Wild About Insects! The Care and Keeping of Junior Entomologists

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The following is a guest post by NJ Renie, originally published August 2010.  NJ is an entomologist, beekeeper, and writer. He is also my brother.  I’m happy to be sharing his wisdom on insects and young entomologists with all of you.  ~ Kara

One area of the natural world which attracts almost universal interest is that of bugs. Whether we are afraid or amazed we can’t stop wondering how our tiny neighbors work, why they do what they do, and where they go.

Bugs are literally everywhere we go and come in virtually endless varieties.

If your child is out exploring the natural world, they may find insects fascinating –really, really fascinating. You might be a little unsure how to proceed in nurturing this interest.

It’s okay, I was that kid and now I’m here to help you with the care and keeping of your junior entomologist.

The Bare Minimum

A Field Guide

The first thing that your child will probably want to know is “what is that?” For this purpose a field guide is essential. If you do nothing else, get a field guide for your household. Choose one with a lot of color plates or illustrations so that your child will be able to compare the guide with the genuine article.

A field guide will also provide interesting natural history information about the bug. I would suggest scrounging around a used bookstore or flea market (the nice thing about the natural world is that it doesn’t change that much so old stuff will do just fine).

Bonus: Create a Habitat

If you have the room, plant a nice flower bed in your garden or allow a patch of weeds to grow in your yard (although the later might invite scorn from your neighbors).

Flowers and weeds attract a wide variety of insects and often grow to eye level, making them an ideal place to observe bugs in action.

Collecting

If you have a Junior Entomologist on your hands, they will probably want to start a collection. While “catch and release” is certainly a fine way to go, some junior entomologists may wish to curate a lasting collection or even join a local entomology club or participate in insect collecting as part of 4-H.

Hobby insect collecting is a life-long endeavor, inexpensive, and can be done anywhere.

You will need a few things in order to get started, but less than you think.

A Net

It doesn’t have to be fancy at all. You can buy one cheap or make a decent one out of a coat hanger and some cheesecloth. Either way make sure it has a handle that is long (~100 cm for reach) and light (for speed). Bamboo makes an ideal handle material because it’s very strong and very light.

Pins

Insect collectors use special nylon-coated pins. Everyday straight pins will work for a school project, but will eventually rust and ruin specimens. Several online science supply catalogs carry these pins (sizes three and/or two will work best for general purposes).

Labels

Nothing fancy here, a small piece of paper and a pencil will do. Record where, when, how, and what was collected and pin it under your specimen. Your field guide (you did get your field guide, right?) will contain valuable information about mounting, labeling, and collecting.

Things Not to Worry About

Don’t Buy/Make a Killing Jar

One night in the freezer will kill just about anything. If you’re not too keen on bugs in the freezer I would suggest a small, wide-mouth bottle of rubbing alcohol for anything that isn’t a moth and butterfly (the scales will come off in the fluid).  Always try to use plastic containers.

Don’t Buy Boxes or Expensive Equipment

There is no shortage of cool stuff offered in the science supply catalog you’ll get with your pins. Skip it. For now, an old cigar box with styrofoam glued in the bottom will do just fine for a collecting box.

Ready, Set, Collect!

Now that you’ve outfitted your Junior Entomologist, get him outside to a variety of environments where he can find new things. Hiking trails and farms are great places. If he is going to collect in public lands, be sure to inquire with a game warden or ranger first.

Collect for her. Carrying an old prescription bottle in you pocket works great. Give her the opportunity to say “Oh, that’s a ____.” Your child will love it when she can show you what she’s learning.

Collect on warm nights. Have your child hang an old white sheet under a UV light and the bugs will come to him! A white garage door with a security light above it will work just as well. Nocturnal collecting will expose him to several new and exciting varieties.

Get her to 4-H. 4-H offers great programs for children interested in bugs. Unfortunately, they can’t start until they’re 9 years old, but contact your local clubs about programs for younger kids.

Above and Beyond

Take him to an expert. If your kid gets into middle or high school and is still spending their weekends looking under rocks, I would suggest introducing them to some real-life entomologists. Many universities have entomology open houses and public programs. Research collections at museums and universities will often take on interns and volunteers.

As always, giving your child tools with which to explore the world will be as rewarding for you as it is for them. The world of bugs is so vast that there is always something interesting to learn. Your child will be able to take that learning with them, wherever they go.

Are there any junior entomologists in your family? What are your child’s favorite bugs?

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Comments

  1. Great post and perfectly education for beginning bug collectors.
    I just have to ask- what is it about bugs that fascinates and holds the attention of million of children? Colors? Wings and flying?

    Love this! Makes me want to catch fireflies (with the kids of course).

  2. Love this post – thanks for all the great information! My 5-1/2-year old son loves bugs (so does the 2 y.o. for that matter). He’s getting more & more skilled at catching bugs, too, which requires a lot of patience. Our most exciting bug adventure was adopting a caterpillar, watching it grow & change, then releasing a butterfly.

    • Very cool, Debi! I bet your kids just loved that :-) That is the kind of experience that they will remember always, too.

