Meet the Marvelous Insect Team: Nature’s Tiny Superheroes!

Posted June 24, 2024 by Angela Hatke

Now introducing: the World of the Insect team! This week is National Insect Week and we are here to celebrate all things (not so) creepy crawly! This is the perfect week to learn more about insects, their habits, and the marvelous things they do for our ecosystem.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s World of the Insect opened on August 5, 1978 and was the first zoo building in the United States designed and built specifically to display live terrestrial arthropods. 45 years later the World of the Insect is regarded as one of the best insect zoos in the world. It displays a diverse group of live terrestrial invertebrates, and its staff participates in public engagement, education, and conservation initiatives.

Meet the dedicated and hard working team who takes care of these incredible insects!

Mandy Pritchard (Team lead, World of the Insect Keeper):

I have always had a great fondness for the “less loveable” critters of the world. In the early 90s I was the little kid running around barefoot flipping rocks in the backyard looking for snakes and bugs. There was always a terrarium or a jar with something in it on the porch or in the house. In high school I took a zoology course that required students to make an insect collection and I was hooked! The diversity, the abundance, the specialization, the beauty of all these insects in our own backyards – I knew right then that I could spend a lifetime studying invertebrates. I went on to study zoology at Miami University and applied for an internship at The World of the Insect in 2010. To my surprise I was accepted and during my internship was hired on as a temporary keeper. In the fall of 2010, I was hired on full time and I intend to be here at this zoo working with invertebrates, educating the public and generally representing our spineless underdogs indefinitely. As team leader of the department now I oversee the day-to-day operations and support my team in all of their endeavors. My primary animal focus is with grasshoppers, katydids, and my personal favorite the American burying beetle.

April Pitman (Senior Keeper, World of the Insect):

I’ve been a part of the World of the Insect team since 2010, and a full time keeper since 2013. I graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in Psychology with a focus in animal behavior. Originally, my goal was to work with Killer whales. In 2010, I was hired on at the World of the Insect as a Butterfly Attendant. Being at the Zoo and working around the insects, expanded my interest for the smaller creatures. While I have always been interested in insects, being around that much diversity and learning new things everyday made me want to consider this as a career. Wanting to learn more, I started volunteering with the World of the Insect keepers. After a few years volunteering with them, a spot opened on their team and I was fortunate to earn that spot. My primary animals I work with are aquatic insects, mantids, blue death feigning beetles, and various reptiles. If I had to choose, I’d say my favorite species to work with currently is the blue death feigning beetles. I’m currently the Coordinator for the SWARM program for this species, which means I work with other institutions to manage the population of the blue death feigning beetle in human care. Our goal is to be able to breed this species so we are able to maintain a stable population throughout the institutions.

Michelle Griesinger (Senior Keeper, World of the Insect):

As a child growing up on a small farm, I always had an appreciation for insects; however, it wasn’t until I took an Entomology class at NKU that I fell in love with them!  During that course we took a fieldtrip to the zoo and got to see Behind the Scenes at World of the Insect.  It was awe-inspiring to see the keepers’ dedication and passion for the invertebrates in their care.  Shortly after I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in Biology, I applied for an Internship at World of the Insect and was accepted into the program.  Throughout my time as an intern, I worked closely to each keeper doing animal husbandry and learned the ins and outs of what it takes to rear and display a diverse collection of insects.  I stayed on at the zoo as a volunteer with the World of the Insect staff for the next year, volunteering 16 hours per weekend while working full time as a Co-op elsewhere doing stream-water surveys using macroinvertebrates as indicators of water quality.  After a year of volunteering, I accepted a position as a World of the Insect Keeper. I have been a keeper here for about 10 years now and the animals that I primarily work with are Millipedes, Cockroaches, and Beetles with the Goliath Beetle being my favorite.   Two of my favorite things about this job are 1) there is always something to learn as the diversity of invertebrates is so vast and 2) when an individual isn’t enthusiastic about insects and after talking to them about a particular animal their eyes light up and there is a newfound appreciation for them.  In my eyes, I have the best job ever.

Kelli Walker (Senior Keeper, World of the Insect):

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I loved playing in the woods and in the creek behind our house where I was introduced to crayfish, fireflies, and an array of other insects and their relatives. I was hooked!  I began volunteering at the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo in 1990 where, for the next 7 years, my love for insects grew even more. I then moved to California where I started my full-time career working for the Insect Zoo at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Here, I was introduced to biological fieldwork where I traveled to Costa Rica to assist in the collection of tropical phorid flies commonly known as ant-decapitating flies. In 2006, I began my 11-year career with the San Diego Zoo as Lead Keeper of their Insect House. I now call Cincinnati my home, where I’ve been for a little more than 6 years. My favorite thing about working with invertebrates is the diversity of species we work with. Here at the Cincinnati Zoo, I care for our stick insects, assassin bugs, tarantulas, scorpions, orb-weaving spiders, and my personal favorite; the leaf-cutter ants. I learn something new every day! I feel so lucky to have a career that has challenged and rewarded me in so many different ways!

Amanda Schauer (Seasonal Keeper, World of the Insect):

I’m Amanda Schauer, a current seasonal keeper at the World of the Insect (WOTI). I have a passion for exploring and conserving the natural world. As a student at Miami University, I have engaged in various research projects, including a study on rodent behavior through Miami’s REU program and work in the Aquatic Biodiversity and Conservation Laboratory in Oxford, Ohio. During a visit to World of the Insect, I became fascinated by our world’s understudied invertebrates, which led me to apply for an internship here. Now, as a keeper, I aim to contribute meaningfully to their conservation and enhance our understanding of their crucial roles in our ecosystems. Our world would be very different without insects, and not in a good way. My favorite insects are the Hercules beetle and the orchid mantis. Both are impressive in so many ways that it’s hard to pick a favorite! I have the best job in the world and am honored to be part of this amazing team.

Ashley O’Connell (Swing Keeper, World of the Insect):

I am currently a Swing Keeper with one of my areas being the World of the Insect. I have worked at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens for nearly 15 years and have been in many departments over those years. Before becoming a Swing Keeper, I had shadowed at the World of the Insect and spent time there when I could. The Keepers are great, and their collections are amazing. I feel very lucky to get to work with them both. I have always loved bugs of all kinds from a very early age. My family’s nickname for me is “Bug” which, for me, fostered an extra enthusiasm for insects. I was a kid that loved being outside and interacting with nature, from finding grubs when gardening to catching lightning bugs at dusk. I loved looking at them up close and investigating them before putting them back where I had found them. I love beetles of all kinds, but my favorite insects are cicadas. When I realized that I was born the summer of one of the 17-year cicada emerges, in 1987, I learned more about them and fell in love. I also got the amazing opportunity to learn from Dr. Gene Kritsky, a local cicada expert, in my Entomology course at the College of Mount St. Joseph. While working as Insect’s Swing Keeper, I have quickly added more insects to my list of favorites. Currently, the Lubber Grasshoppers are near the top. They were recently featured in May’s Zoo Babies and my first time seeing them at this life stage, they are adorable. Although every day I get to be in World of Insects is great, my favorite days are getting to check beetle boxes where I dig in the dirt looking for grubs and beetles. It takes me back to being a kid again!