Meet the beetles and spiders, too

You're sure to be bugged but you'll probably enjoy it when you visit this zoo

Cleopatra cannot see very far, even though she has eight eyes. So it was probably her hairy legs - she has eight of those, too - that sensed the cricket's presence. (The hairs are super sensitive to vibrations.)

In any case, the Mexican red knee tarantula seemed to know that a potential meal lurked nearby.

She stood eerily still. Then she turned her body, ever so slightly, to face the cricket, now inches away. Then - whoosh! - Cleopatra pounced.

The young audience cheered. The visitors were gathered at the Smithsonian's O. Orkin Insect Zoo in Washington, D.C., with zoo manager Nate Erwin.

Mr. Erwin is crazy about insects. He's been studying them for about 30 years, he says. And while he admits that the hairy spiders are the zoo's biggest attraction, "there are thousands of different types of insects that are just as fascinating," he insists.

To prove his point, he mentions the other insect stars - such as those in the recent movies "Antz" and "A Bug's Life." He also lists a growing number of insect zoos and butterfly houses that have popped up around the United States.

The O. Orkin Insect Zoo was the first of its kind in 1976. The zoo is located in the National Museum of Natural History, which has 30 million insect specimens in its collection - one of the largest such collections in the world.

But there's no need to live near an insect zoo to study these miniature marvels. Try running a garden hose gently on a summer suburban lawn that hasn't been treated with chemicals. (Water tends to stir up the insects, especially if the grass has been dry.) Within minutes, the ground may be alive with shiny black earwigs, jewel-colored beetles, fearless crickets, and shy sow bugs. (The kinds of insects will vary, depending on where you live.) And that's just the tip of the antenna, so to speak.

An amazing 85 percent of the planet's 1.1 million known animal species are insects. And of those 920,000 insect species, about 250,000 are beetles. (For comparison, only about 4,000 known animal species are mammals, man being one of them.)

OK, so insects are everywhere. But are they important?

The answer to that is as plain as the dirt in your petunia pot, Erwin says. Without insects, Earth would be a very desolate place indeed.

Some 80 percent of the world's plants depend on insects to pollinate them. Without insects, those plants would die out. Most fruit and vegetable crops would fail. (Corn, wheat, and other grain crops are wind-pollinated.)

Not only that, but we'd soon be up to our eyeballs in animal carcasses, dead leaves, and other organic matter. That's because insects are nature's great recyclers. They are "detrivores." That means they eat the dead matter in forests, fields - even in your home. They excrete the material in particles small enough for bacteria to break down still further. That's the final stage in the process that keeps the soil fertile (able to support plant growth).

To protect the earth, Erwin concludes, you must protect insects, too.

The zoo manager hopes that insect zoos will teach people not to fear bugs.

"People have negative impressions of bugs that are based on TV commercials telling us to get rid of bugs," Erwin says. "But less than 1 percent of the insect species cause harm to humans. And the rest are what keep the world ticking."

Perhaps a less-obvious goal in wanting people to study insects, says Erwin, is that insects help spark fascination in the natural world.

"Early exposure to insects may not turn you into an entomologist [someone who studies bugs], but you will develop a sense of wonder that will lead you to do interesting things in life," he says.

How to start your own zoo

Collecting insects lets you examine these amazing arthropods (see story below) more closely. Watch for their signs:

A curled leaf, for example, tells you that a caterpillar or spider may have created a shelter with silk. A partially eaten leaf might mean that an insect is nearby - probably chewing another leaf.

Look on branches, in tall grass, in and around flowers, and under the bark of rotting logs. Look under rocks and in ponds and streams. Field guides, like "Peterson First Guide to Insects of North America," also tell where to find specific bugs.

Place your catch in a hard plastic container or a jar with small air holes in the lid. Make sure you also collect plenty of the foliage on which you found the insect. Put that in the container, too. Remember that insects don't like extreme heat. If it's a hot day, put the container in a cooler with ice in it until you get home. (The cold won't hurt the bugs, though they may become sluggish.)

Read up on how to care for insects, and on what to expect. For example, caterpillars like humidity, so keep a damp paper towel at the bottom of the container and poke only a few holes in the lid. A good book is "Pet Bugs," by Sally Kneidel (John Wiley & Sons, 1994). Online, log on to: www.ex.ac.uk/bugclub/bug pets.html or www.bugbios.com.

Add fresh foliage often. If you've caught a caterpillar, be sure to put a stick in the container so it has a place to pupate (turn into a moth or butterfly). Leave rotting fruit and a sponge soaked with sugar water for when your winged creature emerges. And be sure to release it so it can fly away.

The secret to insect success

Insects and their relatives are often called the most successful animals on earth. Insects, along with centipedes, millipedes, spiders - and lobsters, too - belong to the same animal group. They are Arthropoda, a Latin word meaning "jointed legs." Arthropods have existed for more than 400 million years.

Arthropods grow to adulthood quickly. That means they can breed quickly and so adjust rapidly to new challenges or opportunities. Their simple body structure is also very adaptable.

All arthropods are bilaterally symmetrical. That means each side is a mirror image of the other. All have an external skeleton, called an exoskeleton. (Humans have endoskeletons.)

Nate Erwin, manager of the O. Orkin Insect Zoo in Washington, D.C., says visitors often ask him things like: "What's the use of the flea?"

"They're asking in terms of human value," Mr. Erwin says. "But flat and narrow, they get in between hairs, suck blood, and it works - and it has for millions of years. So hey, can you knock it? It's ... making a living the best way it knows how." Can you think of a better reason for fleas?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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