Educator has a mission to share the insect world

Bugs: Don Ehlen's home is filled with them. He estimates there are at least 6,000 insects in his two-bedroom apartment near Broadway.

But Ehlen's apartment doesn't suffer from an insect infestation. The bugs are part of his private collection. And they're more than just a hobby. The creatures are part of Ehlen's livelihood. For the last eight years, what had begun as a serious entomological interest evolved into a profession. Through his business, Insect Safari, Ehlen gives insect presentations to schools across the Pacific Northwest.

His interest in insects began when he was growing up in Minnesota, and he began collecting in earnest in the late '70s when he was in college. He moved to New Mexico in his early 20s - a great place for insects - and studied entomology, though he chose not to go down an academic path. Ehlen's collection continued to grow during moves to California and then to Seattle in the late '80s.

"My collection was something of a guilty indulgence," Ehlen said. "But it continued to grow and grow."

But a hobby, even a serious one, doesn't pay the bills. Ehlen worked in large scale aquarium maintenance, eventually running his own business. The work brought something of a steady income, though nothing close to personal satisfaction.

"My heart just wasn't into it," he said. "I had to do something different with my life, something I cared deeply about. I asked myself what I enjoyed the most. In addition to bugs, I knew I enjoyed teaching kids."

The trick was actually making a living at it. He discovered there was a market for making insect presentations to elementary schools. While still involved in his aquarium business, Ehlen began developing insect programs based on academic guidelines. A few free presentations led to paying gigs.

By 1997, a display he set up for the Mercer Island Youth Theater led to a show at Archie McPhee's. Which led to an article in the Seattle Times. Which led to enough phone calls for Ehlen to get out of the fish business and work teaching bugs fulltime.

His programs are tailored to whatever grade he's teaching. He brings roughly 2,300 bugs in cases with him to each class, as well as several live specimens. The programs usually last about an hour. He works to balance science and entertainment, and has spent a lot of time talking with teachers to understand their needs and tailor his programs accordingly.

"I try to teach kids how not to be afraid of bugs," he said. "Usually, when I'm done, there's one kid who was really afraid at first who ends up petting a cockroach or something at the end."

Hissing cockroaches, giant big horned beetles and morpho butterflies (they're large, blue and tropical) are among the most popular insects with students. Not to mention large tarantulas. Ehlen's approach is to encourage critical teaching, which allows for a few jokes. As an example, little pictures of John, Paul, George and Ringo are on pins next to actual beetles.

"It's interesting how distorted kids' views of bugs are," Ehlen said. "Maybe it's from Hollywood movies or TV. But I'm here to help dispel a few of those myths."

Somewhat surprisingly, Ehlen has a highly developed sense of arachnophobia, and spent a great deal of time working to get over it. As a measure of his efforts' success, his collection has large numbers of spiders, including an example of the world's largest tarantula, as well as a number of live spiders.

Ehlen appears once a month on KUOW-FM to talk about insects, where he makes a lighthearted effort to shock the host. He also travels to universities across the country to help sorting and labeling a school's collection, trips that give him the opportunity to learn from top academic entomologists. Spring is the busiest season for him, though fall and winter have been picking up in the last few years.

"My role has emerged as a translator from the scientific/academic world of entomology to the layman world of bugs," he said. "And not just for children. I'm happy to teach adults as well."

Don Ehlen will appear at the Burke Museum's Bug Blast on Sunday, Sept. 18. He can be reached at 329-7141 or

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. Reach him at editor or 461-1308.

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