Bugs delight at insectarium’s 5-year ‘Ant-Iversary’

Nina Camacho stared suspiciously at the cicada shish kebab she held in her hand before chomping down on the crunchy appetizer.

“It’s pretty good, considering it’s a bug,” she said.

Camacho and her children Dane and Danielle Castillo were among the approximately 1,000 visitors who streamed through the door of the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium this weekend as part of the facility’s five-year “Ant-Iversay.”

The insectarium, which racked up 260,000 visitors in 2012, is North America’s largest museum devoted to insects and has more than 50 exhibits.

On Saturday, visitors strolled through the butterfly garden, checked out ants and tarantulas and watched a pack of cockroaches scurry around a miniature kitchen.

In the Bug Appétit restaurant, 75 excited spectators gathered to watch the “Arthropod Showdown.” in which GW Fins’ executive chef Tenney Flynn put his crawfish dumplings to the test against the savory cicada shish kebabs of Zack Lemann and Jayme Necaise.

Lemann and Necaise, who manage the insectarium’s programming, touted the merits of chowing down on cicadas, mealworms and other insects.

“These insects are safe to eat, harvested from the wild and have no toxins,” Lemann said about the cicadas, which a friend had sent him from Virginia.

In order to win some extra sway with the audience, the two bug chefs unbuttoned their aprons to reveal “bug bling” necklaces, donned giant bug-eyed sunglasses and broke into a rap performance.

“Why eat bugs, you know they’re nutritious, if you cook them right, they’re going to be delicious,” Lemman rhymed.

The winner of the cook-off was chosen by a panel of local celebrity judges and won’t be revealed until the show airs on the Audubon Nature Institute’s new Web series in July.

Necaise, who has been cooking bugs for about five years, said that visitors to the insectarium can sample insect cuisine in the Bug Appétit restaurant seven days a week.

He estimates that about 75 percent of visitors do just that, though often it takes some convincing for them to take the plunge into bug grub.

“It’s kind of a mind over matter thing for most people,” he said, adding that few can resist the sumptuousness of what he considers his best insect dish, banana cricket fritters.

Those not interested in expanding their palettes Saturday were still able to drift among a wide array of exhibits.

One of the more popular exhibits was the butterfly center, where more than 700 butterflies fluttered in and about a serene Asian-inspired landscape that included a koi pond.

Just outside of the garden, volunteer Bill Rochel manned a table with a rose hair tarantula, which he fearlessly handled to the delight of passersby

Rochel said much of the tarantula’s fearful image stems from Hollywood and that its bite is no more painful than a bee sting.

He added that he enjoys volunteering at the insectarium because of the opportunity to interface with visitors and teach them about the various creatures.

Saturday’s event was packed with insectarium staff, and a giant costumed bug on stilts greeted visitors, while face painters and balloon artists entertained kids.

Outside on the Canal Street sidewalk, staff member Sarah Ehrhardt coaxed passersby to stake their claim to one of the four competitors in a beetle race.

Ehrhardt said that the insectarium is chock-full of knowledge between its exhibits and its staff, which she considers a big benefit.

“I learn five things every time I come to work,” she said.