Connecting With Bugs
Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar. – Bradley Miller
Children are naturally curious about and interested in insects. Parents and teachers often err on the side of caution, discouraging this curiosity by suggesting that insects are dangerous and will bite or sting. This is unfortunate because children grow up without essential knowledge, experience, or understanding of the animals they will have the greatest contact with throughout life. A better practice is to channel this curiosity into academic studies. You can start by helping them learn the differences between harmful and non-harmful insects and by helping them find the answers to their basic questions.
Entomology may be the easiest field in which amateurs can make significant contributions to science. As the most numerous and diverse organisms on the planet, insects abound. All it takes is an insect or two, introduced with questions from teachers, environmental educators, or parents, to ignite a passion for scientific discovery.
By the fourth grade children have a basic understanding of the essential tools of science and their curiosity about the world is growing exponentially. There is no better time to give them a jumpstart in science. With the emerging realization of the devastating consequences of our disconnection from nature, allowing youth to chase butterflies may be the perfect solution. Each time young scientists catch an insect they get a small intrinsic reward. Catching insects is like juggling—everyone would enjoy having the skill to catch an insect, but few develop the techniques.
Live collecting is useful with young children, and they should release the insects they collect within a few hours after they have made observations or sketches. Providing the opportunity and a few rudimentary tools for young investigators will help them along in their bug investigations. A net, beginner insect field guides, and time outdoors are the essential ingredients. Older students who develop an interest in entomology can learn to collect and preserve specimens for more detailed study. Some traditional insect collection requirements can be met with insect photographs or the construction of dichotomous keys.
Children are quick to discern patterns and easily learn the orders of insects that share characteristics and the insects’ names. The four largest orders of insects include beetles (Coleoptera), making up 40% of all insects and 20% of all the animals in the world; moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera); bees, ants, and wasps (Hymenoptera); and flies (Diptera). As they become adept at identifying common insects for their friends, families, teachers, or curious onlookers, the size of their intrinsic reward doubles, and double dipping in the intrinsic reward jar will sustain their interest.
In our Extension Service positions we are entrusted with entomology outreach, working with youth and adults through classroom presentations, 4-H programming, the department’s arthropod zoo, and “bug fests” at nature centers. Our premier events are 5-day bug and plant camps that offer a deeper experience to groups of about 30 campers. The following sections highlight teaching techniques and activities that have proved useful in our outreach programs.
To turn childhood curiosity into powerful motivation for young scientists to delve deeper into science than textbooks go, educators and parents do not need to know much about the subject of interest. In fact, educators are more effective before they have much knowledge because they have the opportunity to demonstrate the process and excitement of discovery. When educators and parents are genuinely interested in things they learn with or from their young entomologists, they will have mastered the very powerful teaching technique of modeling the process and enjoyment of learning! After all, learning really is fun and its own reward.
Teachable, or Entomological, Moments
A lot of instruction can be packaged in blocks of 5-minute teachable moments. Teachable moments can be unanticipated or spontaneous opportunities to teach important concepts, or preplanned and packaged mini lessons, such as the following examples. These moments connect knowledge with direct observation of insects. When spontaneous observations occur, pause to describe what you have just seen or help your students think through it. We use preplanned teachable moments to fill gaps in our schedule, thus maintaining instructional momentum. Here are a few examples:
- Two wasps, the cicada killer and the mud dauber, both provision their nests with live but paralyzed food for their young. The female cicada killer is a large wasp that stings and paralyzes a cicada and carries it to her underground burrow, where she lays an egg on it. When the egg hatches, the wasp larva has fresh food to eat. The mud dauber provisions her nest with spiders that are also paralyzed and ready to be eaten when the mud dauber’s eggs hatch. We have a cicada killer and a cicada in a Riker mount (a 3-dimensional, glass-topped display frame filled with cotton batting) to show while we tell about their story. We often scrape a mud dauber nest off the side of a building to show children the spiders packed inside, but you could preserve one of these by freezing it, then storing it in a pill bottle with some cotton for protection.
- A beekeeper can give you a queen bee when he is re-queening his hives, a worker bee, and a drone (male). These can be frozen and then placed in a Riker mount or pinned and kept in a teaching insect collection. Early in the history of beekeeping, the queen was thought to be a king. We now know that is not the case—all of the worker bees are sisters. Males, or drones, are produced only when needed!
- Wasps have four wings and flies only have two, so pinned specimens with their wings spread make a good entomological moment. Some flies, such as hover flies, are mimics that resemble bees and wasps and therefore are also a good choice for use in this teachable moment.
