As the weather warms and spring turns to summer, unending yard work is the order of the day. While I yank weeds and lay pavers, my 5-year-old son, Geoffrey, joins in, excavating soil with pro-grade yard tools and peering under rocks in search of bugs. Usually the most he finds is a lowly worm or perhaps a potato bug, familiar acquaintances both. One day as we tended the soil, storm clouds threatened rain so we ditched our spades and headed to downtown Seattle in search of bugs beyond the backyard.
Nudged into the Pike Street Hill Climb, one flight below Western Avenue, Seattle Bug Safari is easy to miss (look for the banner on the stair railing). Enter through the gift shop and peruse an exhaustive collection of bug-centric wares, everything from raise-your-own butterfly kits to colorful and delicate glass scorpions, handmade in Russia. Here we encountered owner Brian Rolf, who started the Bug Safari in 2006 after visiting a bug zoo in another city. “I couldn’t believe somebody had made a business out of just showing bugs,” he said. “I thought, I’d love to do this in downtown Seattle. My girlfriend [now his wife] and I walked across the street to Starbucks and started writing the business plan on a napkin.”
For a fee, you can enter the bug chamber, located beyond the beige door behind the cash register. Caution: Children expecting a high-concept Woodland Park Zoo-style exhibit might be disappointed with the room’s austere ambience. You won’t find faux landscaping or piped-in nature sounds, just the viaduct’s muted roar outside the blind-covered windows. Instead, the focus is on the creatures — a fascinating and disparate collection of Phylum Arthropoda — each in its own custom-made, padlocked tank.
No sooner had we viewed the desert skunk beetles than I spied Geoffrey shining a flashlight into the murky tanks of the tarantula tower, a stack of aquariums holding hairy and fearsome specimens of varying size. Despite their appearance and formidable set of fangs, tarantulas are basically harmless to humans; a bite requires little more than a high tolerance for discomfort and some antiseptic wipes.
Not so harmless is Rolf’s collection of scorpions, which includes the yellow tail, a highly poisonous native of the Middle East. Peering into the tank, we could see it hiding underneath a stick, with only the last three sections of tail exposed. There was the quarter-inch-long stinger, black and slightly curved. If stung by a yellow tail, one must call 9-1-1 immediately and hope to regain consciousness. An antidote to scorpion venom isn’t exactly a stock item at Walgreen’s, and most local hospitals don’t carry it either. According to Rolf, there might be some in Saudi Arabia somewhere.
Throughout our visit, Rolf was an engaging, expert guide and a one-man show. Reaching into a centipede’s tank with long metal tweezers, he prodded the critter gently. It scurried away and then reared its 10-inch body on about a hundred hind legs. Rolf noted two small stingers behind its head. “His venom isn’t as lethal as the scorpion’s,” he said. “I could probably drive myself to the hospital. But today I rode the bus, so I’d be in trouble.”
There was more to see, from underwater beetles to black widow spiders to the shocking New Guinea land lobster. Geoff could have stayed all day looking at the bugs, but we had yard work to finish.
Derek Blaylock lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.
Seattle Bug Safari
1501 Western Ave., Seattle
Monday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Admission: $6-$8, 2 and under free
Originally published in the June, 2008 print edition of ParentMap.