As species go, insects are generally not the most beloved. In fact, “bug“ is a word that has become synonymous with “bad.“ Whether it‘s a stomach “bug,“ a computer “bug,“ an annoying schoolmate on the playground (“stop bugging me“), our vocabulary is full of references that define bugs as things to be avoided, even eradicated.
To be sure, some bugs do some great damage – the emerald ash borer is killing off forests in North America, and infected mosquitoes transmit deadly diseases such as malaria and yellow fever throughout the tropics. But with our convenient short-hand, that paints all bugs in the same undesirable light, we dismiss the critical roles that these little creatures play in our ecosystems – and unwittingly send the wrong message to our kids.
Encounters with insects can provide fun, memorable and teachable moments for our children, as I was recently reminded in a strawberry patch.
As I’ve posted before, seasonal fruit picking (strawberries in spring, peaches in summer, and apples in fall) is a tradition in our family. A few weeks ago, we visited our favorite local farm to harvest strawberries at their peak – berries so sweet, juicy and ruby-red throughout that they (thankfully) bear almost no resemblance to the varieties lining supermarket shelves throughout the year.
It was a glorious sunny day, and since our excessively cold winter and spring had delayed the berry season by a few weeks, we were anxious to get picking. As we headed into the fields, we saw a swarm of bees. Everyone’s first instinct: yuck, run.
But then my husband (who participates in these farm outings somewhat begrudgingly) surprised me by saying to our daughters: “without them, there would be no berries.” How true! Nearly 30% of the world’s crops rely on pollination from bees and their brethren! And bees are dying off at an alarming rate. Without them, not only would we be without berries, but also melons, squashes, cocoa, and many nuts.
Ah-ha, I thought: another great educational opportunity at a local farm – the importance of insects, even those (like bees) we might want to avoid!
While panda bears and dolphins may be cuter, more popular objects of children’s desire to protect animals, Earth’s littlest creatures can be equally essential – and they are often more accessible. With summertime upon us, there are lots of fun and easy ways to engage children in learning about and appreciating insects. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Dig for earthworms. These amazing subterranean dwellers are work-horses that help produce great soil by breaking down organic matter and aerating the earth. When our girls dig them up, we discuss the important food source they are for birds, then toss them into the compost pile or vegetable garden, where they can do more good.
- Catch fireflies / lightning bugs. No matter your age or what you call them, these summer evening visitors provide classic entertainment, and a non-messy, safe bug interaction for the squeamish. Use the experience to discuss animal adaptations and communication (don’t their blinks seem like Morse code?).
- Observe spiders. With very few exceptions, spiders are non-threatening. Examining their intricate webs and – if you are lucky – the prey they catch, reinforces understanding of their beneficial role in controlling other insects, including pesky mosquitoes. If outdoor observation isn’t possible, you could always begin your appreciation of arachnids by reading or watching the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web.
- Raise butterflies. My daughters received a book and butterfly house as a gift and quickly started identifying caterpillars in the backyard (“look, mom – an “Eastern Black Swallowtail”) and building them safe harbors where they could morph into butterflies before being set free. Even city dwellers can partake in this activity, as chrysalises can be ordered online. Ladybug houses and ant farms are space-saving alternatives.
But don’t stop there – your nearby park or library offer a host of other opportunities to experience and learn about insects, and thank the many beneficial ones for the important roles they play.
PS. This week is National Pollinator Week. You can learn more about pollinators with The Nature Conservancy’s Nature Works Everywhere program, which has a lesson plan on declining bee populations called “Bee Detective – Discover the Culprit Behind Declining Bee Populations” and a gardens activity guide on creating habitat for pollinators.
Image credit: Royan Lee via Flickr Creative Commons