Hopping, Crawling, and Flying through the Curriculum
Insects are abundant, available, and appropriate for every subject. They can be used in stand-alone themes in each subject, as interdisciplinary links between two or three subjects, or as cross-curricular, yearlong themes.
Insects are useful in all science disciplines. Almost everything taught in science about wildlife can be taught with insects. A beetle’s strength and the aerodynamics of insect wings could be used in teaching physics. A comparison of different insecticides’ effects on roaches would be an insightful biology lab exercise, and the chemistry of insecticides and insect-produced chemicals would be an exciting yearlong theme for high school chemistry.
As youth begin investigating bugs, they will uncover a wonderful slice of life on the planet. Insects have elaborate rituals and engage in behavior reminiscent of that of humans, including everything from courting to dancing, farming, and fighting. Parasitism is common in insects, as can often be observed in vegetable gardens. The ecological role of insects intertwines into every part of the environment, and soon youth will observe what John Muir described: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Human history is full of references to insect-vectored diseases, competition for food and fiber, and the use of honey as our primary sweetener before sugarcane. Silk was responsible for the establishment of trade between Europe and China, the construction of larger seagoing ships, and development of navigational tools. Worldwide travel and commerce is responsible for the accidental introduction of insect pests from other countries that are currently having a devastating effect on agriculture and forestry.
Art and History
Insects are woven into the very fabric of our existence. A Cro-Magnon artist recorded an ancient interest in insects by inscribing a cricket on a bison bone around 20,000 years ago. In Spain, a chalk drawing in the Cave of the Spider depicted a woman gathering honey. Insects are featured in most countries’ postal stamps, and in the graphic art of M.C. Escher. History is replete with references to insects, from hieroglyphs illustrating the Egyptians’ understanding of insects’ vital roles to the popular Victorian hobby of collecting insects.
Insects permeate all spoken and written languages and are used in innumerable idioms such as “mad as a hornet,” “busy as a bee,” or “I would like to be a fly on the wall.” Observations such as which side of a tree or hill ants prefer to build nests on is not common knowledge and would make interesting newspaper articles written by children. Insect stories, poetry, and songs are plentiful enough to include in most aspects of literature, or better yet, have children write their own.
The late afternoon insect chorus is the music of spring and summer. The locusts perform first, followed by the cicadas during the late afternoon with the crickets and katydids finishing up during the evening. Students can download audio files of insects’ songs and amaze their friends with their ability to recognize several insects by their songs! To get you started, locusts make a clicking or rattling sound by popping their wings taut as they fly. The clicks of cicadas may be the loudest insect song, and the katydids seem to be calling “katy-did.”
Music is often a manifestation of artists’ science literacy. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” musical score, in the “Tsar Saltan” opera, was likely influenced by his hobby of collecting insects. The Chinese enjoyed keeping crickets as pets in bamboo cages in order to enjoy a chirping male’s love songs.
Mathematics is useful in describing the benefits and limitations size imposes on insects, in analyzing entomological experiments, and in population distribution. For example, yellow sulfur butterflies are migratory, moving to the southeast during the fall and returning to the northwest in the spring. A “transect survey” establishing their migration pattern can be made by counting the number that approach a site from different directions.
Male crickets sing to attract a mate. The frequency of their chirps is a function of the temperature. In 1897, physicist Amos Dolbear discovered the higher the temperature, the faster a cricket chirps. If you are keeping a cricket indoors for its music, try this entomological moment. Note the temperature when it begins to chirp and count the number of chirps in 15 seconds. Many crickets chirp too fast to count the chirps, but the snowy tree cricket has distinct enough chirps to count. Raise the temperature in the room about 10 degrees and wait until it has stabilized and the cricket begins chirping again. Using Dolbear’s formula (below) to determine the temperature from the cricket chirps represents an exciting blend of music, science, and mathematics.
50 + (number of chirps in a minute – 40) / 4 = approximate temperature in degrees Fahrenheit
An interest in insects contributes to a healthy lifestyle. Youth are more prone to spend time outdoors after school collecting. Pinning insects is great for developing younger children’s motor skills.
Bug and Plant Camp
In addition to our other outreach programs, the Entomology Department at Mississippi State University1 has run 5-day, intergenerational bug and plant summer camps for 20 years. Our camps have attracted participants from across the U.S. as well as from other countries, bringing together youth and adults who are eager to learn about insects and their interactions with plants, humans, and the world around us.
