Smithsonian, Orkin team up to bug you

September 10, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Staff Writer

Washington -- Bugs are beautiful. Orkin Pest Control says so.

You may know Orkin most as the folks who will come into your home and zap out whatever creepy crawlers are running around, but the Atlanta-based company has another, more benevolent face. It's the official corporate sponsor of the O. Orkin Insect Zoo, which will open today after a year of extensive renovation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Yesterday morning, while a taped soundtrack played the soothing tones of whirring cicadas and chirping crickets, Smithsonian officials and Orkin representatives beamed with pride at a press briefing. They wore bug pins on their lapels and spoke of "an effective partnership" between the museum and the corporate bug-killers, who put their money where their moths were by contributing a cool $500,000 of the $750,000 needed for the renovation.

Gary Rollins, president of Orkin Pest Control, allowed that the sponsorship "is a natural extension of our philosophy that insects play a very important role in the ecosystem." And when asked about the curious association between the Insect Zoo and Orkin, Stanwyn G. Shetler, deputy director of the natural history museum, had a ready answer: money.

He said with "the present austere climate in federal budgeting," the museum was forced to look to corporate funding, noting, "Most of our halls are seriously outdated, some by as much as 40 years." Besides, he added, "I don't think it's ironic at all. I'm a botanist. I'm also a gardener, and one of the things you do in gardening is pull weeds. It's the same thing here."

As for the old Insect Zoo, which was created in 1970, Mr. Shetler allowed that "it was a comfortable zoo in many ways, but it got a little tired. This gives us a chance to use new techniques."

These "new techniques" include video monitors in which visitors can watch the three-times daily tarantula feedings (they eat crickets); a huge mock African termite mound that youngsters can crawl through; a reconstructed rain forest, and any number of brightly lighted exhibits that serve up information in tight little packages. Such as: "It takes about a million ants to make 1 kilogram (2 lbs.)" (It's actually 2.2 pounds, but when you reach a million ants, you might as well stop counting.)

Virginia Power, a staffer from the museum's Entomology Department, held out a 4-inch Madagascar hissing cockroach for anyone to pet or hold. That offer drew whoops and an extended "Noooooo!!" from children from the city's Bunker Hill Elementary School who had been brought in to provide a kid's perspective on the new exhibits.

Finally, one brave lad let the rather formidable-looking, though gentle, creature take a stroll on his hand. All was fine till the cockroach seemed to take up residence there. "It felt really sticky," he nervously told classmates while Ms. Power graciously removed the insect. Ms. Power said afterward that visitors would be allowed to hold one of the cockroaches themselves, and that the Insect Zoo isn't concerned about a clumsy tourist squashing one: The zoo keeps between 150 to 300 more hissing cockroaches in a back room.

In all, the O. Orkin Insect Zoo is lively and informative, though one exhibit did elicit a few cynical remarks. "Our House, Their House" graphically demonstrated where insects live in a typical home. That included fleas in the living room, carpenter ants in the attic and German cockroaches in the kitchen ("If left alone, one female can produce more than 30,000 offspring in a single year"). It wasn't enough to illustrate that point by showing a few real cockroaches scurrying around a grocerty store ice cream bag (under glass, of course). One could push a button and lights would blink on in a mock house, showing exactly where the bugs could be found.

D8 All that was needed was an 800 number to call Orkin.

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