Ohio State’s Bugmobile Takes the University’s Insect Collection on the Road

Meet the arthropod ambassadors of the Bugmobile, Ohio State’s new mobile insect zoo.

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
An Austrailian walking stick crawls on the shoulder of Jeni Ruisch, curator of the Ohio State University Insectary, and another is on her left hand.

Jeni Ruisch has a unique talent—and you can have it, too, if you’re willing to free your mind. “Not being afraid of bugs is like having a superpower,” says Ruisch, the curator of the Ohio State University Insectary, a collection of about 120 species of beetles, spiders, crustaceans and other arthropods. “It really is. You’re more open to things.”

For nearly eight decades, students, researchers and everyday folks could learn more about these misunderstood critters by visiting the insectary on Ohio State’s campus. Now, the university’s bugs are on the move, thanks to a new mobile insect zoo called the Bugmobile. The educational outreach vehicle—a one-of-a-kind, modified, 28-foot-long Airstream trailer—debuted at the COSI Science Festival in May. “There is no video you can watch that can give you the same experience of holding an animal or just watching it in front of you and talking about it,” Ruisch says. “It’s about exposing people to these animals in a safe and controlled environment.”

Recently, Ruisch gave Columbus Monthly a tour of the Bugmobile, introducing us to some of its arthropod ambassadors.

Jeni Ruisch, curator of the Ohio State University Insectary, holds an Emperor scorpion.

Emperor scorpion

“If you’re in the jungle of Africa, and you turn over a log, this is something you might find under it,” Ruisch says. Emperor scorpions can grow up to 8 inches long, typically live 10 to 12 years and are mildly venomous. “Like a bee sting,” Ruisch says as an 11-year-old scorpion named Boudica, after an ancient Celtic warrior, crawls on her wrist. “It’s not toxic. It’s not medically significant.”

An Asian praying mantis from the OSU Bugmobile

Asian praying mantis

This species, which eats beetle larvae and caterpillars, was brought to the U.S. for pest-control purposes and found a hospitable new home. Like many of the creatures in the Bugmobile on this day, this mantis was captive-bred. “My goal is for all our animals to be bred in captivity,” Ruisch says, “so we don’t perpetuate the pet trade.”

An American giant millipede from the OSU Bugmobile

American giant millipede

These slow-moving plant eaters are native to Ohio and love rotting wood. “They are kind of the cows of the bug world,” Ruisch says.

Ruisch shows off an Australian walking stick

Australian walking stick

Also known as a Macleay’s spectre, this herbivore lives about 10 to 12 months, is native to eastern Australia and eats eucalyptus leaves. “These are the stars of the show when we go out,” Ruisch says. “They are such weird-looking animals.”

This story is from the August 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.

OSU faculty member Ben Philip (left) shows bug displays to Theo Patrus (second from left) and Philip's son, Miles, in the OSU Bugmobile.