Introduction: Love Nest - Milkweed Bug Condo

About: I am an exhibit developer at the Exploratorium.

This instructable will describe how to make a house to display live milkweed bugs, but it is also meant to show how I develop exhibits for my job at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco. I'll start by showing some photos of my first version, then how I took it to the next iteration using CNC machines such as a waterjet, 3D printer and laser cutter. All of the exhibits I develop are supported by a variety of talented peoople, so I'm including anyone and everyone's name to show how important it is to have awesome colleagues!

Step 1: Love Nest - the Bugs

I wanted to create a whimsical insect display for an adult-themed evening event called Sexplorations at the Exploratorium. First I needed to find some bugs that 1) displayed mating behavior very reliably and 2) were easy to care for in the lab. I called my friend Patrick Schlemmer, curator of insects at the SF Zoo, and he recommended milkweed bugs. You can order them from Carolina Biological Supply. Awesome lab tech, Caitlin Johnson, had them growing in no time. The cute little custom bug houses were made in our shop by exhibit tech Michael Sgambellone.

Care for the bugs was simple: they eat raw sunflower seeds, and drink water from a little container with a wick. We put egg crate in there so they have something to climb around and mate on. They like some cotton balls to lay their eggs on. They get cleaned out once a week, and Caitlin had a colony going within a month.

Step 2: Love Nest - First Version

Now that I had the bugs growing, I needed a place to show them off. I started looking for ready-made dollhouses online, but they were outside my budget, or the wrong scale. I lucked out and found one for sale on craigslist. I picked it up and some furniture came along with it. I also took a trip to a hobby shop and purchased more furniture. I installed the LED lighting in various colors. Karli Woodward, lab tech extraordinaire, created a tiny Grateful Dead poster that glowed under my UV LED. A few pieces of thin lexan and some tape was all that I used to hold the bugs in. I also made a black wood base with holes for speakers. The soundtrack for the evening featured a lot of Marvin Gaye songs. The house proved to be popular and fun, so Caitlin and I used it several more times for various evening events.

Step 3: Text and Graphics

Every exhibit needs a good graphic to help visitors understand what they are looking at.

A couple more pluses for milkweed bugs is that when they mate, they stay coupled for a long time (I haven't timed it yet!) and it is relatively easy to tell males from females. The text, written by staff science writer Kevin Boyd, explained these features for visitors. The first version of the graphic was designed by Mark McGowan with illustrations by Tom Betthauser, and the second version was designed by Ray Larsen.

Step 4: Love Nest - New and Improved

The first version of the Love Nest, while popular with visitors and staff, had some issues. Mostly it was just starting to wear out and it was hard to clean. The bugs don't make hard poops, they instead leave little dark brown spots all over everything. It was hard to clean this off the various painted surfaces and fabrics. Also, the bugs like to lay their eggs on any and all fabrics. We had to put all the furniture and curtains into the freezer to kill all the eggs to avoid having bugs all over the place. Lastly, the lexan sheet was only delicately taped to the frame of the house. It was a matter of time before someone pulled it off and let all the bugs free.

To solve these problems, I first thought about the easiest way to contain a colony of bugs. I settled on using two sizes of glass aquariums. They are inexpensive and come in standard sizes so they can be easily replaced if broken. I also did an image search online and found a number of modern designs for dollhouses. I liked the simple designs that were easy to clean (no curtains!) and seemed more adult to me.

Step 5: 3D Design

First, I modeled a couple sizes of glass aquariums in Inventor, and designed wooden boxes that nested over them. I also modeled a way for them to seal to a flat surface that acted like a spacer between the top and bottom levels of the house. Black adhesive gasket is stick to the edge of the small aquariums to make seal. This "terrace" is a sandwich made from 2 pieces of 1/2" plywood with a 1/4" piece in the middle.The 1/2" thick slices have rectangles cut out that fit the aquariums. There are two passageways for the stairs to connect the lower to upper level aquariums. The pictures show how the assembly fits together.

Step 6: Production - Wooden Boxes

I used 1/4" thick plywood for the aquarium covers. The pieces were cut out using a water jet CNC machine. I was lucky enough to have my husband Mose O'Griffin cut them out for me at the Pier 9 shop. Thanks Noah at Instructables! I could have cut them with a laser cutter, but then the edges would have burn marks. I'm also glad that Noah made me a deal to make an instructable in return for the favor. :)

After I did a fit up with the aquariums, I assembled the boxes and terrace using glue and a brad nailer. I sealed the outside surfaces with a clear coat for easy cleaning, and my intern Michelle Site painted them on the inside. She also used a laser cutter to cut pieces of laminate for floors upstairs.

Step 7: Production - 3D Printing Furniture

Now that the basic structure was complete, the furniture had to be produced. I wanted to use a 3D printer to make the furniture so that the pieces would be easy to clean. A fellow exhibit developer, Chris Cerrito, was excited to use our Maker Bot 3D printer to make the furniture. I delighted in finding tiny furniture appear on my workbench. The egg chair was brilliant! Chris also trained my intern Michelle to run the printer. She made some really nicely shaped planters, steps for the spiral staircase, and a designer chair.

Step 8: Production - Laser Cutting Furniture

I made some furniture using a laser cutter while Michelle was 3D printing. The toilet needed a seat and lid, so I added that. I also made stairs, a landing for the spiral staircase, a coffee table that doubled as a watering station for the bugs, a kitchen island with sink, bar stools, and a mirrored headboard for the bed, of course. Laser cutters are so fast! My volunteer Maya Kremien contributed to several of these pieces. The backlit ceilings for the upper rooms and the chandeliers in the lower level also used laser cut pieces.

Step 9: Production - Hand Tools

Maya used a chop saw to make the kitchen cabinets out of some oak scraps. The bed is the only piece I made using the table saw. Jessica Strick, a fellow exhibit developer and master seamstress, made some tiny pillows for the bed. I used a piece of light diffuser and trimmed it on the band saw. It gives a sort of glass block look for the back wall of the bedroom. The faucet is piece of aluminum welding rod bent around a piece of tubing in a vice.

Step 10: Production - LED Lighting

The previous version of the Love Nest had LED lighting and it looked really nice for the night time event. For this version I only used warm white LEDs instead of the colored ones. I installed one LED strip in the top of the two upstairs rooms, and made two chandeliers for the downstairs. They are wired together and connected to a 12V power supply. The round chandelier uses an angel eye accent light, the rectangular one uses a small side emitting strip. The ceiling strips are top emitting.

Step 11: Production - Wall Art

A nice touch was the adding some art to the walls. I was going to print out some pics but then I remembered I still had last year's Charley Harper wall calendar. The small sample pics on the back of the calendar were the right scale. I cut them out, laminated them, and then stuck them in place with some thin vhb tape.

Step 12: Finishing Touches

I used some acetone to make the 3D printed bowls and vases water proof, and added wicks made of white polyester felt. I used museum wax to stabilize the furniture, but the residue is really hard to clean up. Next time I'll use small pieces of VHB.

The egg chair got a cotton ball for a cushion so the bugs would lay their eggs in there. The outdoor patio got some dried lichen to add some texture. I spread some sunflower seeds around, and then added the bugs.

Plugged in the LED lights, taped down the electrical cords with gaff tape, and put it on display!

The bugs only stay in there for a few days, then we clean them out and store the house until the next Sexplorations After Dark.

Thanks to Marcus Ante and the rest of the Public Programs staff for taking care of logistics like setting up the table and graphic stand, and to Eric Rosa for installing the spotlighting over the table. It takes a village!

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