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Children get up close and personal with bugs

A traveling bug safari's stop in Tampa gives children a chance to learn about the importance of some of the world's smaller creatures.

One by one, the children inched toward the table for a peek at some of nature's smallest, yet most feared, creatures. Some shrieked at the idea of touching a bug. Others giggled as it crawled up their arms.

Five-year-old Shelby Arnold of Lutz took an immediate liking to a millipede she named Michelle, but balked at holding a 2-inch cockroach. Too big. Too creepy.

Not so for Christina Koestring, also 5, who said the cockroach tickled her as it walked across her hand and wrapped its legs around her tiny index finger. "Mommy, look," she yelled to her mother, Barbara, who stood a safe 20 feet away.

The children were among hundreds who went to the Lowry Park Zoo on Saturday to visit the bug mobile. The exhibit is traveling to schools and public venues across the nation to educate children about these often ignored animals.

"These guys usually have been shoved to the side because of giraffes and other large animals," said Jim Peters, an entomologist for the Smithsonian O. Orkin Insect Safari, which sponsored the free exhibit. "Everyone has had a personal experience with bugs."

The safari features a 53-foot trailer converted into exhibit rooms with interactive displays and facts about insects and spiders. Tour guides explain bugs' importance, describe how they survive and show how they live among people.

Visitors press a button to hear the music of a cricket, walk through a termite tunnel and light up a picture that reveals mites and lice in human hair. A "Bug Cafe" video teaches viewers how the creatures eat.

Orkin Pest Control and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History developed the multimillion-dollar bug safari to give students a first-hand experience with bugs.

The brightly colored trailer, with a huge, inflatable praying mantis on top, began its tour March 1 in Atlanta and plans to visit more than 100 communities across the country in the next eight months.

The mobile goes to private and public elementary schools during the week and to places such as zoos on the weekends. It went to Christ the King School on Friday, and heads to Montgomery, Ala., today. In all, it will reach about 120,000 people.

The Lowry Park stop included a visit from Eric Schreiber, a mosquito expert for Sarasota County. He wowed kids when he stuck his arm in a netted box full of mosquitoes, and he tried to convince visitors that bugs aren't as scary as they think.

"It's a good cockroach," he told a boy reluctant to touch it. "Come on, you can do it. . . . Well, perhaps not."