Celebrating 100 Years
Nathan Erwin and the Insect Zoo
Come rain or shine, “Snowpocalypse” or potential government shutdown, Nathan Erwin or one of his associates is at the National Museum of Natural History tending to his collections—because, unlike most of the other collections at the Museum, his need to be fed. Erwin is the manager of the O. Orkin Insect Zoo and Butterfly Pavilion.
“Life is never dull here,” says Erwin. There are leaf-cutter ants, a hive of honeybees with a special door to outside so they can go and forage, tarantulas that are fed for visitors three times a day, centipedes, millipedes, hissing cockroaches, and dozens of other kinds of spiders, crustaceans, and insects. Use the player at right to listen to Erwin talk about how insects and plants run the world.
Erwin’s fascination with nature goes back to childhood, when he spent a lot of time capturing and studying frogs and insects. He went to the University of Delaware, where he majored in entomology, and afterwards began work for the Maryland Department of Agriculture as a forest pest entomologist. In the early 1980s, as the gypsy moth population exploded, he became the coordinator of the state’s gypsy moth control program. He later completed A Basic Guide to Pesticides, as part of his work as staff scientist for the Rachel Carson Council.
In 1992, Erwin was hired by the Smithsonian. The National Museum of Natural History was at that time about to renovate their Insect Zoo, which had opened in 1976 as the first permanent live-insect exhibit in the country. Working with the Department of Entomology, the Office of Exhibits constructed the Insect Zoo with donations from a number of chemical companies. When the time came for renovating the exhibit in 1992, the Orkin Pest Control company stepped up with a generous donation to renovate the exhibit.
Erwin has done fieldwork in Latin America. Some of his early field work in Belize and Guatemala was spent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, studying neo-tropical migratory birds and how ecological changes such as forest clearing might affect their behavior. Other trips, to Trinidad, Panama, Costa Rica, and French Guiana, focused on collecting for the Insect Zoo. Erwin was also part of the Museum’s core team (a combined effort of the Public Programs, Entomology, Botany and Paleobiology Departments) that created the popular Butterfly Pavilion in 2008 and the corresponding permanent exhibition, Butterflies and Plants: Partners in Evolution.Erwin developed a collaborative relationship with a number of butterfly farmers, in order to help them learn to raise other insects besides katydids. Now a small number of tropical katydids and praying mantids are available to live-insect exhibits, all of which have been “farm raised” and not collected from the wild.
During his career at the Smithsonian, Erwin—known as the “Bug Guy”—has worked on a wide variety of educational programs and exhibits. He was a script consultant on the IMAX 3D film “Bugs!”, and he conceived of the exhibit “Treetop Opera,” about the Brood X cicadas that emerged in 2004 after their traditional 17-year dormancy. He has appeared, along with many of the creatures from the Insect Zoo, on various radio and television programs—including the David Letterman show.
Nate Erwin appears on the David Letterman Show in 2004, along with some cicadas. With kind permission of "The Late Show with David Letterman"
Watch Nate Erwin discuss the honeybees in the Insect Zoo
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