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Why Learn about Insects?

Originally appears in the Winter 2017 issue

NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES with insects so strongly shape our students’ perceptions that even the best efforts of environmental educators during class time sometimes fail. Insects are their own worst spokespersons. The only bugs that tend to hang around us are those that bite us, suck our blood, defensively sting, or infest our food. The media, in movies and pesticide commercials for instance, present insects in the worst possible light. For every one positive experience with insects, people have hundreds of negative ones with bothersome bugs.

When questioned, many adults cannot even generate the simple “six legs and three-part body” defnition of insects. They also tend to incorrectly include spiders and other small arthropods as examples of insects. To most people “bugs” seem to be any small dull-colored creature that crawls and a sizeable minority of people believe butterfies are not insects. Ticks, spiders, millipedes, and centipedes, are all
“bugs” to most people. Our seemingly unimportant relationship with insects dramatically influences our pesticide use, understanding of biodiversity, home landscaping preferences, and participation in outdoor recreation.

Did we mention that people hate bugs? In numerous small-scale studies of attitudes and knowledge about insects, both they and spiders are anything but popular in rankings of animal preferences, falling far below birds and mammals. Clearly, many people are not using the word “insect” in the scientific sense they were taught in school. In this article, we argue that a wide variety of personal, community, and societal benefits can emerge if we can find more ways to focus our students’ attention on the lowly, creepy critters that most people just call “bugs.”

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Nathan Shipley is a master’s student in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at Clemson University in South Carolina where he focuses on developing new methods in environmental interpretation and human-environment interactions. Rob Bixler is an associate professor in the same department. His teaching and research focus on how environmental education and outdoor recreation can be integrated to produce emotionally powerful learning experiences. (

Previous Articles & Webinars on Bugs

1. Baldwin, R., Koehler, P., Pereira, R., & Oi, F. (2008). Public perceptions of pest problems. American Entomologist, 54(2), 73 -79.
2. Outdoor Foundation (2016). Participation Report 2015. Washington DC: Out- door Foundation.
3. Marris, E. (2011). Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. NY: Bloomsbury.
4. South Carolina Junior Invasive Inspectors Program. exotic_ programs/junior_invasives/retrieved 12/3/2016
5. Acuff, D. & Reiher, R. H. (1999). What Kids Buy and Why: The Psychology of Marketing to Kids. NY Simon & Schuster.
6. See especially Falling Arthropods & Citizen Science”, by Daniel Shaw, Green Teacher #110, Summer 2016
7. Pyle, R. M. (2009). Beauty of butterfly nets Wings: Essays on Invertebrate Conservation, Spring, 15-18