Knowledge is in the air at Penn State’s Great Insect Fair

Jonathan Sheaffer, 6, looks at a display containing Araneidae Spiders at The Great Insect Fair at the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday, September 13, 2014.
Jonathan Sheaffer, 6, looks at a display containing Araneidae Spiders at The Great Insect Fair at the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday, September 13, 2014. CDT photo

Nothing scared the Fix sisters.

While other kids were squeamish about touching bugs, Sierra Fix and her little sister, Marissa, put out their hands and grabbed the grub like seasoned veterans.

Marissa, 8, was especially excited to eat chocolate-covered crickets.

“The tarantula was the coolest,” Sierra, 10, added enthusiastically.

She wasn’t able to hold that spider, but she did handle millipedes, centipedes, grasshoppers and more at The Great Insect Fair at the Bryce Jordan Center, hosted by Penn State’s entomology department.

Urban entomologist Steve Jacobs said the event is the largest department-run outreach event at Penn State, annually attracting 5,000 to 6,500 people.

In its 21st year, the fair had a pollination theme, with a mission to educate local youth.

“We try to come up with something different each year,” Jacobs said. “We have an enormous research base that studies pollination, and does nothing but pollination.”

Stations included a build-a-bug contest, pesticide education games, cockroach races, bee observation hives, an insect zoo, bug collections, face painting and games, and more.

Georgia Thomas, 12, was in charge of the Asian walking stick insect display at the Insect Zoo.

The Park Forest Middle School student got involved in volunteering with the fair three years ago, and has become a youth expert on some insects.

“Don’t let the name fool you. You can find this guy anywhere,” Georgia said about the Asian walking stick.

The bug is a phasmida, or type of “stick insect,” that lives on trees, eats leaves and blends in with its habitat.

In Pennsylvania, the Asian walking stick is known as an invasive species — something that is not native to the area, but has grown in population, Georgia said.

At the honey tasting exhibit at the far end of the arena, a guest waited to try homemade honey.

Volunteer Albert Rozo took 9-year-old Brady James, of State College, and showed him how honey is made.

Rozo said bees do the most pollinating of all insects.

Led by a queen bee that controls the colony, the bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers. It’s then eaten and regurgitated to make a type of honey that fills honeycomb pockets. When the honeycomb is filled, the bees protect it using wax.

Another type of pollinator, although not as prevalent, are butterflies, said Anjel Helms, a graduate student in the department of entomology and the butterfly tent coordinator at the fair.

Helms said the goal of the butterfly tent was to educate children on butterflies, using the one people see most: the monarch butterfly.

Groups of children and their families entered the tents a few at a time.

When Jonathan Sheaffer, 6, put his hand out, a monarch butterfly landed on his finger. It only stayed for a moment before it flew away.

“They get up close and see them in a close-to-real setting,” Helms said. “We let them know (the butterflies) contribute to pollination and then let them know what they can do at home to help.”

Helms encouraged families to plant flowers at their homes to help in the pollination process.

Planning for the fair begins each year around February, but Jacobs said the committee doesn’t have a theme for next year picked out yet.

“We’re always looking to try something new and educate the kids, so when you see them walking around like that, they can eventually find themselves studying these topics later on in life,” Jacobs said as he pointed out a youngster interested in insects.