Profile

The bug man of Montreal

Brenda Branswell July 24 2000
Profile

The bug man of Montreal

Brenda Branswell July 24 2000

The bug man of Montreal

Profile

A self-taught entomologist aims to reconcile humans and insects

Brenda Branswell

Georges Brossard’s suburban Montreal basement would spook even the most hardened burglar. Almost every inch of wall space is covered with bugs stored in shadow boxes. Long-horned beetles from Brazil the size of mice. Giant butterflies with sapphireand emerald-coloured wings. Tarantulas. Name a specimen and Brossard probably has it after 20 years of combing the globe for bugs. In fact, he estimates that he has collected some 600,000 specimens from 150,000 species over the years. The 60-year-old Brossard is on a mission: he wants to reconcile humans with what he believes are the most feared and loathed creatures on earth. “It’s not fair,” he says in his husky, animated voice. “They were here 400 million years before us. We honour all the other classes of animals. But for insects? Nothing.”

Brossard’s passion has taken him on more than 120 expeditions to 110 countries. He has helped set up seven insectaria from Shanghai to New Orleans, including his own Montreal Insectarium. Since January, 1999, one of the main vehicles for Brossard’s bugfriendly gospel is Insectia, the television program he created and hosts. The Canada-France co-production, airing on The Discovery Channel in English Canada, has been seen in 150 countries. In February, he shot a show in Madagascar, and returned in April from shooting another in Morocco. “What we’re doing in the bush is very difficult,” says producer Mary Armstrong. “He’s on his feet 18 hours a day. Most people wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Seeing Brossard at home dressed in green overalls, it’s difficult to imagine him in his previous incarnation as a

suit-wearing notary. But he worked in that profession for 13 years, and had considerable success. He grew up on a farm in the Montreal suburb of Brossard, named after his father, its founding mayor. As a youth, he began collecting bugs on the family farm because “there was nothing else to do.” At 38, he quit his job as a notary, and after pondering his future for a year, had an epiphany on a beach in Thailand when a butterfly caught his attention. “In a minute,” he says, “I found my way.” People mocked his pursuit but he forged ahead, collecting insects and living off the interest from his substantial savings. Brossard now travels to about 15 countries a year to catch about 100,000 specimens using a net and jars. He transports some back to Montreal dry while he immerses others in alcohol. Not surprisingly, he causes a stir at customs when he returns home. “All the booths empty,” he says. “They all come to see my specimens.”

A self-taught entomologist, Brossard works at night, luring insects with special mercury lamps often set up near his hotel. “There is no cleaning woman

who wants to clean my room,” he says. Fortunately, Brossard’s partner of 30 years, Suzanne Schiller, shares his appetite for bugs. She helps collect them and accompanies Brossard on some expeditions. The couple have two sons, both students, Guillaume, 17, and Georges, 18, who also works as an assistant to his father on the Insectia series. (Schiller also has a daughter, Nathalie, 32, a flight attendant.) When they entertain in their home overlooking a lake in St-Bruno, Schiller often whips up an insect-based recipe. Her repertoire includes crickets in garlic butter, curried grasshoppers and sushi with ants. “I see people that find insect cuisine repulsive, but it’s good,” insists Schiller, 51. “It’s full of proteins and enzymes.” People do come around, she says. “Once they have tasted it, they can’t resist.” Brossard, who is convinced he is immune to malaria, eschews vaccines when he’s out in the field, although he doesn’t recommend others follow suit. His son Georges contracted malaria during the Madagascar trip and became seriously ill. Brossard has been bitten by a scorpion and a tarantula but says “no

problem, they are not deadly.” And he maintains that less than one per cent of insects are dangerous, citing diseasebearing mosquitoes and the true bug of South America, which spreads Chagas’ disease, responsible for 45,000 deaths a year. The real jungle, he is fond of saying, is in the city.

Brossard came up with the idea for the Montreal Insectarium in the mid1980s. It took another five years to get the project off the ground. Now, most of what is on display is there thanks to Brossard’s expeditions. One of his greatest strengths is popularizing his knowledge of insects, says Stéphane Le Tirant, who oversees the insectariums laboratories. Brossard is also happy to export his enthusiasm for the creepycrawly world elsewhere. “We would never exist without Georges’s help,” says Lloyd Hollett, the co-owner of the Newfoundland Insectarium in Reidville, on the island’s west coast. “He put the idea in our heads.” Brossard provided Hollett with 20,000 specimens. “Everything we needed along the way, Georges helped us out.”

Brossard extols the value of insects, citing, for example, their roles as pollinators and scavengers. “Of all animals living on earth, they are most important and the most valuable to man and nature,” he insists. Asked about his favourites, Brossard leaps up and picks out a wooden box revealing jewel beetles, their shells so shiny and vibrantly coloured they look like painted decorations rather than insects.

“Passionate” is an adjective that invariably crops up when people describe Brossard, who received the Order of Canada in April. “I don’t think there is another person on earth similar to him,” says close friend and Montreal mayor Pierre Bourque, who helped him set up the city’s insectarium. “He is a very strong man with incredible energy and a devouring passion. Nothing stops him.” When he isn’t collecting insects, Brossard, who flies his own plane, likes to fish for walleye. He speaks five languages and is involved in children’s charities. Retirement isn’t a consideration for the former notary who now calls himself a lawyer for insects. “They’re my clients,” says Brossard. Brossard’s advocacy on their behalf seems to be progressing nicely. EH