Norm Gershenz with male and female Eastern lubber grasshoppers “mate guarding.”
Norm Gershenz with male and female Eastern lubber grasshoppers “mate guarding.”

Q&A: A steward of nature explains why we love (and hate) bugs

If loss of species and destruction of the ecosystem is getting you down, you need to meet Norman Gershenz, director of Because even in the face of seemingly relentless dismal news about the health of our planet, he’s here to tell you — while inspiring you — that we can make a difference.

Gershenz, 68, began his mission in 1988 with Leslie Saul, now his wife. They developed an Ecosystem Survival Plan, working with zoos, aquariums and other nonprofits to raise funds for conservation. They established their San Francisco-based nonprofit in 1993, which became A key component is its Insect Discovery Lab, an educational outreach program that brings (virtually these days, soon to resume in-person) millipedes, walking sticks, beetles and other bugs to schools, libraries, even birthday parties.

Gershenz also established the first “adopt an acre” program in the United States, with the donations going to sites in Costa Rica, Brazil, Panama, Borneo and Namibia. There’s also an “adopt a reef” program for Palau, Micronesia and Parque Nacional del Este in the Dominican Republic.

J.: Tell us about the Insect Discovery Lab.

Norman Gershenz: It’s not just about the bugs. For me, it’s a small step to put nature into someone’s hand and say, “Look, we have a chance to do something positive.” You have to offer someone a way to make a difference. … Put a giant African millipede or a grasshopper that has all the colors of crayons in someone’s hand, and the questions start. We’ve influenced 600,000 kids in the Bay Area.

Norm Gershenz on an expedition in Peru.
Norm Gershenz on an expedition in Peru.

You do presentations for a lot of inner-city children who might not have easy access to the natural world, insects and plants.

I want to get them outside, into nature. You will go to a park and you will go to a place with rocks. Turn over the rocks and you will find something. Every animal has a story to tell.

Why do you think children are fascinated by bugs?

I believe that kids are born naturalists. They’re close to the ground — and they need someone like to spur them on. You’re not born afraid of insects.

Then why are many adults repelled by bugs?

I think that for most people, they have a moment, like getting stung by a bee, or their parents said, “Oh my God, there’s a big bug. Where’s the newspaper?”

Have you always loved bugs?

I thought I was going to be an ornithologist. I love birds. Then I met my wife, Leslie Saul-Gershenz, an entomologist. She changed my life.

Did you grow up in the countryside?

I grew up in Los Angeles, where people hate insects. My family never went outside, never went on vacation. Boy Scouts helped me.

Norman Gershenz at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in Malaysia.
Norman Gershenz at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in Malaysia.

What is your Jewish background?

My father was an itinerant hazan (cantor). He worked in L.A., Downey, Glendale. He loved music and liked to sing, but he wasn’t that happy in that job, and he opened a music store.

Does tikkun olam have meaning for you?

For me, that comes up a lot. I have worked with temples, Hebrew schools … SaveNature matches their concept of repairing the world, healing the world. For me, it resonated. Places around the country have contacted me, asking, “Can we work with you in healing the world?”

Given habitat destruction, climate change, pesticides, etc., do you get discouraged?

It’s true. Insect numbers are down, there is loss of species, pollination for plants is in jeopardy. I’m not going to dwell on “we’re all bad.” I’d rather tell a child: Look, 25 cents can save 360 square feet.

As long as there is something like SaveNature going into the classrooms, doing Zoom around the world, there are successes. Are we going to save everything? No. But in the end, we will be able to protect large-scale areas of the world that are big enough that when you are standing in it, you are in the wild. This is what we do. We inspire people to raise funds to save nature in the wild.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.