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Ambassadors to the insect world

Bugs have gotten a bad rap, says Jenny Jandt, coordinator of the UW-Madison Insect Ambassadors. That”s why her cortege of student ambassadors is willing to take their show on the road to spread good will for animals dear to their hearts: insects.

“In our presentation ”What Is So Amazing about Insects?” we talk about why insects aren”t bad and that some are beneficial,” says Jandt, a graduate student in the College’s entomology department who is researching the foraging behavior of wasps. “We try to dispel people”s fear by explaining how insects are like we are-how they hide and how they survive.” People seem interested to hear that some insects live in groups, work together to gather food and defend their young.

Since the formation of the Charles F. and Patricia R. Koval Insect Ambassadors in 2002, the presentation has been given to more than 1,500 people each year, from children in day care centers to scout troops, elementary classrooms, teachers, science fair participants and children at summer camps. The ambassadors, a group of 20 to 30 undergraduate and graduate students in the entomology department and other departments at UW-Madison, present display cases with mounted insects and a collection of live insects.

“Our presentation is interactive. We try to find out what they know by playing games and asking questions,” Jandt says. What they know is that bugs are creepy, crawly things that carry disease, suck blood and sting people. But what they don”t always realize is that many insect species are beneficial-they pollinate flowers, make honey and eat other insects. These are teachable moments for the insect ambassadors.

“What”s really cool is the idea that at the beginning of our talk, half the kids are saying ”ooh, gross,” while the other half are saying, ”oh, cool,”” says Jandt. “At the end, the ones that started off being squeamish come back three times to hold the insects.”

The insects that elicit screams of terror and exclamations of awe are Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The critters are two to three inches long, with shiny blackish-brown exoskeletons, active antennae and Velcro-like spines on their legs that grasp the skin when they”re alarmed. The main attraction, though, is the cockroaches” audible defense mechanism: they hiss when threatened or frightened, which happens often in a sea of screaming school children.

On this weekday afternoon in late winter, the Insect Ambassadors are presenting their insect show to the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County on Taft Street in Madison. Twenty elementary school age children enter the conference room in one of two ways: with trepidation or bursting with enthusiasm. Display cases on the conference room table draw onlookers, who admire the “precious butterflies,” the hairy-legged tarantulas, and iridescent beetles from far-away lands. But some hesitate, wanting to know if these bugs are alive before they lean over the cases.

Katie Kieler, a senior majoring in entomology and biology at UW-Madison, begins the program with a game of 20 Questions. The children do well-many have already been introduced to insects through a science unit at school. They know that insects have three body parts, six legs, and many forms of locomotion. But they don”t do as well in answering a question on habitats.

“Where is one place you won”t find insects?” Kieler asks. One boy yells out, “Texas!” Another says, “In your attic.” The kids are surprised when Kieler corrects them, telling them that insects are found everywhere on earth, including Antarctica.

They are further surprised, and a somewhat dismayed, when Kieler tells them that the coloring in red juice comes from crushed beetle shells. The reactions are almost unanimous, “Why did you say that? Euw, I”m never drinking that again.”

The insect facts Kieler shares with the group impress them: ants can lift over 50 times their body weight; fleas can jump the equivalent of a football field; the queen termite lives up to 15 years; in some countries, live beetles are tethered to people as living jewelry.

After sharing a few more fun facts, Kieler acknowledges that it is time for the moment they have been waiting for or dreading. “Now we will hold the cockroaches and answer questions,” she says, opening the plastic container housing the three Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Kieler calmly explains three important facts about the bugs. First, they don”t bite. One girl exclaims, “Yes! Thank you, Lord.” The second is that they hold onto skin when they are scared. One boy shakes his head, saying “I”m not holding one.” And the third fact is that they hiss by shooting air out of their spiracles, which are like lungs.

Adam has been ready to hold a cockroach since the presentation started thirty minutes ago. He cups his hands, stretches out his arms and Kieler places a cockroach on his palms. Soon Adam is walking around the room with the cockroach navigating his t-shirt. “Who wants help touching it?” he asks, beaming. He seems to take delight in getting a little bit too close to other boys and girls who are not as confident. One boy threatens to run out of the room saying, “I”m stayin” where the beetles aren”t!”

Although most of the kids are cautious, by the end of the session almost all take a turn holding a cockroach or touching it. Someone mentions that the exoskeleton feels like the coating on a popular candy. “I”m scared, man. Give me room to jump back, if I need to,” says a girl who stretches out her index finger, gingerly stroking a subdued female cockroach. Another says to Kieler, “Thank you, that was very weird.” In different corners of the room, cries of delight erupt when the cockroaches are provoked enough to hiss.

Kieler and her assistant calmly circulate around the room, encouraging all of the kids to touch the cockroaches or try holding one. Kieler knows she has helped some of the kids overcome their fear of insects when several of the kids stay behind for one last touch or question. A girl with braids in her hair who comes back for one more try leaves the room saying, “He held onto me. Oh, he loves me.”