On a graciously cool evening, as the sun set and the cicadas started singing, two bug lovers eagerly reviewed the past year’s finds and talked shop about the curious work of entomology, the study of insects.
Alex Boulmay, 11, outfitted in a beetle T-shirt and with his own personal entomology kit, is clearly glad to be back at the Audubon Wilderness Park for his third safari with entomologist Zack Lemann, of the Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium.
Curiosity about what’s going on in nature is the heart of Wild Nights: Insect Adventure at Audubon Wilderness Park, a peaceful retreat only 30 minutes from downtown New Orleans in Lower Coast Algiers.
“The trail we’ll walk is about a quarter-mile,” Lemann said, “but as you’ll discover, entomologists make about 5 feet of forward progress every 10 minutes because there’s always something to see.”
Lemann makes good on his promise, announcing it’s time for dinner to the seven-person group at least three times, only to be distracted by another one of the team’s entomological finds.
Alex has brought his younger brother, Sebastian, 8, there for the first time, eager to share his love of discovery and nature. The pair darts from place to place, busting open logs and parting tall grass to find patent leather beetles, katydids, carpenter bees and wolf spiders.
A summer education program offered by Audubon, each insect adventure is limited to about 15 people so that each participant can ask questions and be actively involved in the hunt for bugs.
The season’s first insect outing was attended by family members and individuals, but larger groups can register, as well.
“Many visitors have experience catching bugs,” Lemann said, “but plenty of people are getting into it for the first time, as well.”
At each event, participants receive a kit full of bug-catching gear. The event runs from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and includes a sandwich dinner served between two excitement-filled bug safaris, one during the daylight and one after dark.
The next safari will be Friday, with others set for July 9 and 15, and Aug. 6 and 26.
Tickets are $115 for Audubon members and $125 for nonmembers. The event is limited to ages 8 and up, and each adult can accompany up to three children.
Insects are important for a variety of reasons, but Lemann stresses the importance of their role in the food chain and ecological system.
“Insects aerate the soil, pollinate plants, decompose matter, and are prey to many animals that humans eat,” said Lemann.
However, for the eager entomologist, it seems such practical considerations are secondary reasons to love bugs.
“I started getting interested in bugs when I was 7,” said Lemann. Alex’s experience was similar. His mother recalls him “building corrals around spiders when he was a toddler.”
Alex says he loves bugs because “they look alien.” He loves discovering the expansive variety of insects and spiders available to anyone willing to weed through the tall grass and crack open a few rotting logs.
Lemann’s expertise adds a layer of education and depth to the kind of safari many amateurs entomologist like Alex and Sebastian already practice in their backyards for fun.
Ultimately, participants take away more than just a fun experience and an assortment of bug facts.
Alex and Sebastian ended the night with a wealth of insect specimens to add to their growing collections at home as they continue their hobby in the coming year.
Lemann believes it is important that people learn firsthand about the conservation work at Audubon and the way nature touches people’s lives.
Conservation is important, he says, “so that you will be able to have fish with your grandkids.”