May 26, 2019
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Meet the creepy-crawly collection of exotic bugs at UMaine

A big, black, hairy spider hung in the window of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Pest Management Office in Orono, on Oct. 25, perhaps a decoration for Halloween, though in that particular office, it would be fitting decor year-round. For decades, the building has been home to a live collection of creepy crawlies, housed in what’s known as “the animal room.”

“What we feed this guy is raw potatoes and cucumbers,” the office’s insect diagnostician Clay Kirby said as he watched a giant African millipede glide across a meeting room table on a wave of more than 200 legs.

When first plucked from its terrarium on that rainy October morning, the millipede had coiled into a spiral, protecting its soft underside and head. Cradled in Kirby’s hands, it slowly uncurled and started to explore, feeling its surroundings with two curled antennae. Despite the creature’s creepy appearance and impressive size — measuring nearly a foot long — the millipede was fairly harmless. But it does have one method of defense.

“If you disturb it enough, it will seep out this yellow fluid,” Kirby said. “And if that yellow fluid gets on your fingers, it will turn your fingers purple — purple spots — and it stains your fingers, so it lasts for several days.”

Kirby speaks from experience.

For more than 30 years, he has employed the collection’s millipedes, walking sticks and cockroaches in educational programs, such as Bug Maine-ia, a science education event held annually in September at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

“Cockroaches are easy to rear in captivity,” Kirby said, explaining why the collection has three different species of cockroaches. “They’re pretty tough. They reproduce nicely. They’re pretty easy to feed. They’re not picky on the food.”

For the most part, the cockroaches of the collection are fed dry dog food, which is often used by those who own cockroaches as pets because it is a high-protein food that requires no preparation.

Located in a small room filled with terrariums, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension live arthropod collection was started by pest management specialist Jim Dill in the early 1980s for educational purposes.

“Most everything we’ve got was given to us, and we cultured it,” Dill said.

And what they aren’t given, they can sometimes acquire through trade. The collection’s live tarantula, for example, was traded to them in exchange for a number of cockroaches by bug collector and artist Jim Nutting of Lisbon Falls, who runs the Butterfly and Insect Museum in Lisbon Falls.

Not just anyone can own exotic animals in Maine; these creatures, however small, require the owner to hold a special license, in accordance to state law.

“There’s a couple of people — it’s dwindling — who have some of these jungle bugs, but they have to keep their paperwork up,” Kirby said.

Reaching a hand into a small plastic container, Kirby gently picked up a Madagascar hissing cockroach, which at his touch produced a high-pitched hiss as a form of defense. Perching on Kirby’s thumb, the cockroach soon quieted and remained still, clinging with its six spiny legs.

“He can dig those in and give you a good prick,” Kirby said. “I’ve been pricked many times.”

Though far from glamorous, the hissing cockroach has been featured in many Hollywood films, including the 1997 movie “Men in Black,” and in reality TV shows, such as “Fear Factor.” In fact, years ago, an independent horror film shooting in Maine borrowed a couple hundred of these live cockroaches from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Pest Management Office to use in a particularly gruesome scene. The film production team had accidentally left their original cockroach supply in a vehicle, where they’d died of heat, Dill remembered, though he couldn’t bring to mind the name of the film.

“I’ve never been bitten by one of these until I was doing teacher training down in the Sebago Lake area, years ago,” Kirby said as he held the hissing cockroach. “I was in front of a room filled with teachers and I had this guy in my hand — well a similar — and somebody asked the question, ‘Do they bite?’ And as soon as they asked that question, the guy latched onto me, and I went ‘Ah!’ It hurt like crazy, and [the teachers] thought I was joking. It was the one and only time I was bitten. I haven’t been bitten since. That was like 10 years ago.”

The other two types of cockroaches in the office’s live collection are the giant peppered roach and giant cave cockroach of Central and South America.

“They smell like rubber when they get excited,” Kirby said of the giant cave cockroaches. “So they stink. … And they can run fast.”

In the animal room, they live in terrariums beside giant walking sticks from Southeast Asia and, of course, a few giant African millipedes, munching away on their cucumbers and potatoes, burrowing down to sleep during the day, and crawling around in the dark of night.

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