Viewing the World in an Insect-Centric Way
By Andrea Bixby-Brosi
I recently introduced my 7-yr-old to the sport of mountain biking, and I am so happy that he enjoys it as much as I do. As we zip through the woods past trees and grassy fields, I can’t help but worry that our slower-paced hikes won’t interest him anymore. Will our outdoor excursions just be about making it to the top, the thrill of the descent and shredding the turns?
When we finish our ride, my son drops his bike, grabs a granola bar, and walks over to some tall grass in a field bordering the parking lot. My worries melt away when I realize what he’s doing…He’s catching grasshoppers.
I’m a trained entomologist, so I view the world in an “insect-centric” way. I am disappointed when the first response for both adults and kids to seeing an insect is to smash it or run away. Observing insects, as they interact with their ecosystem, provides an amazing opportunity to connect with this world.
Since before my kids could walk, I’ve pointed out animals, plants and, yes, insects while we hike, walkaround town or through parks and spend time in gardens. As a trained entomologist, I’m drawn to finding and talking about insects, but you don’t have to be a trained entomologist to point out insects and talk about them with your kids. You might not be able to answer all of their questions, but you can teach them to look at the world a little differently, recognize that everything is connected, and respect even the smallest of creatures.
Below are some ways you and your kids can engage with insects on your next outdoor outing. It does work: As my kids get older, they now point out plants and critters to me.
Slow down your pace
Hiking with younger kids is rarely about bagging peaks, so slow down you pace and literally smell the roses (even if they are actually wildflowers). Investigate flowers, leaves, grasses, and other vegetation. Keep your eye on the same flower for several minutes and count how many different insects land and collect pollen or feed on nectar, as flowering plants will be visited by pollinators such as bees, flies and butterflies.Turn leaves over and look at the undersides to discover an aphid colony or a munching caterpillar…Some leaves and stems contain galls, small growths caused by an insect growing inside. I like to carry a small pocket knife so I can slice into these and find the wriggling larvae inside. Keep your eyes on the ground,and you might see a ground beetle scurry by. If you stumble into a spider’s web, take a minute to locate the spider and talk about what it might catch.
Pretend to be a bear
Hungry bears tear up rotten logs searching for a dinner of insects and mice. Whenever we come across obvious bear markings and one of these logs, my kids (especially my 5-yr-old) love to pretend to be a bear. This is really fun!! They dig into the log with their hands to find grubs, ants, centipedes, earwigs and slugs. The tunnels you see in the wood just under the loose bark, are evidence of wood boring larvae. You might also find fungi and mushrooms growing in or around these logs. Look under rocks as well!
Turn over rocks in the river
In fact, there is so much life hiding under the river rocks, not just on land. Choose a safe part of the river where kids can stand in ankle-deep water without much (or any) current and start turning over rocks and looking at the underside. If you look closely, you’ll quickly find some fast-moving insects trying to crawl to safety. These are typically the larvae of dragonflies, damselflies and stoneflies. If you’re lucky, you’ll also find caddisfly larvae, which can be identified by their protective casings made from tiny rocks or small pieces of bark. These casings can sometimes be attached to the rock or free floating. Search the surface of the water in a stagnant or slow-moving part of the river, to find water striders. Water striders literally walk on water by using surface tension to stay above the water.
Don’t be afraid
Typically, insects and spiders are not interested in biting, stinging or attacking humans. However, when an insect feels threatened, they may respond with a sting or bite. Swatting is one way to induce an aggressive reaction from a stinging insect. It’s recommended to relax (DON’T FREAK OUT) and allow the bee or wasp to carry on with its activities. I only have a few rules when it comes to insects. The first? Don’t handle spiders. Most spiders are harmless, but a few are venomous so rather not take chances at getting a spider bite. The second rule: You can look at the bees and wasps, but don’t bother them. Unless it’s a bald-faced hornet or an aggressive stinging wasp, close-ish observation of stinging insects is ok, but be safe and use your own judgement.
Be safe and respectful
When searching for insects on public land, please be considerate of native vegetation and other fragile areas along the sides of trails. Don’t pick wildflowers, pull up plants, dig holes, or create any noticeable disturbances. Remember the principles of “leave-no-trace” as they apply.