SHAFTER – This one goes out to the little ones, the ones strapped into the back seats, the ones getting all fidgety and smacking their siblings, the ones who really need to stop for a diversion on a long, long road trip.
Yeah, OK, so this one is for their parents, too, looking for something, anything, to stop that infernal whining and bickering coming from the back seat along a rather lonesome stretch of the Highway 99 north of Bakersfield.
May I present the Bugseum, a relatively new, hands-on insect display fronting Insect Lore, a retail and online business that sells nature kits featuring live critters (butterflies, ladybugs, anthills and the like)?
You really have to plan to see the Bugseum, because this is one budding roadside attraction that isn't exactly roadside-close. Visitors must drive about six miles west through ag fields and light industrial areas after exiting Highway 99. That's anathema to those clock-watching travelers hoping to make good time.
But I humbly submit that it is worth the trip, guaranteed to becalm and amaze the pre- and elementary-school set. Heck, even fully grown-up kids (a.k.a. parents) will get a kick out of displays of all types of bugs, from the Arizona blond tarantula to the African dwarf water frog to fuzzy velvet ants.
What really attracts or repels (or a little of both) the little ones is the hands-on aspect.
Yes, some of the critters can be handled, gently and safely, under the watchful eye of a tour guide.
One recent morning, a preschool class gathered around a bilingual guide named Ralphie, who reached in a glass box and pulled out a desert millipede, a resplendent, if slimy-looking, 5-inch brown, many-legged cylindrical critter.
Ralphie extended his open palm to show off the specimen, which is found in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. He explained that this type of millipede is "nature's recycler" because it'll eat most any decaying desert plant or animal.
Then, he cautioned the kiddies.
"You can eat a Madagascar hissing cockroach, you can take a cricket or a grasshopper and eat it, too, if you're out in the woods and really need to eat something," Ralphie told the group. "But don't put this in your mouth. If you put this in your mouth, it's poison. They are toxic. So a lot of times when you see a bird, and it's dead, but it looks healthy otherwise? It may have eaten one of these guys."
Nervous giggles all around. Only a few brave souls reached out to touch the millipede. But Ralphie wasn't done with his cautionary tale.
"Without thinking, the birds put it in their mouth while it's flying and it bites into it, and they go, 'Uh, tastes awful.' And it spits it out, but by that time it's too late. Within two hours, the bird gets dizzy and sleepy. Before you know it, woo, splat. What happened?"
"Dead," the preschoolers shouted in unison.
The kids and parents gave the millipede a wide berth as they continued over to the varieties of scorpions on display. They seemed enthralled by the cool bugs, the kids' orderly, quiet procession a testament to their attention.
Such insect appreciation is just what John White, president of Insect Lore, set out to achieve in late 2009, when he remodeled the building to add a museum and visitor center.
What had been merely a brown-stucco warehouse was transformed into a light, airy front room to show off the insects, the butterfly-growing lab. The business itself, its manufacturing and shipping, was moved to the back.
"We've been doing this for so many years and, it used to be, before we got crazy and did all this painting and remodeling, we'd have people walk in and the first thing they'd see is a conveyor belt and a bunch of boxes and people working feverishly to ship things out," he said. "It wasn't welcoming to Scout troops or preschool classrooms.
"So, approaching our 40th anniversary, I thought it'd be fun to put together a visitor center so people can learn about what we do. Not too serious. We weren't going to charge money or anything, more a way to be proud of what we're doing out here in the middle of nowhere."
Was White confident people would come?
"Absolutely," he said. "The Internet is an amazing thing to find quirky places like this. We do only a little bit of local TV (Bakersfield) advertising and some billboards on 99. But there's a fair amount of people who just find us.
"It's fun to open it up and have kids see and handle hissing cockroaches and tarantulas."
Back on the tour, Ralphie led the kids to the baldfaced hornet's nest. It was bulbous and gray, like an overinflated, overused football. It's usually found in hollows of trees in the southeastern the United States and in Canada.
"This is so cool, guys," Ralphie said. "These guys (hornets) go to the ground, get dry leaves, put them in their mouth and chew it up and go back to the branch and spit it out. It like a piñata. It takes six to eight weeks to make that.
"Come this way, guys; let's go look at the ants."
The kids dutifully followed.
That's the only downside to a stop at the Bugseum. You may wind up spending way too much time there and blow your well-planned travel schedule.
But having happy, content kids in the back seat seems a worthwhile trade-off.
The Bugseum at Insect Lore is open for tours that include some hands-on experience with bugs.
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays
Where: 132 S. Beech Ave., Shafter, north of Bakersfield