Tad Yankoski keeps watch over the creepy crawlies of The Butterfly House
Meet the guardian of some of St. Louis' most delicate and beloved inhabitants: the butterflies at The Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House. As an entomologist, Tad Yankoski does it all, from greeting insects from all over the world as they arrive in St. Louis to preparing their morning breakfast. We had a chance to chat with Yankoski about what it's like to be an insect scientist, what creepy crawlies still make his heart race and the not-so-ugly truth about eating bugs.
Q. You're an entomologist at The Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House. What does an entomologist do? A. An entomologist is an insect scientist, and at the Butterfly House, I take care of all the butterflies that come in, as well as a wide range of other arthropods like insects and spiders, which includes things like tarantulas and scorpions. Basically all the creepy crawlies. What's a typical day like in your job? Well, every morning we do general animal maintenance, and that includes feeding and making sure the tanks are clean for the guests to view. Also, every week we get an average of two shipments of butterflies mailed to us from all over the world; Costa Rica is our biggest supplier. We'll get between 500 and 1,000 butterflies per week. We have to make sure there is room for them when they arrive in our emergence tank. We inspect them and make sure they're ready for our guests to see when they are in their chrysalis and as they emerge and turn into butterflies. What made you decide to pursue a job in entomology? When I was a child, I was active in a 4-H group that had an entomology program, and I just loved to go out into the field and chase them with nets, and I continued to pursue that in high school. I always had a fascination with insects — many entomologists believe there could be up to 30 million species of insects in the world! I also love working with kids and educating children about the natural world, so working at the Butterfly House was perfect because I get to play with bugs, which is a really cool job, and I get to educate people about how unique these creatures are. What kinds of things did you study in school to prepare for your job? I majored in entomology in college. I've had specific classes on all sorts of different types of insects, from aquatic insects to insects that have a larval life cycle, which helps me when I'm working with caterpillars. Also a large part of my college was spent studying education, which helped me prepare for working in this environment. Not many colleges offer an entomology program, but I was lucky enough to find one that did. Has there ever been a bug that you were scared to touch? Sure! I grew up in New York state, and living there we didn't have things like scorpions and tarantulas. Of course I saw them in pet stores and on television, and I knew they weren't that scary. Still, the first time I held a tarantula, I admit my heart raced a bit. Here at the Butterfly House we work with insects that are considered medically significant because they are venomous and people could react to them, so we don't handle them here; we keep them at tongs length, and even then they do get your heart racing a bit.
The Butterfly House hosts classes about cooking with bugs. Have you ever eaten a bug? What was it like? I have. The honest truth is, if you didn't know you were eating a bug, most people wouldn't have a problem with it. They taste a little bit nutty, a little bit starchy, like a roasted peanut or a potato chip. In many parts of the world, they're sold like snacks and seasoned like chips. They're not all that different from eating shrimp or lobster, and yet we think of lobster as a delicacy. Back in the 1800s they used to force prisoners to eat lobsters because it was viewed very much like forcing them to each cockroaches today. Who knows what we'll be eating in the future!
Many insects have a short lifespan, some only a few weeks. What do you do with the insects after they die? Well, when most people think of the butterfly's life span, they just think of the adult, but the truth is, they've already had a long life span, often six to eight weeks or more, before reaching the adult butterfly stage. Some butterflies like our blue morphos will only live for a month, maybe two, but they've already been alive for 100 days before they become a butterfly. Some butterflies get worn out or just tired, so we can't always use them. But if we have a butterfly that still looks very presentable after it passes away, we'll use it for our outreach program and for our displays throughout the building. Most of the insects you see in displays throughout our building actually came from the Butterfly House. Aside from the butterflies, almost all of the animals that you see here were hatched and bred here as well. There's a saying on a wall in the Butterfly House: "Butterflies go wherever they please, and please wherever they go." What is it about butterflies that brings us such joy? I think, for adults, it brings back a sense of nostalgia; everybody remembers seeing butterflies during their childhood, either chasing them in a field or visiting a butterfly house like the one here in Chesterfield. For kids it's a little piece of magic. They don't look like they should fly because they're so delicate, but they do, and when you have so many of them in a small space, as we do, well, it's hard not to be amazed.
The Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House is located at 15193 Olive Blvd., Chesterfield, Mo., 63017. Call 636-530-0076. Experience a day in the life of an entomologist during the Butterfly House's new Entomologist-For-A-Day program, coming to the attraction this fall for kids ages 8 to 12.