Young, two-legged critters make 'Insect Expo' a tough day for some hapless bugs

December 11, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

An article in The Sun on Friday about an "Insect Expo incorrectly identified the origins of the Madagascar hissing cockroach and the New Guinea walking stick.

The Sun regrets the errors.

After being handled by dozens of schoolchildren at thConvention Center yesterday, the New Guinea hissing cockroaches had no hiss left in them.

At the same petting table, a Madagascar walking stick, a 5-inch-long bug resembling a splinter of brown bark, appeared close to collapse.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Elsewhere, scores of meal worms and wax worm larvae were served up as snacks. Hundreds of spiders, centipedes, butterflies, scorpions and other critters lay in glass boxes, impaled by pins.

Yesterday's one-day "Insect Expo," sponsored by the Entomological Society of America, was tough on some of the bugs. But the event barely slowed down the 400 to 500 schoolchildren who swarmed around more than a dozen exhibits, firing off questions, touching, tasting and examining specimens.

There were cockroach chariot races and an insect puppet show. A person in a giant plush ladybug outfit tromped around. Teams of students, entomologists and bystanders had their legs tied together with bungee cords and then ran, centipede-style, along an hourglass-shaped course that was supposed to resemble a bug's body.

What did the students learn?

"I learned how certain bugs can adapt to different environments if you take them out of their environment," said Kevin Knight, 15, a freshman at Southwestern High School.

Duron Potts, 15, a classmate of Kevin's, said he admires scientists who collect poisonous or disease-carrying insects. "They have a lot of guts and they learn something every day," he said.

Tom Turpin, the president of the entomological society, said that in the past, the society has not done enough to promote education and nurture future scientists. "The kids are excited about it," said the Purdue University scientist. "They're having fun. And they're looking at insects in a positive light."

The society's four-day annual conference, held in Baltimore this year, drew 2,700 scientists from around the world. After the formal meeting ended Wednesday, scores of participants stuck around to stage the expo for Baltimore-area students. Organizers had expected a crowd of about 3,200. But yesterday's snowfall kept attendance down.

Linda Mason, a professor of insect behavior at Purdue, was the expo's "bug doctor," presicding over a small petting zoo of roaches, walking sticks and caterpillars.

"See him wiggle his antennae?" said Dr. Mason to a boy holding a roach. She said the antennae are sensitive to chemicals in the air. "He's wiggling them to find out where he is," she said. "He's actually tasting the air."

When caught by a predator, the hissing roaches -- amber-colored creatures the size of business cards -- open a series of valves in their sides, producing a loud sound like air escaping from a punctured bicycle tire. It's meant to startle the predator, making it drop its noisy meal, Dr. Mason explained.

At another table, Robin Roche, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, served up an arthropod hors d'oeuvre called "caterpillar crunch" -- a mix of nuts and fried wax worm larvae, which feed on the wax in bee hives. She also helped cook a batch of pan-fried meal worms.

To one visitor, both bugs tasted like buttered Rice Krispies.

"Insects are very high in protein," Ms. Roche said. "We're one of the few countries that doesn't eat them. In most of Africa, Asia and Mexico, you can buy them in the markets. But in this country, they're an untapped food source."

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