The sun is shining, the birds are singing and while the bees may not yet be busily buzzing around town, bugs galore are about to invade Ketchum by the thousands.
While it may sound like a drive-in horror movie with some choice Ray Harryhausen effects, the event in question is actually a deeply cherished festival of fun for the whole family: the Bug Zoo.
For the past 15 years, the Sawtooth Botanical Garden has hosted its unwaveringly popular Bug Zoo. Since 2004, the event, unlike (hopefully) the bugs, has continued to grow, achieving massive proportions.
Last year, the creepy crawlies of the Botanical Garden entertained more than a thousand children and hundreds of parents, teachers and guardians.
For many, the denizens of the zoo may represent the stuff of nightmares, but children of all ages tend to squeal with glee rather than terror as they view, touch and learn about these fascinating creatures.
“It really depends on the kid,” said Jen Smith, executive director of the Sawtooth Botanical Garden. She allowed as how not every child is keen to pet Hildegard the Tarantula, who appears at the zoo courtesy of Ann Christensen, local wildlife expert and this year’s Valley Woman.
Most children, though, approach the paraneoptera not only with open eyes and open hands, but open minds as well.
“Kids are cool, because they have an innate curiosity,” Smith said. “When they see something different, it doesn’t mean something bad, necessarily. It means ‘show me more.’”
Apart from the requisite insects, arachnids, crustaceans and myriapods, the Bug Zoo extends its roster to include a host of amphibians, fish, birds and reptiles, especially snakes and lizards.
“It’s more than just bugs. We have all kinds of critters,” Smith said.
These nonbugs account for much of the widespread enthusiasm for the event, Smith said, but she has noted that kids seem most drawn to some of the deadliest creatures present, especially the python and tarantula.
The 2019 Bug Zoo will include a number of new attractions as well. Smith related that the Botanical Garden recently received “a scorpion in the mail,” which must have raised some eyebrows at the post office.
One of the most exciting additions to the Bug Zoo’s already consistently enticing sum of offerings comes in the form of a specially made indoor, see-through beehive, designed, constructed and generously loaned by local apiarist Steve Hobbs. This installation was displayed as part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ Spring 2018 Big Idea project on bees.
This year’s official Bug Zoo theme is “Survival.” At the zoo’s various educational events and during the school field trips it hosts—around 25 this year—visitors will learn all about the way insects navigate their natural habitats, and the ways in which they influence the survival and prosperity of other species.
“We’re going to talk about things like integrated pest management, how bugs help each other, how they cohabitate and how bugs help humans,” Smith said.
Last year’s Bug Zoo introduced a new component, the Bug Zoo University, which will make a return to the Botanical Garden on the second Saturday of the festivities.
To form the “university,” those community members who provided pet centipedes, bearded dragons, turtles and whatever else visit the garden to teach children about the domesticated critters, their habitats and what day-to-day care entails. What does one feed a python, exactly? What does a gecko eat? Do praying mantises make good pets? Children can learn the answers to those questions and more from people who live with creepy crawlies every day.
The unique educational offerings provided during the Bug Zoo always light up young faces and imaginations.
“Children remember the Bug Zoo for years,” said Kim Chaplin, the garden’s AmeriCorps education program assistant. “Maybe some of the first participants are now studying to be entomologists!”
In addition to all the firsthand wildlife experiences on offer for children to enjoy, the Bug Zoo also includes myriad fun activities, such as face-painting, a scavenger hunt, arts and crafts and gardening.
“Probably the most popular thing for kids to do is catch water skippers in the creek,” Smith said. “It’s springtime, so they want to get out of the classroom.”
The fun begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 27, with the first Bug Zoo Festival. A second festival will take place the following Saturday, May 4, and feature an Arbor Day celebrating and tree-planting. These festival days include nominal fees to cover celebratory expenses: $5 for adults and $3 for children ages 5-18. Children 4 and younger are admitted free.
For two weeks, from April 29 through May 9, the Sawtooth Botanical Garden will host scheduled school field trips. Individuals can drop by from 3-5 p.m. on weekdays to enjoy the bugs, other animals and the garden.
The Sawtooth Botanical Garden is at 11 Gimlet Road, just a few miles south of Ketchum.
Head to sbgarden.org or call 208-726-9358 for more information or to schedule a visit and help the garden launch another successful Bug Zoo and ring in the warmer season.
“It’s kind of the Sawtooth Botanical Garden’s de facto spring opening,” Smith said. “It’s the reawakening of the garden, and what better way to do that than to invite 1,700 kids and their parents to party with bugs?”