- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2001

Holding an enormous lubber grasshopper, 3-plus inches of legs and feet and feelers and bug eyes, is enough to give many people the shivers.

Not everyone remember, most children love bugs. Even those who don't will be fascinated by a visit to the O. Orkin Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, where they may be invited to touch some of the world's squiggliest specimens, from pupa to caterpillar to cockroach.

The insect zoo houses arthropods 50 species at any given time literally, a cast of thousands. Arthropods, as some may remember from biology class, are the largest group of invertebrates (making up 80 percent of all animal species); they have segmented bodies covered by exoskeletons and include arachnids, crustaceans, centipedes, millipedes and insects.

As in any zoo, "a massive amount of care and cleaning goes on here," says entomologist Faith Deering. Ms. Deering, a museum specialist, says she has loved bugs since she was little. She spends her days studying and maintaining the zoo's collection of arthropods, sometimes personally introducing them with the help of a stable of volunteers to her two-legged visitors.

"It's a very important philosophy here to have things to touch and handle," she explains as she moves around the staff-and-docent-only Insect Rearing Room and Lab, which is filled with plants and cages and containers of squirming arthropods. Ms. Deering is choosing and gathering the day's interactive specimens, making them comfy for a cart ride in clear plastic containers onto the museum floor, where they will be offered to patrons to hold and feel.

"People have enough negative and 'yuck' feelings about bugs, so we try to encourage them as much as possible," she says.

This day, in addition to the lubber grasshopper, Ms. Deering is gathering a fat, 2-inch white silkworm; a large, brown hornworm pupa with a wiggling tail; and a tarantula named Miss Piggy.

Tarantulas, she explains, live an average of 20 years. They are fed one cricket per week, an event visitors can witness. Visitors are not permitted to handle tarantulas, however, as hairs from the arachnids' bodies can lodge in and damage human skin and eyes.

Ms. Deering also scoops up several hissing cockroaches, alarming-looking creatures under any circumstance, which usually live two to three years. (Some might argue that's two to three years longer than any cockroach should live.) Ms. Deering expertly handles the cockroaches and is happy to point out their interesting traits.

"This is a very ancient animal," she says. "It has been on the planet since the dinosaurs. It grooms itself as much as any cat, and it keeps its young around it after birth for a few hours."

In case you were wondering: "The hissing is a territorial thing, and the reason they scuttle under things is because they feel more comfortable having something touching them."

Out on the floor, dozens of eager 6- and 7-year-olds from Montgomery County's Hebrew Day Institute swarm the exhibits. They peer into the glass case containing a picnic basket blanketed with crickets. They watch the bees vie for space in the frames of honeycomb, and they jostle for a chance to gaze into the glass bubbles of the mangrove swamp to check out the shrimp, lobsters and crabs that swim around and within.

Ms. Deering, a former kindergarten teacher, beckons the children so she can show them the animals she has gathered for the cart. She pulls out the silkworm, the lubber grasshopper and the cockroach, inviting the children to stroke the shiny or bumpy skin and permitting the brave and responsible to hold the specimens. She explains the parts of the tarantula and caps off the presentation by giving Miss Piggy her weekly meal, the details of which are visible via a strategically placed monitor.

Chaperoning parent Angela Engel says the children are amazed.

"The girls like them as much as the boys," she says. "but most of all, they love the interaction with the real bugs."

Ms. Deering understands.

"I think that everyone, children and grown-ups, really enjoys the chance to hold and touch live insects and the chance to interact with a docent who can answer questions and spend time with the visitor," Ms. Deering says. "That is really how we are unique in the Museum of Natural History."

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