Playing  with bugs

Just unpacking his cardboard box full of bugs in jars, the crowd of kids in front of David Fluker began making faces.

“Eeeewww!” they shouted.

Simultaneously grossed out and interested, the elementary school-age children began rushing to the front of the room to get a better look at Fluker’s mealworms, Madagascar hissing cockroaches and crickets.

Their parents had brought them to the Main branch of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library to learn about bugs from a man who raises them for a living. And to get a treat they can brag about.

“When I was your age, I was playing with bugs, lots of bugs,” said Fluker, president of Port Allen-based Fluker Farms, which raises insects, mainly as pet food, and ships them around the world.

The Flukers began selling crickets for fish bait in the 1950s as a part-time business. Today they have a multi-million dollar business selling mealworms and superworms — both a type of beetle larvae — crickets and cockroaches to pet stores, universities and zoos, as well as directly to pet owners.

Occasionally they teach children about bugs.

United by a love of creepy crawling things, the crowd of 50 children sat cross-legged on the carpet and stared at plastic jars of bugs passed among them. Some listened, others chatted.

With her 9-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, in her lap and her 3-year-old bug lover, Rachel, on the floor, Terri Carroll said they play with lots of insects at their home in Clinton. Rachel’s favorite is the beetle, because it is big but doesn’t bite.

“We do compost with maggots and have an organic garden and all that, so we really like bugs,” she said.

Teaching young children about insects keeps Fluker agile. Noticing they had gotten restless, he switched to taking questions from the tiny crowd.

“You’ve got to be prepared and see how it resonates,” he said later.

Question time began with the first thing on many children’s minds: Do people eat bugs?

“We are one of the few countries in the world where people don’t eat bugs,” said Fluker, who said he had tasted mealworm and cricket recipes that were good.

Other questions followed. Do people eat bees? Fluker wasn’t sure, but he said people eat a lot of their honey. Do roaches have diseases? Yes, Fluker said, and encouraged the crowd to wash their hands often.

“What other bugs do people eat?” one child asked.

“Maggots, grubs, termites,” Fluker answered, before warning the children. “Do not eat an insect if your parent does not know you will eat it.”

These types of library programs were perfect for stay-at-home mom Alisha Hudman and her 3-year-old son, Aedan.

“He likes bugs,” she said. “It’s a huge interest for him. And we like the socialization of it, seeing other kids.”

Fluker knew what to save until the end — the chocolate crickets. “Chaos” would occur after that, he said.

“It’s gonna be crunchy, so it’s gonna taste like that candy that has rice in it, but I’m not going to name any names,” he said while helpers passed out the packages, which came with one chocolate-covered cricket and a button that proclaims: “I ATE A BUG CLUB.”

Carroll unwrapped the little chocolate cube for little blonde Rachel, who watched with wide eyes, then bit half of it, looked inside and said, “Yummy.”