Gaye Williams with a tank containing a female tarantula. The… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
Do they frighten you, repulse you, show up in your dreams?
Do they make you cringe, cry or carry sprays and unguents when you head out the door?
If so, experts say, you've got yourself a problem.
"Bugs outnumber us," says Faith Kuehn, an insect expert, with Jiminy-Cricket cheerfulness. "They've been around for millions and millions of years. They're brilliant at adapting to all kinds of environments. Some say there are many species yet to be discovered."
Stomp on all the arthropods you like; you'll never beat bugs, so you might as well get to know them - an idea that could be the mission statement for "It's a Bug's World," a colorful free program centered on insects and their roles and habits that entomologist Kuehn and compatriots will bring to Annapolis next weekend.
Designed with children in mind, "Bug's World" will include live insects, as well as tarantulas and bugs that create jewelry and art; trot out photographers and illustrators who focus on insects; and invite kids to build their own bugs and slide their hands into something slimy called "the Tank of Doom."
The goal: to introduce folks to their creepy-crawly neighbors in a way that entertains and enlarges appreciation.
"We're trying to get people to realize how important insects are," says Kuehn, plant industries administrator for the Delaware Department of Agriculture and the show's organizer for the eighth consecutive year. "There's a good reason not to just smash every one you see."
The March 7 program will launch this year's annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America, Eastern Branch, which brings scholars from the Mid-Atlantic region and across North America to the state capital March 7-9.
Items they'll discuss include the fate of the Western bean cutworm in Pennsylvania (not good) and the foraging patterns of bees (complicated).
Not, though, before next Sunday's four-hour event offers an interactive trek through the world of insects, complete with information on why they matter.
"The vast majority are either neutral to us or beneficial to us," says Gaye Williams, an entomologist and exhibitor with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "Being human-centric, we think it's all about us.
"One reason for this outreach is to get people to be easier on our neighbors. They run the planet; we just ruin it."
Exhibit A: a peek at pinning
Those who see insects human-centrically miss the simple fact that the bug universe is complex, colorful and thriving.
The Bug Patrol, amateur insect hunters from the Frederick 4-H Club, will show live specimens they've caught on field trips, but also demonstrate "pinning," the technique enthusiasts use to immobilize dead insects for examination
Pinning lets a viewer see the traits that make an insect an insect: three sets of leg pairs each, three body segments (a head, a thorax and an abdomen) apiece, and either wings or a history of wings in the species.
It also helps show some amazing insect quirks: the tiny body hairs and huge compound eyes of flies; the hard outer wings of beetles; the way some insects, including honeybees, have a Velcro-like system of hooks and grooves that joins separate wings together into one flight surface.
Though they're not technically insects, live millipedes, scorpions and spiders will also be on display.
Exhibit B: a mite-sniffing mutt
Bugs reproduce so quickly - many of them cranking out several new generations each year - that they create a vast, magnificently adaptive gene pool. The useful traits survive; the harmful ones don't.
That's why some can live in arid climates (they have body adaptations that help them store water), low temperatures (a sort of anti-freeze), or below ground and in water.
But as the re-emergence of one old pest shows, even adaptations are temporary.
Bedbugs, long a health hazard worldwide, declined in number in North America during the late 1900s, but international air travel has returned the critters to places that once had bumped them off. This has sparked major resurgences, including in Maryland.
Guests will meet one of mankind's most effective counters to this adaptation when Gizmo, a bedbug-sniffing dog that works with pest-control experts, struts his stuff.
Exhibit C: Vincent van Roach
If there's such a thing as a creepy-crawly crowd-pleaser, it might be the Madagascar hissing cockroach, a staple of the exhibits Williams takes into schools.
Typically 2 inches long, the cockroach has a breathing apparatus that runs the length of its body, a blowhole and a penchant for making noises that can be heard across a sizable room.
"[Students] will stand there and ask me, 'Is it going to hurt me?' she says. "All the while, I've got one sitting right on my hand. Many of them touch it, tell their friends and bring them over to do the same thing."
Williams awards a "bug buddy" certificate to those who brave contact.