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Insect zookeeper prepares for facility’s 10-year anniversary

By Corene Brisendine

A great night out for Kiffnie Holt is observing the bugs that collect under the street lights.

Holt, Kansas State University Insect Zoo coordinator, said when people see a cloud of tiny insects swarming a light in a parking lot or at the football stadium, those are typically leaf hoppers or plant hoppers.

“During the summer, it’s my favorite thing to do,” said Holt, who has worked at the insect zoo for seven years. “It’s what bug people do.”

But right now Holt said she is too busy with preparations for the zoo’s 10th anniversary celebration for her favorite pastime. She has worked for the zoo for most of that time — seven years — since graduating from K-State with her master’s degree in entomology. She said she is excited about the event, which includes a Monarch butterfly release, information booths and exhibits.

When not occupied with celebration preparations, Holt said that during her nightly outings she can tell many things about the local insect population. For instance, she said the weather has affected the population of several area species. Because of the mild winter, warm spring and baking-hot summer, the bug population has been fairly repressed. She said she has not seen as many bugs at night or during the day.

“I can usually go out and see lots of butterflies, but the strange weather patterns have affected things,” she said.

Holt said that although this year’s insects have not flourished, it shouldn’t have much of an effect on next year’s numbers because insects lay so many eggs — hundreds or even thousands each year.

She can gauge what type of insect is out and which one has already gone for the year by observing street lights. She said this time of year she typically see people on a daily basis bringing in big Chinese Mantids, but this year she has seen only one.

“They have their seasons—windows, where they come out and you see that,” Holt said. “They come and go.”

Cicada seasons only come once every three, five, seven or even nine years, Holt said. If someone stands outside in the evening and listens to the chirping of the crickets and the humming of other insects, usually the loudest are the cicadas. She pointed out that many people mistakenly call cicadas “locusts.” But locusts are actually a type of grasshopper, not the fat, big-winged bugs known as cicadas.

“Cicada — sounds like somebody’s car alarm going off,” Holt said.

Like cicadas and June bugs, butterflies also have a brief period during the summer where they appear. They migrate each year, like geese, from as far south as Mexico to as far north as Canada. This year, the insect zoo plans to release 100 tagged Monarch butterflies at the ceremony.

“We want to hand out 70 butterflies to the kids so they can tag and release them,” Holt said. “And we want to hold back about 30 to release with Willie the Wildcat.”

Like bug populations, the zoo has also been expanding and evolving, especially during Holt’s tenure. In the time she has been at the zoo, she said people often ask if she can come out to hold a demonstration at parties, schools or other gatherings.

“I am the only full-time employee,” Holt said. “So, we have just never been able to send stuff out.”

This year, that will change. Holt said the insect zoo has partnered with Sunset Zoo, providing the training, props and insects for presentations.

“It is an existing thing that Sunset Zoo does; we are just giving the ability to do it with insects.”

The insect zoo doesn’t just house insects. They also have a variety of other interesting arthropods: spiders, scorpions, crawdads and centipedes to name a few.

With creepy-crawly bugs and beetles or elegant and beautiful butterflies, the insect zoo offers fascinating exhibits for visitors of all ages.

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