Dear parents: As the kids pull various items from their dwindling Halloween bags this weekend, don't worry, as a Howard County mom did, about the odd lollipop with the baked cricket inside.

Pay no mind if Junior is munching an amber-colored sucker that also contains a scorpion, or a palm full of cheddar cheese mealworms, or a pack of chocolate-covered, banana-flavored ants.

Everything's fine. It's just the latest line of products from a California candy company that has made a name for itself sticking high-protein, low-fat insects--already a staple in much of the world--on a lollipop stick.

Officials at the company, Hotlix--1-800-EAT-WORM--say most of their bugs are home-grown down on the "worm ranch," fed on stuff like apples, orange peels and bananas for added flavor, and are government inspected.

Some of the scorpions have to be imported; the American scorpion supply is limited.

Every Halloween, says company founder Larry Peterman, he hears from concerned parents when the company's products show up in treat bags: "Some people just object to having an insect in there."

Perfectly safe, says accounts manager Kathy Mitchell: "They're cooked and processed. There's no guts or anything."

And the product line is growing all the time.

The company started with a tequila-flavored lollipop with a beetle larva inside.

Then came the Cricket Lick-It--in mint, cinnamon, grape and orange; Larvets, chocolate-covered worms, crickets and ants, 25 to a pack; and the popular Amber InsectNside, featuring a scorpion or a worm-cricket combo.

It all began in 1986 when Peterman purchased a candy store in Pismo Beach, Calif. In the wake of a hot cinnamon lollipop that was a terrific seller, he got the idea for the tequila-flavored, bug-enclosed worm pop.

"You get the worm without having to drink the tequila," he said in a telephone interview yesterday from company headquarters.

He got some flak from parents complaining about the link to alcohol, but children loved the worm. Business took off, and Peterman began looking for new products.

The bugs reportedly don't taste like much.

Mitchell said her son has eaten the scorpion candy, although she has not. "He said it tasted like peanut shells," she said. As for the Larvets, "Those are not bad at all," she said. "They taste like flavored popcorn. . . . It's just getting past the first idea that it's a cooked worm."

Peterman said flavor can actually be introduced into the insect.

"We can change the flavor of some of the insects by what we call gut-loading," he said. If the insects are fed bananas or apples, they will take on a faint taste of bananas or apples. "If you gut-load them right before you process them, you get some of that."

Mitchell added: "In this country, we're so behind the times as far as insect eating is concerned. . . . There are a lot of different countries and cultures that have insects as part of their mainstay.

"There's a lot more protein per gram than there is in beef," she said, "and no fat."

Yesterday, Bob Banes, director of Howard County's food protection program, confirmed that the Cricket Lick-It turned in by the concerned Columbia parent had been ruled a safe and legitimate candy. He had a sample in his desk, he said.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with it--gross somebody out somewhere."