A small drama is taking place behind the scenes at The Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, playing out in a staff-only room that's part bug care center, part storage.
If there's a steamy side to the tale, it's because the room is kept at a warm 75 degrees to accommodate the insects. The main conflict is a more coolly scientific one, a contest between man and nature with the clock ticking.
The participants are Curator of Animal Programs Zack Lemann and his crew of entomologists, plus a handful of what have to be some of the most eye-popping insects around.
They are Catacanthus incarnatus, called man-faced stink bugs because the bright patterns on their backs resemble faces. They come in four colors: red, yellow, orange and cream, and they are from India and Malaysia.
But past these few tidbits, Lemann and his cohorts know little about them.
"I couldn't find much research. There are very few scholarly papers on them," he said.
"They're in the tropical rain forest in developing countries. There's no funding or wherewithal for a museum to study them. Probably a researcher was saying 'It's a cool bug,' and so some business said, 'I can sell that'."
Thus they've become periodically available from one of the insectarium's Southeast Asian suppliers.
Lemann ordered a batch not because the bugs are a newly discovered species or an endangered one — they aren't. He took on the big challenge of unlocking their secrets so insectarium-goers could experience their "wow" factor.
For that to happen, he has to keep them alive and reproducing, even though he isn't sure about the parameters of their diet, how long they live or how to tell the males from the females.
There's a lot to learn. And the bugs aren't talking.
"They've never been reared from egg to adulthood in captivity in the United States," Lemann said.
With a dearth of information available on raising them, few institutions have tried. One that has is Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House in the Missouri Botanical Garden at Chesterfield. The last Lemann heard from his peers there, they weren't having much luck keeping adults alive or getting them to lay eggs.
But some information from the supplier seems to be holding true: The man-faced stink bugs aren't too discriminating about where they lay eggs. The insectarium's have laid two sets; they hatched on Dec. 22 and Jan. 3 into nymphs, or tiny, red, immature bugs. The first batch was only about a half dozen nymphs, the second about three dozen.
Both sets have molted (or shed their exoskeletons in order to grow) once; it takes a few molts for them to reach adulthood.
The supplier had only about a 10 percent success rate for nymphs reaching maturity.
So the fate of the New Orleans branch of the man-faced stink bug family comes down to whether Audubon Insectarium staff can observe them closely enough and long enough to figure out what they need to thrive.
The shipment of 15 adult bugs was down to only one after a month. Why?
Maybe the environment created at the insectarium wasn't right. Or maybe they were just older bugs, at the end of their natural lifespans.
After all, Lemann said, there are a million different species in the world. Unless you're an expert on this particular family of insects, you wouldn't even know this species existed.
That's the thing about entomology that appeals to him.
"You can never know everything, and there's always something to discover," he said.
So he and his staff keep watching the nymphs and the remaining adult, looking for clues to winning the contest for their survival.
The stakes aren't terribly high, except for people who really want to see them and for the bugs themselves. Man-faced stink bugs cost $5 to $10 each.
"It might be one and done," Lemann said of the trial group.
But he thinks that would be a shame. Before so many of them died, the bugs were brought out several times to a display area in the insectarium. "Everybody was enamored with them," Lemann said.
The number of nymphs -- over 40 -- gives him hope. "I think that the fact that our supplier was able to get a small percentage to adulthood means we have a shot as well. And we are looking for a shot, because who doesn't want cool man-faced bugs in our exhibit?"
Insectarium spokeswoman Katie Smith also is optimistic about the survival of the bugs, which look a lot like they're wearing masks. "It would be good to have them (on display) for Mardi Gras," she said.