For a guy that is afraid of bees and small flying insects, it is a bit surprising that Demetri Penuelas keeps more than 80 tarantulas around his house as pets.
But the Concord man is one of the 100 or so tarantula enthusiasts who make up the new California Bug Club, an assemblage of insect and arachnid fans who hope to see these creepy crawlies take over California -- in a good way, of course.
"Tarantulas are really fascinating, and really quite beautiful," Penuelas says. "It's easy to see why people like them."
Edgar Ortega agrees, and is caught in that web himself.
"We started this club for people who are passionate about insects and arachnids," says Ortega, the bug club's founder.
The club will hold its first Bay Area meeting at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 20 at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek. The keynote speaker will be Eddie Dunbar of the Insect Museum of California, who will talk on "Exploring California Insects." Besides that, Ortega says, people can learn more about their hobby, sell and share their spiders and insects, and plan future events, which include hikes and excursions throughout Northern California to look for new additions to their collections.
Ortega, who grew up in Tracy, became interested in his hobby in the usual way -- one that makes most mothers cringe. As a young boy he was fascinated by spiders and snakes, despite the fact that he was not allowed to bring them in his front door. As an adult, he took his hobby to the next level, collecting insects, spiders and tarantulas and sharing his interest with other bug lovers.
Ortega, a former veterinary technician, now runs the Central Valley Herpetological Society/The California Bug Club, he said, is made up of many professionals like him, as well as insect collectors, entomologists, biologists and "just plain bug-crazy people."
Most of the members, like Penuelas, are tarantula collectors, a hobby that can get expensive. Penuelas says that some tarantulas can cost up to $10,000, depending on the rarity and the demand. These days, for instance, collectors like the "New World" South American varieties, as compared to the "Old World" African species. Apparently, the South American tarantulas are nicer, he says.
Most of the tarantulas he collects, however, run between $175 for a baby and $400 for a female. "It's not bad," he says, "and it's much cleaner than having a dog as a pet."
Ortega's collection also includes tarantulas, millipedes, centipedes and some non-live specimens of six-inch long beetles that luckily are not found in the U.S.
He is quick to point out that the club wants to expand its educational reach, and is available for school and club presentations. "The more people know about bugs -- how they impact the environment and their habitat -- the less scary they become."
That's a sentiment shared by Carla Boehmer, a sixth-grade science teacher at Tracy's George Kelly Middle School.
"I have shared my collection and interest with my students, and it makes a great lesson," she says. "The kids' interest soars, and it helps them understand how bugs relate with each other, and with humans."
One of her favorite things to do is to hunt different bugs and snakes when she is out hiking with Ortega. "Some of them are so beautiful -- it's kind of like looking for jewelry or shoes."
But Ortega and Boehmer are mum about the best places to look for tarantulas and other favorite bugs. "It's kind of like having a secret fishing spot," she says. "Once you open up about it, everyone will know and it will be a madhouse."
But they both agree that Mt. Diablo, famous for its tarantula-spotting in the fall, is a popular area to spot tarantulas. They reiterate, however, that people should just "take pictures" and let the furry eight-legger natives move on.
"If you want to get tarantulas, it's best to get them from breeders," Ortega says. Or breed your own.
Penuelas is in the midst of that himself. "I get impatient waiting for the mother as she covers her eggs," he says, glancing over at his partner Dunya Hernandez -- who is seven months pregnant with their first child.
"Yeah," Hernandez says. "Sometimes I think he is more into a tarantula's pregnancy than mine."
The club will hold its first Bay Area meeting at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 20 at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek. For more information about the Club's arrival in Walnut Creek and its upcoming events, visit www.californiabugclub.com.