      Of all the marvels of the insect world, butterflies and their amazing transformation are some of the most wondrous, aren’t they?
      Kara Fleck´s latest post: Sunday Showcase- Link Love

  3. My kids love watching and learning about bugs. They are, however, VERY opposed to killing them! So we take pictures that they collect instead. That way they still get to catch it and observe it, but they feel satisfied that it wasn’t harmed.

  4. My son loves to catch bugs. At the moment he doesn’t keep them, I make him let them go at the end of the day. He is keen lately to catch a caterpillar and wait for it to change into a butterfly though.
    Do you do anything special to the insects before you pin them? I have found in the past (when pinning with school age kids) that dead bugs attract ants.
    Catherine´s latest post: magnify it

  5. My kids loved bugs when they were little. In fact we have a picture of a little wooden grave marker they made for the jumping spider that lived in our bathroom for several months and had become a regular part of the household. One morning we found its legs curled up in death. The discovery was truly a sad moment for the kids.

    To collect bugs for closer observation without killing, bug boxes are great. You can also poke some holes in a jar top and hold onto a bug for a day or two while you watch and then release it.

  6. Rae: I think you’ve answered your own question! The variety of the insect world, along with their ubiquity, pretty much guarantees that you’ll run across something of interest sooner or later.

    Debi: It also takes lot of energy to chase things down! I started very young (my editor can confirm this) and spent countless hours stalking and observing bugs. family’s journey of discovery.

    Cami: Taking pictures is a great idea. With digital cameras, junior wildlife photography is a terrific low cost hobby.

    Catherine: Smaller, hard bodied insects will dry on the pin in a few days in most climates. I usually use alcohol, so that might expedite the drying process. I’ve never had ant problems, but I’d suggest a specimen box with a tight seal –your box in a ziploc should work.

    Sarah: Good suggestion, a jar/box will allow kids to get a closer look. Of course, nothing will ever beat observation in the field. One advantage that mounted specimens do have over the field or jar is that mounted specimens are easily manipulated and offer a good, long look. That being said, a bug collection (at any level) is ideally for reference. I have killed a lot of bugs, but have undoubtedly learned more from those I’ve observed.

    • “I have killed a lot of bugs, but have undoubtedly learned more from those I’ve observed.” Yes!

      We are “catch and release” bug hunters at the moment, and we take a lot of photographs, too – but I can see us becoming collectors of a more permanent kind when the kids are a little older. When we have come across dead insects they have become prized parts of of Nature Table, so I can see that developing into the desire for a more permanent collection that can be examined in detail. It is nice to have these tips for future reference.

      I second the idea of having a good field guide! We have a few books, but the one the kids reach for most often is the one with the full color pictures. They like flipping through and trying to be the first to figure out what the name of the little creatures we have come across are :-)
      Kara Fleck´s latest post: Sunday Showcase- Link Love

  7. Thanks, NJ! I knew you were the “kid” to ask about kids and insects and further exploring this hobby :-)

    Another resource that my family of “bug hunters” has discovered recently that I thought I would share with SK readers:

    Purdue University Prof. Tom Turpin’s FREE Podcasts – “On Six Legs” (available through iTunes):
    http://www.ag.purdue.edu/agcomm/Pages/NewsPodcasts.aspx
    Kara Fleck´s latest post: Sunday Showcase- Link Love

  8. Great post! I have been wanting to start a bug collection with the girls.

  9. cecelia chamberlain says:

    hi ,
    my name is cecelia ever since i been little like a year old
    iv’e loved bugs and insects they are alot of fun to collect and
    look at and explore but when i go to college next year
    im studying entomolgy to become a entomogist

  10. This is great info, thanks! I have an 8 year old girl who is a budding entomologist! She is very into butterflies, but beetles and bees show up, too. We picked up a net at the dollar store that works great. I wish we were doing catch and release more, but she really likes to keep them. In fact, I have one sitting next to me right now and another one in the freezer! I think I do need to put a limit on it, though, or we will end up with butterfly clutter.

    I need to pick up a field guide. So far we have just used an online database for identification.
    Elizabeth@ReadySetSimplify´s latest post: Our Summer Bucket List

  11. Allison says:

    I have earned myself the reputation of being a bug lady and have passed it on to my kids. Our best adventure yet was catching a luna moth that happened to lay eggs in the container we put her in. We ended up raising the caterpillars and hatching the cocoons. We even tried our hand at over wintering them! I had more fun than the kids! My kids insist on growing dill every year. We always find caterpillars and raise black-swallowtail butterflies off of dill. Just the other day my youngest daughter found a giant leopard moth that was just emerging from it’s overwinter cocoon. Incredibly beautiful. It’s now sleeping in the freezer.

  12. This is AWESOME!! Thank you so, so much for reposting this! My son is a total bug fanatic, and these are wonderful recommendations for encouraging his interests. In fact, he loves bugs so much that I am having a Bug Book Month on my blog as part of my Summer Read-Aloud Book club. I’ll be linking my readers to this post for sure. :) If anyone is interested in joining the summer book club, you can visit this link: http://www.the-homestyle.com/category/parenting/summer-book-club/
    Liz @ The HomeStyle´s latest post: Weekend Links

  13. nope, so far my son is scared of bugs :(

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