From the Dazzling to the Disgusting, Head of New ‘Butterfly Biosphere’ Hopes to Bring an Appreciation for Bugs
LEHI, Utah — It looks like a creature from a prehistoric age: covered in dirt, with what appears to be a giant sword proturding from its face. At first glance, it seems as though it would be more likely to feast on flesh than flowers.
Dr. Zak Gezon holds the Hercules Beetle, which fills his entire hand; he says the perceptions aren’t necessarily true.
“Not a bit,” he said, shaking his head while gently petting the beetle on its back. “They’re really sweet.”
Dr. Gezon spends his days surrounded by animals like these. His lab is filled with shelves packed with cages and plastic containers, each one home to a variety of insects, arachnids, and even the odd millipede or scorpion. There’s nowhere he’d rather be.
“They’re kind of like collecting Pokemon or something,” he said. “They’re just so weird and variable. Sometimes you’ll see one that has a giant horn on its head, and you’re like ‘Ahh, that’s the coolest thing ever.'”
Dr. Gezon is an entomologist — one who’s brimming with enthusiasm. He’s always been a bit sentimental about science.
“I spent several years working for Disney, and helping try and save butterflies in California and Florida,” he said.
He’s devoted his life to demonstrating the distasteful — everything to an Indian Stag Beetle, which he says is “up to his face in bananas,” to a juvenile Ghost Mantis, which he says is the “coolest thing ever.”
Gezon says while the sight of many of these makes the skin crawl, he believes humans are actually the strange ones.
“We’re the weirdos,” he said. “The fact that they grow by getting a new skin inside of their old skin and popping their neck open and pulling themselves out of themselves is the normal, and we’re the weirdos for having an endoskeleton. 99.9 percent of all life is smaller than our pinkie.”
But in order to spread awareness of these creatures, you’ve got to get people in the door.
“That’s why we have a butterfly garden and not a cockroach garden,” Gezon said.
Right outside of his lab is the conservatory of the Butterfly Biosphere, a new attraction at Thanksgiving Point — 10,000 square feet of what looks like a greenhouse, with a climate made to replicate that of Costa Rica. It’s packed with plants — and, of course, butterflies.
“Butterflies taste with their feet,” he said, while dropping one on a piece of orange. “Oftentimes their tongue comes out.”
In a way, this space is kind of a “trick.” Gezon says while many people are repulsed by bugs, they have a huge affection for butterflies.
“Butterflies are really good ‘spokesinsects.’ They’re the gateway bug,” he said. “People come because they want to get photos of a Blue Morpho. But once they’re here, maybe they’ll hold a cockroach and we can win them over and show that they’re not as bad as most people think.”
Gezon’s held a number of jobs in the insect world. He’s originally from Salt Lake City, and worked most recently at a similar facility in Costa Rica. He met someone from Thanksgiving Point at a conference and landed here, at a place he calls the “best thing ever.”
He sees it as far more than just a dream job — it’s an opportunity to share his passion. Not just to get people excited, but to pass on what he sees as crucial.
“There’s been something like an 80-85 percent decrease in insect biomass over the last 30 years,” Gezon said. He refers to those numbers as “terrifying.”
While there are a wide number of possibilities, likely culprits range from changing temperatures to a loss of habitat.
“It’s the vast majority of animals on the planet, and they feed everything else,” he said. “They’re the pollinators, they’re the garbagemen. They’re the ones that are breaking down decaying vegetation into soil. They’re doing all the heavy lifting, and they’re disappearing.”
Gezon hopes educating people on the roles insects play can help them to adjust their lives and make a difference.
“Suburban and urban habitats can actually be really good refuges for a lot of different insects,” he said. “And so if you think about your own landscape, and think about ‘How much resources am I using for a lawn,’ and ‘How much could I use instead for planting some native plants,’ you could actually create a lot of habitat.”
While he may be devoted to things many of us find distasteful, Dr. Gezon says these creatures are vital — and all he asks is that we reject our revulsion and show them a little respect.
“My goal is to get people in here, let them have an amazing experience and see firsthand that insects are not as gross and dangerous as a lot of movies want us to believe they are,” he said.