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Montreal's Insectarium is Buggy but Fun

"Oooh, this is so gross," said my daughter Natalie, as we stepped down to the exhibits of spiders and beetles, huge cobwebs and hanging flying insects suspended above us. Welcome to Montréal's Insectarium- the bug-shaped building on the grounds of the Botanical Gardens that's filled with every kind of creepy crawly. "This is the only museum of its kind in the world," I responded, as we headed toward the glass cases of of locusts and mounted butterflies. "That's because no one else would ever think of building a place like this," she countered.

Well, yes, Georges Brossard, the museum's founding director, was not your average notary. Obsessed with insects, he travelled around the globe identifying and collecting them-a buggy Doctor Doolittle. Perhaps your kid shrieks when he sees an ant cross his path on the sidewalk. But I can think of many small bug collectors, my sons included, who would have loved to follow in this guy's footsteps. When Brossard had amassed some 250,000 critters in his basement, he decided to hand his collection over to the city of Montreal. Another 100,000 scientific specimens were added and thus, in 1990, the unique Insectarium was born.

Insects have the power to both frighten and inspire. As a child, I suffered through Saturday morning music recitals in the dusty auditorium at the Ottawa Museum of Natural History-only so I could visit with the furry tarantula held hostage in the museum's entry hall. It was rumoured that twice a year, the large spider feasted on a whole mouse. It was a subject of much discussion and awe. But I agree with my daughter, that give me a cockroach or a dung beetle to inspect, and I would rather have it under plexiglass.

Not that every species at the Insectarium is lacking in looks. A new butterfly tent was added about five years ago where beautiful winged creatures flit around when the weather is fine; some of the cases display gorgeous striped caterpillars. The Insectarium is heavily involvedwith research projects around the world, such as the Monarch Butterfly migration to Mexico, and education. Visitors can watch through the glass walls of the insect nursery or examine the bees in a transparent beehive. Once a year, for three weekends in February and March, the museum hosts insect tastings. How about cricket-stuffed mushrooms, pizza or pasta with mealworm topping or wok-fried locusts? Kids will yell,"Gross" and love it. The Insectarium is open daily 9 am to 6 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 9 pm on weekends.

Fall is a magical time for families to visit as they will also see the Chinese lantern exhibit in the surrounding Botanical Gardens. Until November 2, over 900 colorful lanterns, direct from Shanghai, illuminate the gardens until 9 p.m. Call (514) 872-1400. A free shuttle service connects the Botanical Gardens with Montréal's nearby Biodome, a natural science centre where visitors can stroll through duplicated ecosystems such as the Polar World or the Tropical Forest.

Although the Insectarium may be the only research centre of its kind in the world, there are other facilities where budding entomologists can examine specimens such as the small Insectarium in Philadelphia. Its centerpiece is a model kitchen and bathroom filled with cockroaches, a working roach motel. Perhaps most known is the O. Orkin Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Institute's Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Along with the famous dinosaurs and the eight-ton Aftican bush elephant is a room where centipedes wiggle, scorpions crawl and crickets chirp under glass. Crawl through a replica of an African termite mound, inspect detailed models of insect heads or examine an Amazon walking stick. Big Bob, the resident tarantula, was apparently the model for the movie Arachnophobia. Check with the museum to see if you can be present at feeding times. Call 202-357-1386.

One of the greatest miracles of nature to a small child, however, as every parent who has read The Very Hungry Caterpillar a thousand times to a two-and-a-half year old knows, is that every slithering caterpillar turns into a butterfly. We should all be so lucky. It's definitely worth the drive to the new Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory just 9 km north of Niagara Falls off the Niagara Parkway to watch the specimens in action. The visit starts with a movie about butterflies filled with vital information such as you can't touch a butterfly's wings and did you know that they feel with their antennae but drink with their feet? Then we entered the moist, misty butterfly pavillion. Immediately a grey and red specimen landed on my shoulder. Everywhere, colorful winged creatures were in motion, flitting from tree to bush or people before they landed to drink from the sugary, overripe watermelon and other fruit placed on plates among the flowers. Interpreters were on hand to answer even the most basic questions. When we visited, a woman asked, "Do butterflies bite?"

So far, most of the butterflies in the pavilion are species captured in South and Central America, the Far East or other parts of the world. Smaller children may prefer to run about the gardens outside where our own Ontario varieties are attracted by colorful plants and flowers. The Conservatory is open 9 am to 5 pm daily throughout the winter. Call 905-358-0025.





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