Like flies to a dead body ...

... Visitors swarm to museum's forensic entomology exhibit

Staff WriterJune 26, 2005 

Decomposing corpses no big deal for this 13-year-old.

John Pendy has already seen it all on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," the crime show he watches on television every Thursday. What prime time won't teach, of course, is how insects go to work in a very predictable way to dispose of bodies or how they help police solve murders.

So John took a special interest in the flesh flies, skin beetles, maggots, larvae and other bugs on display Saturday at a new N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences exhibit. He was there with his Chapel Hill grandparents, whom he is visiting from his home in Florida.

"It's not scary," John said after circling some canisters crawling with crime scene evidence. "It's cool to see how flies are born and what happens to a body when flies take over, stuff like that."

The name of the museum's show, "CSI: Crime Scene Insects," had alerted people who might not otherwise care much for entomology, the science of insects.

"Oh my goodness, my phones have not stopped ringing," Albert Ervin, the museum's special exhibit and event coordinator, said on the eve of the opening.

A steady stream of people sought out the exhibit Saturday, and museum officials said they were pleased with the attendance.

Ervin encourages anyone to come, including anyone with a weak stomach. While the subject might be gruesome, visitors are spared the most graphic details. Plus, Ervin noted, the show serves a higher cause.

"It's about bringing justice to people who have been victims of crimes," he said.

Forensic entomologists use bugs to answer critical questions such as how long a person has been dead, or where the murder took place.

Because different bugs move in at different and very specific stages of decomposition, they help pinpoint how many weeks or months ago death occurred. Entomologists can also learn that a body has been moved, and perhaps from where, because some bugs live and breed only in certain areas.

Frida and Jose Oporto, visiting the area from Warrenton, Va., for the weekend, paid the $5 special exhibit entrance fees after Frida Oporto heard about the insect show on the news. They took turns visiting the exhibit and watching the kids, ages 6, 4, and 1, in a different room.

"We don't want them to see this," Frida Oporto said, nodding toward a display of plastic bodies in a morgue.

"I don't think we've ever dealt with death yet, and I don't feel ready to deal with it," she said.

It was the flies, not the bodies, that got to her. Oporto wasn't the only one.

Evan Shuler of Hillsborough still plans to solve crimes when he grows up, hopefully for the State Bureau of Investigation. But the 11-year-old knew after Saturday that his work will not involve flies, beetles or any other creatures feasting on corpses.

"I don't like bugs very much," he said bending over a glass box holding 11 different species. "I don't know what part of detective work I'm going to do, but I'm not going to be a forensic entomologist."

(CSI: Crime Scene Insects runs through Sept. 18. For more information call 733-7450.)

Staff writer Karin Rives can be reached at 829-4521 or

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