As part of the camp experience, we have experimented with all of the techniques above and come to understand a lot about how children learn, how they are motivated, and how to sustain their interest. We have a long tradition of repeat campers assisting new campers, including adults, in learning the basics of where to collect various insects, how to spread moth and butterfly wings and pin insects, and how to identify insects. It is common to see 12- and 13-year-old campers teaching parents, teachers, and other educators the fundamentals. We do not water the programs down for the 10 year olds, and we are patient with everyone. Ten year olds and adults often have the same questions.
When we partnered with the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, the returning campers immediately realized the refuge provided much better habitat for insects than where we had been collecting (primarily state parks), and by extension, they recognized the incredible diversity on the refuge and the importance of protecting it. Collecting on a refuge requires a special-use permit. Other camp partners include the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the Mississippi State Department of Health, and the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
During the year we conduct buggy nights out (opportunities to collect at night using light traps) and bug fests around the state where former campers join us, giving talks, leading hikes, cooking insects to feed to our more adventurous guests, conducting demonstrations with live insects and spiders, and helping visitors pin the insects they have collected. These events give us the opportunity to learn what campers have been doing since summer, and we can track the activities and skills from camp they have been using.
Campers have also found insects that are new to science and/or state records, as well as insects that may pose a threat to agriculture. They have been invited to give presentations at professional conferences, written articles for entomological journals, and even been recognized nationally as outstanding young entomologists. A number of our campers have pursued careers in entomology and related fields, and many others have credited camp as being influential on their decision to attend college and their selection of a degree program (undergraduate and graduate). Teachers and naturalists who have participated in camp and begun using insects in their classrooms or nature centers as programmatic themes report enthusiastic results.
Whether you are a classroom teacher or nature center naturalist; if using insects in your curriculum sounds interesting, dive right in! Remember, learning really is fun and you will be most effective when you learn with your students. Meet with your staff—teachers or naturalists— and make a plan. See if there is an entomologist in your community who can assist. Your county or state extension office is a good place to look. When you and your students or visitors start prowling the neighborhoods with insect nets, entomologists will often stop to meet you. They are usually interested in sharing their knowledge and most will enjoy visiting your school or be willing to assist as a volunteer.
Start a bug club, or host a bug fest where children and families can enjoy walks, lectures, and demonstrations about insects, Madagascar hissing cockroach races, and other insect Olympic events. Children and adults can learn to use a dip net to collect aquatic insects, or experience night collecting by setting up black lights on white sheets to attract nocturnal insects. After collecting, set up a pinning station or cages where live insects can be observed. In addition to hosting bug fests, nature centers can provide other opportunities to enrich learning, such as camps, insect photo contests, or insect trapping workshops.
Once children’s natural curiosity about insects emerges, it is amazing how easy it is to find connections to almost everything you need to teach them. At that point, teachers, naturalists, environmental educators, and youth can relax and enjoy the ride!
Dr. John Guyton is an Extension Entomologist and director of Bug and Plant Camp at Mississippi State University. Formerly he was the State Environmental Educator for Mississippi, and the Science Educator at Murray State University in Kentucky. Lois Connington is an Extension Associate in Entomology and assistant director of Bug and Plant Camp at Mississippi State University.
Borror, D.J., and White, R.E., Insects (Peterson Field Guide Series), Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
Eiseman, C., and Charney, N., Tracks & Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates: A Guide to North American Species, Stackpole Books, 2010.
Evans, A.V., Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America, Sterling, 2007.
Guyton, J., Entomological Extensions & Activities for Use with Youth Aligned with the Project Learning Tree Activity Guide, 2013. Available online at <http://www.plt.org/stuff/contentmgr/files/1/3820646635e731d560dd9b8406bb549a/files/entomological_activities_for_plt.pdf>
Guyton, J.W., and Connington, L. (eds.), The Gloworm. Available online at <http://msucares.com/newsletters/pests/gloworm/> (An electronic newsletter that may assist you in using insects in your classroom or at your nature center. Contact Dr. Guyton at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the mailing list.)
Eaton, E.R., and Kaufman, K., Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
MacGowan, J., Insect Collecting Methods. Available online at <http://mississippientomologicalmuseum.org.msstate.edu/collecting.preparation.methods/Collecting.methods.htm>
Mitchell, R.T., and Zim, H.S., Butterflies and Moths (Golden Guide), St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Mitchell, R.T., and Zim, H.S., Insects (Golden Guide), St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Opler, P., Eastern Butterflies, (Peterson Field Guide Series), Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
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1TheEntomology Department is now Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology, and Plant Pathology, and the Bug and Plant Department. Camp activities and teaching opportunities have greatly expanded with the department’s growth.
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