Bugs Check into Cincinnati's Insect World, but Milan Busching Doesn't Let Them Check Out

Imagine it, a hostess’ nightmare. Hubby calls from the office, says he is bringing a few guests home for dinner: a Madagascar hissing cockroach, a gaggle of Panamanian ants and a couple of assassin bugs just in from Chicago. What to serve, wonders the distracted housewife. Should she toss a couple of steaks on the grill? Better she should call Milan Busching.

Busching, 33, curator of insects for the Cincinnati Zoo, not only knows where to look for the various species that make up his inventory, he knows what they consider the Good Life. The hissing cockroach, he has learned, has an appetite for “omnivore chow,” a kind of granola for bugs, but will accept dry dog food if the kitchen insists. Panamanian ants are decidedly finicky. They’d rather die—and would—than hunker down to the same serving of green hibiscus leaves night after night. Assassin bugs have a craving for crickets and, as the name implies, prefer killing their own.

As his zoo’s chief entomologist, Busching has turned over promising rocks all around the world in hope of seeing exotic creatures crawl out. He makes regular small-game safaris to the jungles of South and Central America, where he lures his tiny quarry out of hiding with ultraviolet lamps that attract them. Then he ships his little captives north so that they can spend their lives in the relative comfort of the zoo’s Insect World, a sort of theme park for bugs that is the largest insectarium in the U.S. There, Busching sees to the housing, propagation and feeding of more than 100 species—some rare, some dangerous, some of the ordinary crawl-up-your-leg-and-make-you-itch variety.

Bitten by the bug bug in boyhood, Busching put together his first insect collection at age 7 at the urging of an aunt, a high school biology teacher who needed some specimens to show to her class. “Each time I found a new kind of insect, it was like making a discovery,” he says. “That’s still the kind of feeling I get.” After helping out his aunt, Busching, who grew up on his parents’ farm near Plainfield, Iowa, began his own collection, which today numbers some 20,000 bugs under glass. After graduating from Iowa State and earning his master’s degree at Purdue, he was hired to run Insect World, which opened under his direction in 1978. Built at a cost of $840,000, the 6,400-square-foot exhibit attracts close to one million visitors annually. The zoo’s custom-made display cases and nonlethal roach motels (none with miniaturized Magic Fingers) were designed and built by Busching himself, who doubles as a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker.

For various reasons, keeping insects in solitary can be considerably trickier than caging a lion. Many of the zoo’s little inmates are capable of crawling for daylight through even the tiniest aperture, while Insect World’s termites, though incapable of chewing through glass, are devouring the hardwood tree branch supporting their nest. (Busching plans to replace it with a fiberglass replica.) There is also the problem of keeping predators out. Several years ago Insect World was invaded by tiny pharaoh ants, Cincinnati natives themselves, who ate their way through three honeybee colonies and numerous other bugs before Busching hit on a solution. Since the ants were capable of walking on water, the legs of racks holding display cases were placed in dishes of oil the ants couldn’t navigate. Then Busching administered the coup de grace by spreading around a growth-regulating hormone that prevented juvenile ants from maturing. Eventually the pharaohs phased themselves out.

Don’t get the idea, though, that Busching enjoys playing exterminator. “A lot of people have the misconception that insects are generally pests,” he says. “This isn’t true. All but one-tenth of one percent of all species are either useful or don’t do any damage.” And no matter what other members of his own taller, better-dressed but biologically less successful species may say to the contrary, Busching even has a kind word for termites. They are, he says, “great decomposers.” Not the kind of thing you’d like to say about Beethoven, but to a termite that’s a term of endearment.

Related Articles