The overnight downpour may have brought insects out yesterday, but the nagging morning drizzle and overcast skies sent swarms of children scurrying indoors to the National Museum of History's Insect Zoo.
Clutching drippy umbrellas and parents' hands, they glued their noses to the glass rectangles where bees buzzed and crickets creaked. The more adventurous children drifted away from their parents, making discoveries all by themselves, or formed groups and shared opinions like "Isn't that cockroach disgusting?" and "That hermit crab is cool."
"We are here because of the rain," said Kathy Cox, a writer from Hyattsville who had brought her 2-year-old son, Nat, to the zoo. "He loves the insects," said a beaming Cox as she watched her son gaze in rapt attention at the gray stony fossils of insects. "He loves the leaf-cutting ants. It's funny to watch them move, and he's not scared at all."
But the 2-year-old's enthusiasm appeared precocious as he stared at an explanatory note on "Gradual Metamorphosis in Terrestrial and Non-Gill-Bearing Insects." After a moment of apparent uncertainty, he turned away to the more interesting exhibit: "Cockroaches on the Move."
For parents who had brought their children to learn -- a couple were furiously taking notes -- there was a range of trivia, from the unsentimental ("Most arthropods simply lay their eggs and move away, without regard for their young") to the grotesque ("Some arthropods with piercing, sucking mouthparts feed on the blood of other animals").
"I want to teach him this stuff before he goes to school. In fact, I take him out every day," said Clifton Taylor, a Washington resident whose 5-year-old son, Clifton Jr., stood disappointed in front of the observation beehive. "Dad, where's the honey?" he asked. "We are going to the Washington Monument after this," assured his father. "We'll be climbing the steps from the bottom to the top. Even if it rains we'll do it."
But the rain seemed to have dampened Pat Benson's zeal. Benson, a resident of Piscataway, N.J., who arrived in Washington yesterday with her two daughters and two umbrellas, said, "We have been trucking along with the rain. This is the best place to be." Her 8-year-old daughter, Christine, admitted that the Insect Zoo "is much more fun than school," but confessed that "I like just the butterflies. I am scared of the spiders."
Arachnophobia was the last thing on Daniel Taieb's mind as he sat on the smudged carpet in the circle of excited young faces watching a tarantula being fed by a volunteer. As the spider gobbled the cricket -- bought from the Jiminy Cricket Farm in Richmond at $13 a thousand -- the children oohed and aahed.
"I am scared of some of the mosquitoes," said Taieb, who arrived from France two days ago. "It's too sad it's raining," he said, admitting that "I would have liked to be outdoors."
But for some, it was not the weather that had brought them to the zoo. "No, it's not the rain. We are here definitely for the insects," asserted Valerie Patterson of Olney. A financial analyst with IBM, Patterson had taken the day off from work to bring her two daughters, Erica, 1, and Ashley, 3, and their 4-year-old cousin, Stephanie. "We'll be seeing the dinosaurs too, but the children really like the insects," said Patterson.
"This is the only section of the museum where the exhibits are alive. Everything else here is dead. And the kids have a great time," said Sally Love, director of the Insect Zoo since 1983. Love said that the zoo, established in 1976, is aimed at dispelling "a few of the myths" surrounding the world of insects. "Insects fascinate people and hopefully the zoo will spark interest in the people so that they will become comfortable with them," said Love.
Fifteen feet away, 13-year-old James Sweet, a resident of Los Angeles, shouted triumphantly. After quite some time straining his eyes, he had espied the walking stick, an insect of the Amazon rain forest that has a twiglike body, cleverly camouflaged among the trees. "Look, look," he said, tugging at his friend's arm. "There it is."