Imagine, if you can, a kitchen deliberately infested with big cockroaches. Thousands of big cockroaches, scuttling across every surface. The kind of roaches that turn into an airborne swarm when conditions are right.
The kitchen sits squarely in the middle of a tourist attraction, inside an uncovered plexiglass pen. But there's nothing to fear, you're told. Three clever barrier safeguards have been erected to keep the cockroaches in place.
Two of those barriers depend on electricity. And then the power goes out.
A group of visiting Little Miss America contestants screams. The seismic shock from their tiny, stampeding feet breaks apart the building, which happens to be a century-old firehouse. The cockroaches explode outward in a globular wave, quickly burrowing into the upholstery of passing automobiles and the creases of ladies' undergarments, where they lay egg cases that will soon hatch into millions of hellspawn....
Actually, this amusing scenario hasn't happened. Yet. Which is why we should all hope that the power never goes out on Frankford Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia, home of the Insectarium.
The Insectarium, "the largest insect museum in the nation," was opened in 1992 by Steve Kanya, who owned Steve's Bug-Off Exterminating Company (the idea influenced other exterminating-company-owned attractions such as New Jersey's Insectropolis).
According to Rich Blowes, our guide, Insectarium began as a "Catch of the Week," displayed in a fish tank in Bug-Off HQ's front window, mostly to freak out the business owners across the street, who didn't like insects. But the display proved so popular with everyone else that Kanya decided to turn the top two floors of a building (an old firehouse) into a bug museum. Or, rather, an arthropod museum, since not all creepy-crawly things are bugs. Or insects. That's one of the many things that you'll learn here. "Kids love bugs," said Rich, "but you're not gonna attract many of them if you call it an Arthropodoetarium."
The third floor of the attraction houses live exhibits: terrariums of centipedes, beetles, stink bugs, tarantulas. The Black Widow and Ecuadorian Bird-Eating spiders are cozy neighbors. In one corner is a pet-a-bug table, where visitors are invited to stroke a Madagascar hissing cockroach and a whip-tail scorpion. Kids can pose as insects in a photo-op, or can crawl through a bungee-cord spider's web. Hand-painted murals of oversized ladybugs, caterpillars, and spiders fill the walls.
On the second floor are the educational displays, including the Model Roach Kitchen. Thousands of dead bugs are pinned into show boxes, although Rich assures us that none of the scary ones were found locally. There's a glow-in-the dark live scorpion in a box, a working beehive, and a map of the world in which countries light up to show where bugs come from. The displays are all hand-made and most date from the early 1990s, which explains why the map still identifies Russia as the Soviet Union.
The second floor is also where visitors (mostly kids) are offered the opportunity to eat cheddar-flavored beetle larvae, "nice and big and juicy" according to Rich. He assures us that "you eat insects every day of your life" and that the average American ingests up to two pounds of bug parts each year, mostly mixed in with their vegetables. We politely decline Rich's offer, and tell him that we'll eat a salad later.
The highlight of the Insectarium is, of course, the Model Roach Kitchen: a counter-top, sink, and cabinets built on age-stained linoleum and set inside five-foot-high plexiglass walls. Rich explains its (supposedly) fail-safe security. A super-slippery coating encircles the base of the walls; four electrified strips encircle the top; and air-conditioning keeps the room perpetually cool and dry to prevent swarming. As long as the electricity doesn't go out.
One of the staff leans over the plexiglass and mists the kitchen counter with water from a spray bottle. A line of antennae instantly emerges, quivering, from behind the molding. The bugs are thirsty. Soon the kitchen, which before had a lot of roaches, now has a whole lot of roaches. Rich estimates their number to be in the thousands, mostly in dense, writhing masses inside the cabinets, the drawers, and the toilet (there's a mock bathroom on the other side). "Nobody really goes in there," he tells us. "We reach over the top, sweep all the dead ones into a corner, and then suck them out with a shop vac."
Steve Kanya retired to Florida years ago (where there are lots of big bugs) and we get the sense that his inventiveness and energy are missed. But this museum still rates high for its ability to unsettle -- "the skeeve factor" is strong -- even though everything is spic and span except for the Model Roach Kitchen. Such is the power of one, really good display.
"A lot of people leave here," Rich says with barely-concealed pride, "and say, 'I'm gonna take a shower as soon as I get home!'"