In the midst of the live-insect exhibits, volunteers at the Museum of Natural History's Insect Zoo enjoy taking you to a kind of corral, where they've rounded up tobacco hornworms, hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and lubber grasshoppers.

They make you hold them.

Long and bright-green, the hornworm feels like silk. A baby named Aaron reached out his stubby fingers for it. "He might eat that," warned his sister.

"The younger you are, the less fear you have," observed volunteer Bernice Hantman.

The baby stared in fascination at the big hissing cockroach crawling on his little thumb. "He won't hiss, unfortunately," said Hantman. "We pet them so much."

"But doesn't that look yucky?" asked Frank Dallavalle, another volunteer.

"People can really interact with the exhibit," says director Kay Weisberg. "It's the icing on the cake. You can go through the museum, reading plaques. But here, there's someone to answer your questions."

Hantman, a retired schoolteacher, was trying to persuade a tarantula to consume its once-a-week meal of live cricket.

"We just got a new shipment of crickets in, so this one's pretty lively," she explained to the crowd of visitors clustered around her, as she prodded the cricket with a stick. But the tarantula wouldn't eat because, she guessed, it's planning to molt.

"I'd rather see him eat than molt, frankly," she said. "This one hasn't eaten in four weeks."

With at least 40 tarantulas, the Insect Zoo can feed a different one for the public three times a day (weekends at 11:30, 12:30 and 1:30). This one has "Tuesday, 11:30" written on its box.

"I feel terrible," Hantman says later. "If you have a child who's very talented, you say dance -- and they won't dance. Well, he won't eat."

Some female tarantulas live 25 years; some males 12 years. This makes them good pets. "If they're docile, they won't bite," says Weisberg. "It's just like any animal -- if you handle them right. If they do bite, it's like a bee sting or a wasp," she says, adding that no one at the Insect Zoo has ever been bitten by one.

But there are unanswered questions in the insect world.

"Could the darkling beetles be mating?" Hantman asks Weisberg. "I'll never forget it," Hantman says. "I was talking about this one time, and a little boy six or seven asked, 'What's mating?' So I said, 'You know, when a daddy looks for a mommy.'"

"I Usually tell them to ask their parents," says Weisberg.