By Don Corrigan (South County Times)
The Weber Road Branch of St. Louis County Library was all abuzz with an “A-MAZE-ing Cockroaches” show this past Monday evening. Actually, there was less buzzing and lot more hissing at the creepy-crawly event.
The hissing was courtesy of a slew of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches that traversed a series of play dough mazes. The mazes were built by teams of youngsters at the library, local grade school students who enthusiastically cheered on the little hissers.
“Welcome to our amazing cockroach program,” said Chris Hartley, an entomologist with the Butterfly House in Chesterfield. “This evening you are going to duplicate an experiment by Charles Henry Turner. You are going to build a maze with blind alleys, and see if the cockroaches can learn to go the right way to get their reward.”
There was no reward for students who got their cockroach to the coveted destination first. However, Hartley said it was reward enough for the kids to hold the critters and start them on their way in the interest of science.
“These things are just creepy,” said Donovan Cruz, 7, a student at Mesnier Primary School in Affton. He was not happy to be holding a cockroach.
Cruz was joined in designing a maze by fellow Mesnier student Makhai Williams, 8. The two buddies had their maze put together in no time, and “Carla the Cockroach” soon looked right at home in their maze.
In contrast, Ella Singleton, 12, and Barrett Fust, 9, spent scads of time designing their cockroach maze. They built an impressive obstacle course for Carla the Cockroach’s cousins.
Singleton is from Sunset Hills and attends The College School in Webster Groves. Fust is from Fenton area and she attends St. Paul Catholic School in Fenton. Singleton was much more comfortable handling the hissing cockroaches than Fust.
“My grandma signed me up for this project,” said Singleton. “She knows I like bugs and tarantulas, which I’ve put on my head before. I like big spiders, I am not fond of the small ones.”
Fust credited her dad with getting her signed up for the Monday night “A-MAZE-ing Cockroaches” event.
“My dad told me this would be cool,” said Fust. “But now that I’m here, the cockroaches actually kind of scare me. They are so big compared to the ones I have seen before. And their hissing is not so cool.”
Charles Henry Turner
American research biologist and zoologist Turner gets a lot of mention at the “A-MAZE-ing Cockroaches” show. He published dozens of papers on invertebrates. As a noted African-American scientist who lived from 1867 to 1923, he paved the way for black scientists who followed him.
In 1892, Turner became the first African American to receive a graduate degree at the University of Cincinnati He became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1907.
“We make a point of linking Turner to the cockroach experiment because he was a mentor to minorities,” said Hartley. “He fought to obtain social and educational advantages for African Americans right here in St. Louis.
“He also did a lot for science and for science education,” added Hartley. “His experiments with cockroaches show that they can learn by trial and error. He recorded how fast the cockroaches could learn a maze with the reward of a jelly jar.”
Turner taught in St. Louis schools and also did research here. Among his more than 70 research papers are: “Habits of Mound-Building Ants” and “Experiments on the Color Vision of the Honeybee.”
Now, folks with The Butterfly House are making more and more local residents aware of his research and discoveries on cockroaches. He definitively established that cockroaches can actually learn with his maze experiments.
Turner was a science teacher at Sumner High School in St. Louis until his retirement in 1922. After his death in 1923, a school for disabled African-American children was named for him.
The traveling show of “A-MAZE-ing Cockroaches” is just one example of how The Butterfly House has spread its wings beyond exhibiting a more attractive world of colorful pollinators.
“Yes, people are surprised to learn that we are about much more than the butterflies,” said Hartley. “We are about all kinds of insects and we have a Firefly Festival in June that will attract several hundred people. And we’ve actually been doing this cockroach show for years.”
Hartley said a very big part of The Butterfly House mission is to educate people about the importance of insects. Most insects are our good friends – not our dedicated enemies or rivals that need to be done away with.
“There are just about 4,000 different species of cockroaches and only about 40 of them should be considered as pests,” said Hartley. “We emphasize that cockroaches are much more beneficial than people realize. They serve as food for other creatures and they can be good for the environment.
“Cockroaches clean the planet,” explained Hartley. “They eat decaying material. The forests would be piled high with leaves and debris, if it were not for the appetites of cockroaches. They also transform the decaying matter into organic material that allows the plants to grow.”
Even if you cannot convince yourself that cockroaches are your friends, then you should consider that they were here first. So, they can stake a legitimate claim to the planet. And, cockroaches are very likely to outlast human beings as this lovely planet’s favored inhabitants.
“They’ve been here for 350 million years and they are definitely survivors,” said Hartley. “They are not all super bugs, but it’s pretty well-known they can survive things like radiation exposure — and much more. They are here to stay.”
Don Corrigan also got to experience the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach.