Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Year

Volunteering at the Siam Insect Zoo

Just north of Chiang Mai, in the more rural province of Mae Rim, you can find a peculiar, but wonderful place: The Siam Insect Zoo. This insect zoo and museum was started by local entomologist, Pisuth Ek-Annuay. Out of his passion for studying insects, Annuay made a large museum of pinned insects from around the world, which happens to be only 5% of his personal insect collection. From the museum, a live insect zoo has grown with hundreds of live insects from around the world!


This business was started as an effort to educate visitors on insects and over the years has expanded to include more arthropods and even a few reptiles! Fear of insects and other ‘creepy crawlies’ often stems from ignorance of these animals. Through education, we are able to see people transform from feeling terrified or nervous to fascinated by these creatures. In order to provide this education, the museum portion starts the visit with both cultural and scientific insect facts. You can learn about how insects sense the world, beetles that have been used for wrestling, and insects that are commonly eaten!

After learning these facts, visitors find mounted specimens from around the world and slowly walk through these halls, often with mouths agape. Many visitors remark on how they have “never seen so many insects” or “known that so many existed.” The colors, varieties, and oddities all fascinate visitors as they view the pinned specimens in glass cases.

At the end of the museum, visitors are often surprised by our caterpillar station where we teach them about the butterfly life cycle. Here visitors can begin to hold insects as they learn about them – an act many have never encountered before.
The next stage involves ‘discovering’ our tarantula collection as we give guests flashlights to explore the tanks which hold each specimen. In this hall we have tarantulas from around the world, from the Goliath Birdeater (Theraphosa blondi) to the native Thai Cobalt Blue Tarantula (Haplopelma lividum).  As a volunteer I fed these tarantulas the crickets and cockroaches we bred at the museum. I also made new habitats for our growing collection of cockroaches with species like the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) and Guatemalan Giant Roach (Blaberus giganteus). When guiding guests through, I would always teach them about the ways that spiders shed their skin and how other arthropods, particularly insects, do as well.

Oleander Hawk Moth caterpillar (Daphnis nerii)
Cobalt Blue Tarantula  (Haplopelma lividum)

From this exhibit, guests enter our butterfly garden where we breed and release several different species of butterflies. This is a lovely garden with many opportunities for children to see butterflies emerging from their chrysalis at our breeding station.

Freshly merged Red Spotted Jezebel (Delias descombesi)
Red Spotted Jezebel (Delias descombesi)
Leopard Lacewing (Cethosia cyane)
Clipper Butterfly (Parthenos sylvia)

After spending some time in the garden, guests enter our collection of live stick insects (phasmids). The native Giant Siam Stick Insect (Tirachoidea siamensis), Jungle Nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata), and Australian Prickly Stick Insect (Extatosoma tiaratum) are some of our most loved insects, but visitors tend to spend time searching through each cage and to spot all the different camouflaged phasmids.

Siam Giant Stick Insect (Tirachoidea siamensis)
Jungle Nymph  (Heteropteryx dilatata) female

The next exhibit features the predaceous mantids and giant centipedes with sweet milipedes on the side. The milipedes are available for people to hold and dig for in our soil substrate, while they learn about how these creatures turn over nutrients in the soil.

Millipede (Diplopoda)
Raising the newly hatched mantids!

The final insect exhibit is our beetle collection! Siam Beetle is another branch of this business that sells beetle breeding materials including larvae and substrates to raise stag and rhino beetles. A video that goes behind the scenes of the beetle collection can be seen here and the Siam website with beetle breeding materials is found here.

Rhino beetle (Xylotrupes gideon) larvae
Dorcus titanus stag beetle

Added bonuses of the museum include Bearded Dragons from Australia, Iguanas from Mexico, and giant scorpions from Thailand, all of which visitors can hold as they learn about them. Yes, even the scorpions!

Saeng and P-Waan, one of our iguanas from Mexico. These are commonly sold as pets in Thailand.
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Australian bearded dragon babies (6 months old), numbered to keep track of varieties.

Since Annuay, the original entomologist is formally retired, his son Bin now runs the business and graciously took me on as a volunteer while I visited Thailand. I was the first non-Thai volunteer to work here, with local university students normally taking the same position. The other lovely ladies working here (yes – it’s mostly run by girls), made me feel at home as they showed me different aspects of raising butterflies and educating guests. After hours we often shared great food and I got to learn a little about what it’s like to live in the Thai countryside. Essentially, it’s like the southern US: you’ll be well fed and welcomed! I’m very thankful to have worked alongside such friendly staff and have a boss who’s family took care of me when I got really sick. I was able to make a quick recovery with their care and enjoyed all the time I got to spend here

Bin and I outside the museum

It was always thrilling to see how amazed guests were when they visited. After winding through the three big museum rooms to learn about insect senses and diversity, I loved greeting guests with caterpillars and teaching them about lepidopteran lives. We taught about the beetle and butterfly life cycles to show visitors how long some insects can live and the immense change they undergo. We watch fear turn into wonder as we educated them about these different animals and how important they are to ecosystems.

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An incredible Dorcus titanus beetle

If extreme entomophobes come to visit, it is understood that they have come to a place full of insects and may be seeking a remedy for their fear, so we gently try to let people get past their fears by holding or letting them closely observe insects in their various life stages. This educational work is extremely important as kids walk in and future entomologists walk out. Hopefully our guests of all ages will refrain from just killing insects after learning so much about their diversity. Even if a visit doesn’t result in some life changes however, sharing the wonder that insects can instill for just a moment is rewarding.

Working here for two weeks improved my communication skills with the general public as I taught across ages and languages about insects. One of my favorite lessons is sharing how most insects choose the peaceful route of survival through camouflage to avoid predators and surprising people that not all insects bite or sting.

Cethosia cyane on a guest’s hand

Sometimes guests come in with questions about insects that they’ve seemingly kept all their life and our conversation quickly becomes explanation after explanation with lots of excitement in between. Other guests confess a fascination with insects that they’ve had since childhood, but haven’t been able to explore. When these guests visit, I feel like I’m granting wishes by showing them our different rare beetles and butterflies. One Russian man, making a documentary on the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, was so thrilled to visit that he began filming me when I caught butterflies, collected eggs, and revealed new beetles in the soil. Whether this is added to his film doesn’t concern me, what I value from it is how I was able to show him insects and parts of their lives that he’s never seen before.

Apple was collecting in the field near the museum

While volunteering here, I changed the homes of and fed hundreds of tarantulas as I was one of the few employees not afraid to do so. I also cleaned and created new habitats for seven different species of cockroaches. Each cockroach population had expanded to over 500 individuals from the original 10 mating pairs over the course of 6 months and required new enclosures to contain them humanely. These jobs probably sound the least desirable, but I enjoyed each as they provided me with opportunities to familiarize myself with creatures I too once feared.

Brazilian Salmon Pink Tarantula (Lasiodora parahybania)

With an improved set of communication skills, familiarity with Thai and other international insects, and experience in raising insects, I feel like I have been highly rewarded for volunteering at the Siam Insect Zoo. I encourage everyone to visit if they are ever in Chiang Mai. You will certainly, see, learn, and maybe even feel something new!

 

 

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