring replicas of members of the largest robot swarm ever built, Kilobots, and robotic architects TERMES.

Silk

Silk is a spider’s greatest tool, but many other bugs also use the protein filaments. Spider silk is incredibly strong and used by insects for various purposes, such as capturing and wrapping prey, protecting and covering their egg sacks and anchoring their web to different surfaces. The silk interactive station provides an excellent opportunity to get to know one of the most feared insects on the planet. It features a comprehensive display with pictures, detailed descriptions, and a close-up view of different silk producers.

Exoskeleton

Various species of scarab beetles, some as tiny as a pinhead, displayed close to the Exoskeleton station at the Bug Adventure exhibit.
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Encased in living armour called an exoskeleton, certain bugs wear their skeleton on the outside of their bodies, protecting them from environmental conditions and threats. The chitin encases the bugs’ vulnerable, soft inner organs and muscles, acting as a natural defence against enemies. The station features an educational video of the valiant bombardier beetle, which defends itself by firing boiling-hot spray at enemies, protecting itself from the blast with its armour.

Displays of different species of beetles, a primary example of arthropods, are set along the walls. These are just a small portion of the 1.3 million specimens the Canadian Museum of Nature has collected and studied. When the beetle dies, the insides dry out, leaving the hard exoskeleton intact.

“The Museum of Nature in Canada is on the map when it comes to biodiversity research because people from around the world know about this collection and know how important it is,” says Smith.

Display

The world of bugs is full of delightful deception and talented tricksters, with camouflage being one of the greatest tools in a bug’s arsenal — both for hunting and hiding. Species such as the orchid mantis fool their prey into believing they are nothing but a harmless flower, the last mistake the prey will ever make. Certain bugs imitate threatening colouring to ward off predators, like a wasp’s yellow and black stripes. Others disguise themselves as leaves or twigs, effectively hiding in plain sight.

Highlights of the exhibition 

Extatooma tiaratum, or “giant prickly stick insect” is one of the bugs currently featured in the Live Gallery.
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The Live Gallery

On Thursday evenings and weekends until the end of June, a museum science interpreter will showcase a variety of live bugs for visitors to engage with in a unique hands-on experience. The gallery will be available daily throughout the summer.

The Chamber of Arthropods

Four 12-foot-tall bug chambers dominate the back of the exhibit. They are highly detailed and crafted to give visitors a life-sized view of the dangerous and incredible world of arthropods. Most of the species featured in this section are familiar to Canada.

In one chamber, visitors can wander into a Japanese honeybee hive and witness a brutal death. Life-sized models of the colony work together to kill an intruder: a giant hornet. Once the hornet enters a hive, leaving a marker pheromone signalling her presence, the bees converge, swarming and smothering it. The vibration of their wings heats the mass, “cooking” the hornet to death. Visitors can interact with the display, helping the bees dispose of their intruder.

Giant models of bees defending their hive from a wasp inside the Honeycomb Chamber.
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Other chambers are equally gruesome, some even more so. Visitors can watch as the jewel wasp hunts and attacks her victim, a cockroach, injecting her venom into it. Instead of killing it, the venom effectively “zombifies” the cockroach, leaving it in a state of complacency for the flightless wasp to drag back to her nest and lay her eggs inside it. Once her offspring hatch, the wasp leaves the cockroach to be eaten by her young. There are worse things than death. The full process can be experienced through a detailed video and an interactive piece.

Visitors can try to spot the orchid mantis, a camouflage genius hidden in the petals of an orchid flower. The mantis is nearly invisible to the human eye and reflects UV light, an attractive trait to any flies or bees who want the brightest “flower.” Guests can test their reflexes with an interactive “catch the bug” game and see if they can detect the hidden mantis in a cluster of pink orchids.

The final chamber pays tribute to one of the world’s most successful hunters, the dragonfly. With four wings that can move independently and 360-degree vision, the dragonfly sees the world in slow motion, allowing it to predict the flight pattern of bugs around it and attack accordingly. Complete with engaging videos and displays, visitors can experience the true wonder of this ancient species.

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