Image 1 Conervatory view

The conservatory’s entrance where guests will start their Beautiful Bugs journey.

Image 2-titan beetle

The titan beetle in all its glory.

This spot may be a good candidate for a sign about the titan beetle, because guests can better understand  its tropical leaf litter habitat.

Image 4-under bridge conservatory

Locations such as this, where people can sit and congregate, are good candidates for more in-depth information or interactive exhibit pieces.

By Isabella Garramone

During the long Michigan winter, Matthaei Botanical Garden’s warm and humid conservatory offers a much-needed respite from the icy chill outside. While guests leisurely enjoy the green foliage, Matthaei offers an educational exhibit spanning the three conservatory houses. This year’s exhibit, titled Beautiful Bugs: The Amazing Insects of our Global Ecosystems, has become my project to research and create.

Although the exhibit will open after my time here concludes, I will leave behind complete plans and designs for it all to be easily printed and installed.

With Beautiful Bugs, we seek to highlight another side of the ecosystems that are represented in our greenhouses. Larger-than-life signage depicting insects will be stationed throughout the conservatory, each with an accompanying informational sign.

With this exhibit, I hope to inspire an appreciation for the many roles insects play in each ecosystem. Special care will be taken to connect the dots between what people are learning about insects in our greenhouse ecosystems (especially tropical and desert) and the insects of our local ecosystem, with a goal of translating this inspiration into stewardship and actions we can each take to ensure thriving, healthy local insect populations. In addition, we will highlight researchers studying insects here at the University of Michigan.

Currently, this exhibit is in the beginning stages of research and design. Here are some of the ways my work is being guided at this stage.

Things to Consider: The Research Stage

Insect and conservatory connection

Insects that partner or interact with a specific plant species are great candidates for this exhibit (if we have that plant here). For those insects that don’t have a specific plant, there needs to be a clear connection between the insect’s ecology and our plant collections that I can highlight for visitors to learn about.

Research-backed information

There is still a lot to discover in the world of entomology! Through the University of Michigan library system, I have access to a huge number of publications and papers, but this isn’t always enough. Insects make up 80% of the world’s species (1) and there are more insects to be named than already have names (1). As a result, even with insects that have been named and studied, there is a lot we do not know. For example, the titan beetle (Titanus giganteus) from South America receives a lot of attention for being one of the largest insects in the world. However, its larvae have never been seen. Large, 2-inch diameter bore holes have been found in tree roots and are thought to have been made by their grubs, or the grubs of the few other similarly large beetles (2). As part of a research institution, in addition to just having good ethics, we have an obligation to present the most accurate and scientifically-backed information available.

Things to Consider: The Design Stage

The numbers game: spacing and cohesion

If I were to find an overwhelming number of insect candidates for the desert house, as an example, I wouldn’t be able to place all the signs and images there. Instead, the signs need to be spread throughout the conservatory. The progression of information presented should also be logical through the exhibit. For many of the signs, they not only need to be placed in the right ecosystem, but also in a spot that makes sense ecologically. The titan beetle, for instance, lives in tropical leaf litter. To place the sign, I’ll be looking for a spot in the tropical house where the ground is visible and covered by some leaf litter.

What information should we share?

Our visitorship is a diverse array of people from all walks of life. Some visitors may only look at the insect images, while others will read and contemplate every sign. From the reasonable person model of environmental psychology (developed at the University of Michigan), people are more satisfied with their experience when an environment supports their informational needs (3). In addition, with regards to a person’s capacity to learn new information, effective communication benefits from the philosophy of “less is more” and new information should connect with something a visitor already knows (3). Providing information that connects with our wide range of visitors without presenting an overwhelming amount of information can be tricky. An interactive component still in the works will also allow people to engage with the material in different ways than just the signage and pictures.

What will people walk away with?

Something to let go of early in the design process is the reality that not everyone will have the same experience or leave with the same takeaway. Our visitors are a diverse group of people, all with varying interests, background knowledge levels, reasons for visiting, and cultural connections. Instead of simply providing lots of fast facts about specific insects, connecting this information with a strong message throughout Beautiful Bugs will reinforce the theme and increase the clarity of what the exhibit is presenting. Connecting the exhibit to local conservation of our native insects supports Matthaei’s mission. Our hope is that the exhibit’s larger-than-life images and information provided will inspire people to see insects in a new light.  

Note: Beautiful Bugs opens November 24th and continues through the first week of January.

Isabella Garramone is second year master’s student at the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), studying behavior, education, and communication. Before returning to school, she worked for three years coordinating children’s environmental education programs at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, NY. This summer at Matthaei-Nichols she’ll be creating signs and exhibits communicating our messages and mission to visitors. Isabella has a community garden plot and also enjoys knitting and sewing. Her internship is made possible by a gift from the Alpern family for an endowment to promote and support research in botany and rIsabelle Garramoneelated studies that will enhance the scientific basis for wise management of the environments of the earth.

Titan beetle photo from:


1  Numbers of Insects (Species and Individuals). (n.d.) Department of Systematic Biology, Entomology Section, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Retrieved from

2  Bouchard, P., Evans, A. V., & Le Tirant, S. (2012). The Big Book of Beetles. East Sussex, U.K.: The Ivy Press Limited. Retrieved from of Beetles BLAD_AI.pdf

3  Basu, A., & Kaplan, R. (2015). The Reasonable Person Model. In R. Kaplan & A. Basu (Eds.), Fostering Reasonableness (pp. 1–19). Ann Arbor: Maize Books