UA Insect Festival returns with cuddly cockroaches and other critters

Some cockroaches like to cuddle. You’re going to have to trust Kathleen Walker on this.

The University of Arizona entomologist and educator has worked with giant cockroaches in Madagascar for decades.

Walker uses the harmless, easy-to-handle, brown and black insects regularly in her educational programs at local schools, and she will be making a batch available on Sunday for anyone interested in touching or holding one during the annual festival of Arizona insects. at the AU.

“They are what we call gregarious. They live in groups, they know each other and they all take care of the brood. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman; it doesn’t matter if it’s your baby,” she said. “That’s the thing: when you really get to know them, they’re really, really attractive little animals.”

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Her creepy, creepy — and, she insists, cuddly — exhibit on “The Joy of Roaches” is one of two dozen booths planned for the festival, which returns to action after two years of cancellation. COVID.

The event will also feature other living creatures and hands-on educational exhibits on insect brains, pollinators, poetry, insects for food, and this year’s featured local creature, the white-lined hawk-moth.

Several AU departments will be represented, as will the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Southeastern Arizona Butterfly Association, Tohono Chul and others.

Walker, who helped organize the first insect festival 11 years ago, said the event was started to get people to “appreciate these truly underrated creatures”.

Kathleen Walker on hissing cockroaches: “They want to be in physical proximity to each other, which humans do too.”

Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star

“It’s also hopefully a way to get more people interested in science,” she said.

There’s a big push this year to expand the festival’s audience by advertising more widely in Spanish and to schools in southern neighborhoods that have been underrepresented at past events, Walker said.

A number of university entomology departments across the United States are holding similar outreach events, she said, because insects are “ubiquitous but mysterious, and children in particular are really interested in them.”

Walker has kept hissing cockroaches since she was in college. She began her colony at UA in 2005, when she obtained about 10 of the wingless forest dwellers to use in her insect-discovery educational outreach programs at local schools.

Now she has hundreds of cockroaches, some of them over three inches long, living happily together in three different terrariums in her lab.

And the colony “keeps growing and growing and growing,” she said. “Once in a while I take a huge bunch to Tropical Kingdom (Pet Store) and just give them away to sell.”

Individual cockroaches can live for three to five years, even after suffering severe trauma.

Walker’s booth this year will include a shrine to a particularly tough cockroach she and her son nicknamed Sparky after it escaped its cage and hid in the bottom of a pot, ending up in the oven. Walker saved the insect just in time, but not before it suffered a burn scar on its back that was still visible even after molting its exoskeleton multiple times.

Sparky lived another three years and produced at least three broods of babies.

Kathleen Walker, an entomologist and insect educator, holds one of her Madagascar hissing cockroaches in her lab at the University of Arizona.

Mamta Popat, Arizona Daily Star

“You know all about how (cockroaches) will survive a nuclear holocaust? Absolutely. They’re just very, very tough little creatures.

OK, but do they really like to cuddle?

When it comes to pets, Walker said, no one will ever mistake a hissing cockroach for a lapdog.

“The best thing you can say is that they are tolerant of humans,” she said. “They recognize me in the sense that after I hold them, they won’t whistle at me.”

Walker admits calling them cuddly is just a nifty way of describing how they like to huddle together in dark places, in part to increase the humidity in the air and conserve moisture.

“They want to be in physical proximity to each other, which humans do too,” she said. So why is it considered sweet when people or kittens do it, “but it’s kind of gross in cockroaches?”

Don’t worry, Walker knows how that sounds.

“Obviously there’s an element of being slightly ridiculous in trying to make people forget that cockroaches are dirt on six legs and the only good cockroaches are dead cockroaches,” she said. . “I tried to figure out what people don’t like about cockroaches. They’ve been here for 300 million years, so if you don’t like them, you need to find another planet.

Contact journalist Henry Brean at [email protected] or 573-4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean