Behind Boudreaux's Bait Shop at the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans, 17-year-old Mia Vedoucha is stationed in the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit.
She's outfitted in a camouflage cap, a khaki shirt with the shop's logo stitched in red, and a pair of white rubber boots covering her pant legs up to the knees. At her feet sits a tackle box full of glass-encased insect specimens, ready for her to whip out and explain to curious visitors.
A few minutes later, Mia might be showing a wide-eyed kid how to work one of the interactive displays or striking up a conversation with a family with a cheerful, "Hi, where are you guys from?"
As a member of Team Insect, the bug museum's group of 10 teen volunteers, Mia takes her cues from the guests. "You kind of learn when to talk to people and when to stand back," she says.
That's not all Mia and the others on Team Insect are learning from their experience. They also get to discover the fascinating, secret world of the most abundant species in the animal kingdom. And they get to work side by side with entomologists (scientists who study insects) who make beetles and butterflies seem cooler than Hannah Montana or the Jonas Brothers.
Teens ages 15 to 17 are eligible to participate in the program.
Love those bugs!
At first, most of the team members, including Mia, weren't too crazy about the idea of being around bugs. Now Mia is so taken with the critters that she'd love to have a praying mantis as a pet. ("They are so cute!" she gushes.)
For Hannah Iannazzo, the job has been something like a challenge course. "I've always been kind of afraid of insects, so I wanted to learn more about them," she says. "That way, maybe I could get over my fears."
Part of the team's training was to go on a scavenger hunt to locate insects throughout the museum, so they could learn the layout of the building, says volunteer manager Meghan Calhoun. That knowledge comes in handy when visitors need help finding their way around.
Michelle Taylor says that the most frequent question she gets from visitors is "Where's the bathroom?" – which gives her an opportunity to share an inside joke. The museum's designers cleverly located the, ahem, dung beetle exhibit as a reference point right next to the public potties.
Team Insect volunteers have station rotation once every hour, so they get to spend time in each of the galleries, as well as in places like the Bug Appetit cafe where real bugs are among the ingredients in goodies such as "rice creepy treats" and "chocolate chirp cookies."
Insects rule the world
The museum's displays include live insects, mounted insects, models, and photographs. One of the most interesting exhibits is found in the diversity gallery, where a pyramid-shaped model shows the relationships in group size between insects and other species on Earth. For example, there are 1.5 million insects for every human being. "They really do rule the world. Without insects, there would be no food, and we would be living in garbage," says Ms. Calhoun.
That's because certain insects pollinate food plants so crops can grow, while other bugs help clean up the environment by using waste as their food.
Team Insect member Claire Priest says her favorite bugs are the leaf-cutter ants. Visitors can watch them cut and carry pieces of leaf up to 20 times heavier than their body weight. The ants then march the bits back to their nests, which contain several fungus gardens. They feed the leaves to the fungus, which, in turn, becomes food for the ant colony.
Team Insect is a vital part of the volunteer program at the Audubon Insectarium, Ms. Calhoun says, and the teens are excited to be involved. "It's just the best place to volunteer, ever!" is how Team Insect volunteer Rachel Brown sums it up.