I WISH THAT THE CRITICS WHO claim the average American doesn't care about the issues could see the response we got to our survey about the Official National Insect. We have been flooded with postal cards from all over the United States and several parallel universes. Just a quick glance through these cards is enough to remind you why this great nation, despite all the talk of decline, still leads the world in tranquilizer consumption.

As you may recall, this issue arose when the Entomological Society of America, realizing that troubled times call for bold government, began lobbying Congress to name the monarch butterfly the Official National Insect. It appeared to be a lock, because the Entomological Society of America is a powerful outfit. More than one person who has dared to challenge the society on a piece of insect-related legislation has found his automobile ignition wired to a hornet's nest in the glove compartment.

Well, call me a courageous patriot if you wish, but I think that when our Founding Fathers froze their buns at Valley Forge, they were fighting to create a nation where the National Insect would be chosen by a fair and open process, not in some gnat-filled back room. That's why I asked you, the average citizen with no ax to grind and way too much spare time, to write in and voice your opinion.

All I can say is, it's a good thing that some of you don't have axes, if you get my drift. I refer particularly to the person who wrote: "My choice for Official National Incest is mother-son. Thank you for asking."

Many of you voted for the dung beetle, the mosquito and the leech, all of which were inevitably compared to Congress. I'm sorry, but that's a low blow: Our research indicates that no dung beetle has ever accepted money from a savings and loan operator.

Other insects receiving votes: the earwig; the gadfly; the tarantula hawk wasp (which kills tarantulas for a living and is already New Mexico's official insect); the maggot; the killer bee (as one reader put it, "We better start sucking up to them while there's still time"); the scorpion; the pissant; the stink bug; the termite; "men"; the tick; the Stealth bomber; the nervous tick; a dead bug named Hector that was actually mailed to us; the screwworm; the fly ("Zip up, America!"); the weevil; the dust mite ("I want a National Insect I can unknowingly inhale"); the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle; the spittle bug; "those little moths that get into your cabinets and lay eggs in your Stove Top Stuffing which hatch and cause you to eat the larvae"; the horned fungus beetle ("because it strongly resembles ex-president Richard Nixon, which makes stomping one into oblivion a special American experience"); Johnny Mantis; the Ford Pinto; Mothra; "any 13-year-old or my ex-husband"; the booger; the bug that goes splat on your windshield; and Ted Kennedy.

Without question the most thoughtful vote came from 8-year-old David Affolter, a student at the Spruce Street School in Seattle: "I want the National Insect to be the ladybug, because the ladybug can do about everything a bug should do. It can be a board game piece."

It's hard to argue with that. But it's also hard to argue with the numbers: There were 213 votes for the monarch butterfly, versus 87 for the ladybug, 72 for the praying mantis, 65 for the bee, 43 for Sen. Jesse Helms and 37 for the cockroach. Beetles, as a group, got 261 votes, but that vote was badly divided, with no clear "take-charge" beetle emerging.

This is a shame, because one beetle, which received several dozen votes, clearly deserves further consideration. This is the bombardier beetle, which -- I am not making this up -- has an internal reaction chamber where it mixes chemicals that actually explode, enabling the beetle to shoot a foul-smelling, high-temperature jet of gas out its rear end with a distinct "crack." It reminds me of guys I knew in college. The Time-Life insect book has a series of photographs in which what is described as "a self-assured bombardier beetle" defeats a frog. In the first picture, the frog is about to chomp the beetle; in the second, the beetle blasts it; and in the third, the frog is staggering away, gagging, clearly wondering why it never learned about this in Frog School. I would be darned proud, as an American, to be represented by this insect. An engraving of a bombardier beetle emitting a defiant blast from his butt would look great on a coin.

My point is that, although the monarch butterfly is clearly the front-runner, we need to give the National Insect a lot more thought. Maybe, as reader James Buzby (his real name) suggests, Congress should appoint a Stopgap National Insect while we make our final determination.

But whatever happens, I intend to follow this story, even if I irritate the powerful Entomological Society of America, which for all I know could try to . . . Hey, what are these things crawling out of my keyboard? OUCH! HEY!! OUCH!!!