Oh, You Beautiful Bug, You Great Big, Beautiful Bug

By

BUGS. Can't live with them, can't smoosh 'em.

Maybe we can learn to appreciate them. You know, learn to live in harmony with them. After all, the more we know about the creatures of the earth the less frightening they become. We can even come to see something of their point of view instead of just our own. Think how big you must look to a tiny ant making her way across the sidewalk with a piece of food several times heavier than she is herself. One way to learn to appreciate those creepy-crawlies is to look at them under a microscope or a strong mag nifying glass in order to see how their parts all function together.

Under a microscope or magnifier, a bug looks large. Maybe it looks scary. Maybe it even looks like a monster. What would one of those "monsters" in the grass of your backyard look like enlarged, say, 96 times? Would it be scarier? Maybe not. Remember the ant in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"? It wasn't scary at all. An ant that size is human size.

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An excellent exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (and other natural-history museums around the country) presents "Backyard Monsters," featuring giantized robot bugs that move - just a little - just enough to simulate nature's own movement. While they are weird, they are not frightening.

Excellent. RoboBugs.

Natural science and high technology meet to make these artful monsters all the better for you to study them.

Two ants (enlarged 96 times, of course) pull their groceries down into a nest. They are brown and perfect. Every hair is exactly made to scale.

An emperor scorpion has pinchers that make him look a lot like a lobster. His segmented tail arches up over his head because he stings his prey to immobilize it. He's really a hunter with a built-in weapon. He's a critter you have to respect, but he poses very little serious danger to humans. The male emperor scorpion can reach seven inches in length, and the female can produce 32 babies in a litter.

A huge black-widow spider sits upside down in her web. She has a large red hour-glass mark on her belly that acts like nature's warning signal: Do not touch! Black widows tend to prefer dark corners of old woodpiles or garages behind old newspapers. Like all spiders, they rid the neighborhood of lots of pesky critters that might otherwise be a real nuisance. Unfortunately, they also chase off other spiders.

My personal favorite is the praying mantis. Tall and green, it sits waiting with its front legs folded in front of it like praying hands. The praying mantis was introduced into the United States in 1896 from China. "Mantis" comes from the Greek word meaning "prophet." This funny creature appears gawky at first, but actually moves rather gracefully. It is a good friend in a rose garden, since it eats the aphids that destroy roses.

The last of the RoboBugs in the exhibit is a large unicorn beetle. More beetles exist than any other kind of insect. Perhaps one-third of all known insect species are beetles. They can grow to be quite large, although never as big as RoboBeetle. Many are useful to man and the planet because they, too, eat insect pests and help break down plant and animal waste.

The unicorn beetle is distinctive, with a large horn protruding out of the top of its head. The horn has a big, bushy brush underneath. The unicorn larvae can take up to two years to mature, but once the adults emerge, they live only four to six weeks.

The "Backyard Monsters" exhibition includes hundreds of insect species collected in glass cases. From the huge diversity of colored butterflies to the "walking stick" bugs that resemble wooden twigs, bark, or leaves so much that you have to look twice into the case to tell the difference, the sheer variety of insects staggers the imagination.

But then, millions of insects inhabit earth. They have been around for 350 million years. Some scientists believe that earth's insect population may top 10 billion billion and account for nearly 3/4ths of all known species of animals. Insects provide a major source of food for birds, fish, amphibians, and many mammals; they pollinate many plants; and they provide humanity with products like honey, wax, shellac, dyes, and silk. They even play a major role in recycling, helping to break down dead plants a nd animals. Many feed off the very bugs we think of as pests. But of all those insects, only 1 percent are truly pests to humans.

The "Backyard Monsters" exhibition offers plenty of fun facts, too. Did you know that some scorpions can dance? Or that cicadas hold group sing-alongs and make the loudest noise of any insect? Or that dragonflies are commonly called "mosquito hawks" because they catch mosquitoes, gnats, and other pests? Or that soldier termites tap their heads on the floor of their tunnels to communicate?

Insects are fascinating. It is fun to try to imagine how an insect sees or watch how it eats. So, the exhibit also includes hands-on displays meant to give you a bug's-eye-view of the world. You can look through the eyes of a fly, which is a lot like looking through a thousand eyes at once because the eyes are made up of a lot of individual lenses. A sign tells you that the insect eye is many faceted. Scientists now believe the insect itself integrates information into one well-rounded image of his surro undings that fits him to fly through space. Ever wonder why a fly can see you coming from behind with a fly swatter?

Very young kids have the opportunity to assemble giant plastic ants and other insects. And then there are the large models of dragonfly wings and a fly's wing to operate and compare moving parts to see how the mechanisms work. You can look through a microscope and see a honeybee's stinger, a mosquito's mouthparts, or a butterfly's wing. Another display shows you how each insect's mouth is adapted to its food source.

There is even a hands-on exhibit of RoboBugs. Skeletal robots with six legs can be made to walk around with a remote-control device. But it isn't easy to get all those legs working at once. Fortunately, the live bugs have no trouble at all.

Keep an eye out for `Backyard Monsters'! Between now and 1995, the RoboBugs may turn up in your city at a science or natural-history museum. Cities on the tour include San Antonio; Boston; San Bernadino, Calif.; Memphis; Tampa, Fla.; Salt Lake City; Columbus, Ohio; and many others. Check with your local museum. ("Backyard Monsters" will be at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago until Sept. 7.)

`Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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