Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Greg Jordan

October 24, 2013

Giant tarantula, scorpions and more, but Bug Fest really is family fun

— — When new reporter Anne Elgin said she once helped with something called “Bug Fest” at Virginia Tech, my ears perked up. I quickly learned that the university’s entomology (bug studies) department hosted an annual festival on the Virginia Tech campus, I was intrigued. I keep three tarantulas as pets, and Anne assured me the big spiders were a featured attraction at the festival’s bug zoo. I had to go.

I drove to Blacksburg, Va., Saturday morning and soon arrived on campus. The festival was in the campus hotel, and Anne wasn’t kidding when she said it was popular. The parking lot was almost full and there were plenty of people coming and going already. There were plenty of families with little children, so I reminded myself to watch where I stepped.

The festival was in full swing when I entered the lobby. Concessions were available and there was a volunteer walking around in a brown bug suit: I think he was supposed to be a cockroach. I admired his dedication; having once dressed up as a squirrel, I knew those suits were no treat.

Aisles of booths had been set up in a ballroom. Everything from wood roaches, desert locusts, silk worms, bee hives and more were on display. I soon found myself holding a disc-shaped case crawling with bed bugs.

Bed bugs were bigger than I had expected. The adult blood suckers are about the size of a lentil, and plenty of pinhead-sized juveniles were scurrying. These particular bed bugs called Britain home, but I’m sure the American variety are just as pleasant.

The attractive lady who handed me the bed bug swarm told me that bed bugs are not as big a problem in motels and hotels as most people think; instead, the worst places for infestations are at apartment complexes. She traveled all the time and never had a problem.

Kids wearing bug hats and playing with bug toys such as flashing tarantulas were running around. I spotted the Bug Zoo and headed for it.

Tables with terrariums were all around the room. I got into line and went past an ant farm and up to a long line of tarantulas. The first was a Mexican Fire Leg, a tarantula with bright orange legs. Then there was a Chilean Rose; I have one of those. A cradle held about a dozen little containers holding baby tarantulas about the size of a house spider.

Next came the Goliath Birdeaters. These are huge spiders that get bigger than a human hand when they reach adulthood. You could see into their burrows, and the children were suitability impressed; in fact, I didn’t see any kids afraid of the bugs.

Other tanks held glossy, black emperor scorpions, a strange flat rock scorpion, praying mantises, millipedes and other odd bugs. Then I came to an especially large terrarium holding a giant white knee tarantula.

I’ve always wanted a giant tarantula. Children were gathered in front of it, hoping the big female would come out of her hollow log. A volunteer scooped a roach from a neighboring tank and dropped it into the tarantula tank; roaches and crickets are common tarantula food.

The roach went into the lair. “It’s going in there!” a boy cried with delight. You could a flurry of motion inside.

Suddenly, the giant white knee emerged. It was like watching a spindly, grotesque hand crawling around on its own. The jaws were moving up and down as the fangs shredded the roach. The children surged forward to see more.

“Ooo, it’s eating it!” a little girl cried with delight. These were my kind of kids.

I know some folks question my sanity, but I thought that tarantula was gorgeous. I questioned one of the volunteers about it and decided that I wanted one some day. You can get spiderlings for a reasonable price, then raise them into monsters. I’d probably dub mine Shelob after the monster in “The Lord of the Rings.” I think “lob” was old English for spider. I’ve taken my tarantulas to local schools and the children have always liked them, but I’m sure they would really have something to talk about if I brought them a real giant of a bug.

Bug Fest was a good day trip and a lot of family fun. I know many of the exhibits were not for the squeamish, but they were educational. If I have the opportunity, I’ll probably go next year.

Now I have to figure out where I could set up a terrarium for a giant tarantula. I won’t rush out and get one right away, but it’s a nice “what if” project to consider. For instance, how would my snake, Alice, tolerate such a roommate?

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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