It’s been almost exactly a year since I started volunteering at the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo & Butterfly Pavilion! It’s hard to believe and I’m happy that my volunteer time is still going strong. Every time I go volunteer, there is so much to preoccupy me that I hardly ever get pictures. I’m slowly working on that so I can share more of what you’d be able to experience there!
Let’s start off with the Madasgascar hissing cockroach, one of the staples found on the insect cart. These are hardy creatures that don’t require much maintenance. We keep two tiny slices of sweet potato in a jar for them and I can’t even tell they’ve been eaten. While they may look scary, they’re actually really safe and quite clean. I’m sure that’s why they’re popular in TV shows that have them crawl all over people or offer them up as creepy snacks to contestants.
Hissing cockroaches don’t fly, jump, or bite. They are not toxic, have no stingers, and their only defense is to hiss. So really, there’s no way they can hurt you. At all. Even when people know this, they get creeped out. I guess many phobias are rather irrational. I admit they aren’t the prettiest of species, but they’re cute in their own way.
You’ll only find them hissing when they’re feeling upset/threatened (or for males, also when they want to mate). They domesticate pretty easily and the ones we have hardly ever hiss. Usually it’s just a brief “Ugh, why are you picking me up again? Just leave me alone” sort of hiss that vaguely resembles a rattlesnake. To create the noise, they have spiracles along their abdomen – look closely and you’ll see dots lining the sides. They push air through these spiracles to hiss, which is kind of like whistling through your sides. This is pretty unique in the insect world, since most of them create noise by rubbing body parts together, like wings. Obviously, the Madagascar hissing cockroach does not have wings, so it found a different way.
Here I’m holding a male up to my face to show you how large he’d gotten. You can tell he’s a male by the horns on his head, which are quite pronounced. Females have tiny bumps there and their antennae don’t get nearly as fuzzy. They grow to similar sizes and colors vary from about as dark as this guy to far lighter, almost golden yellow. They can live a good 2-5 years (females tend to live longer), which makes them a long-lived insect. Their longevity combined with their ease of domestication and lack of harmfulness make them great pets! I’ve had many schoolteachers and students tell me they had them in their classrooms.
It’s always fun to see who is willing to hold these guys and who freaks out. It’s usually the children running up all wide-eyed and excited while the adults stay back. The larger the person, the greater the fear it seems. I had a towering giant of a man scream when he tried to hold one, which was actually quite terrifying. Some people actually shake and jerk as they try to not throw it off their hands. Then there are the babies who jut out their little hands and I can barely get the hissing cockroach on their tiny palms. Usually people go away with a new appreciation for these creatures, and a little less fear/misunderstanding of them. That’s always my goal!