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Last week, Chris Buddle and Paul Manning posted the first of a two-part series on outreach activities in elementary schools. That post focused on the ‘why’ – this one (also written by Chris and Paul) is about the ‘how’.

How to talk to kids about bugs:

First thing about talking to elementary school kids is stay calm and don’t worry!  If you have any University-level training in Entomology, you are qualified – Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be able to speak about all aspects of entomology: play to your strengths! If you are a taxonomists working on Syrphidae flies, bring in your flies and talk about them these magnificent animals.  If your experience is broader and less specialized, browse some notes, look on-line, or peek at a textbook: do a short overview of the main Orders of insects and their characteristics. Although most kids get some entomology in elementary schools, it’s not usually very much (although ALL kids do seem to learn about monarch butterflies!).

One great way to speak to kids about bugs is to make the session thematic.  In addition to bringing in a drawer or two of insects, link the specimens to biology. For example, one of us (Paul) has recently used ‘metamorphosis’ as a focal point for discussion. The transition from larvae to adult is a biological wonder, and acts as an excellent focal point for discussion. It brings together different facets of biology, from hormones, to physiological development, behavioural adaptations, through to discussion about life history strategies.  Paul brought galls into the classroom, and demonstrated that there were larvae living inside. The students screamed with excitement when they saw the larvae living within the gall. One student described it as a ‘cute white blob‘. Several students asked if they could bring the larvae home (wouldn’t Mom and Dad just LOVE that!).

Kids like bugs. And they like to draw them.

Kids like bugs. And they like to draw them.

Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”.  In fact, kids find it refreshing to hear that an ‘expert’ doesn’t know all the answers.  Turn it around to illustrate that the world of entomology is so vast that there are a lot of unknowns out there, and many questions still to be answered.

Have patience. With younger grades, asking kids questions, or having them answer questions, can quickly turn into ‘stories’ from young, enthusiastic students. For example:

Q: Does anyone know what kind of insect a ladybug is?

        [Hand shoots into the air…]

 A (from a 6 year old): Um, yes, I know a lot about those things.  Once, when I was 4, I remember that I saw a beautiful bug flying by my garden – it was really big and black and I think it was a ladybug and my granddad told me about how ones like that eat trees and kill the trees and that makes me sad because we have a big tree in our front yard that I really like but sometimes my little bratty brother hides behind it and scares me when I am walking by. But I really like all bugs especially ladybug ones that are red but they smell funny sometimes and my mom said they can bite – will they bite me if I play with them? why do they smell funny? why are there so many spots on them? do their spots get bigger when they grow….

Give kids a chance to tell you these stories, but know that it will take patience…. but heck, if bugs get them talking and excited, that can’t be a bad thing!

(as an aside, most elementary school teachers will typically coach students so that they will ask/answer question instead of tell stories)

Bring a few props: If you can do an event outdoors, try to bring a few sweep nets and vials.  We will often bring extra vials from the lab and give students the vials to keep (heck, plastic vials cost very little!). For MONTHS afterwards, parents will often tell us about how their child packed that vial full of insects and carried it around obsessively for weeks. That’s a great way to inspire entomology.

Beetle galleries are easily found in wood, and can be a great prop to bring to an entomology session with school kids.

If you are doing an indoor talk, make sure to have a lot of photographs of interesting insects, and whenever possible, discuss/show or use examples from your local fauna – this will allow kids to connect to things they have seen on the playground or in their own yards – this connection between the content you are discussing and the insects they are seeing on their own, is very powerful.  With a smaller group, you can certainly bring in a few drawers of insects – if you don’t have any, this becomes a great excuse to make a little synoptic collection of your own to use for educational purposes. Or, ask your local entomology museum, or local naturalist club, about borrowing some specimens.

Whenever possible, bring a few ‘real’ field guides. One of us (CB) ran a biodiversity challenge at an elementary school and managed to convince the school to buy a couple of sets of field guides. The kids LOVE the look and feel of real field guides and will thumb through them with delight. Part of our own passion about natural history can be traced back to field guides in our houses when we were young.

A field guide to insects - suitable for all ages!

field guide to insects – suitable for all ages!

Don’t dumb down the material: Too often we think kids need to be talked down to, but nothing is further from the truth. As mentioned above, kids are sponges for information and in our experience they want to hear the details. You will want to avoid jargon, but other than that, provide the details whenever you can. Again, doing a ‘thematic’ talk with school kids becomes quite important because you just won’t have time to cover anything in-depth if you try to cover too much.

Finally, and most importantly, be passionate and enthusiastic. Kids will feel your positive energy and love of entomology; they will feed off of this, take it home with them; they will start asking more questions, start to dream, and fall further in love with the world around them. Spending a bit of time in a classroom is perhaps one of the most important kinds of outreach activities to do.

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Cross-posted from: http://arthropodecology.com/2013/04/26/kids-like-bugs-entomology-outreach-in-elementary-schools-part-2/

By Paul Manning, B.Sc. student at Nova Scotia Agricultural College
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As an undergraduate student, I’ve been working diligently on the final hurrah of my four year career; the undergraduate thesis. I’ve been fortunate to work under the supervision of Dr. Chris Cutler for the past two summers, learning about the ecology and roles of insects within wild blueberry production. Though I’ve worked on a wide variety of projects within the lab, I’ve realized quickly that pollination was the aspect of entomology that I found to be particularly intriguing.

Blossoms of wild blueberry May, 23rd, 2012 (Photo by P. Manning)

One of the projects that caught my eye was as a continuation of a trial that our lab did in the summer of 2011. By sanctioning off areas of wild blueberries with cages that prevented pollinators from accessing the flowers, the team discovered that approximately a third of pollination events may be attributed to nocturnal insect activity, as well as weight of ripe berries being insignificant between nocturnal, and diurnal pollinated treatments.  Though a number of insects were collected using Malaise traps in this study, it was not possible to conclude captured insects were responsible for vectoring the pollen.

Lo and behold, there was a great opportunity for my thesis; to discover the identities of nocturnal pollinators within wild blueberry production. Armed with a sweep net, kill jars, a mercury-vapour lamp, tissue and enough ethyl-acetate to open my own nail salon we began to hit the field. Our sampling periods happened at two different times during the night; an early shift that started as soon as the sun went down, and a shift that started at 12:00 AM. Each sampling session lasted for two hours in length.

We implemented an interesting capture method, which worked extremely effectively. Under the glow of the mercury-vapor lamp, we placed a large 8×4 plywood board against the fence, making an 80° angle with the ground. When the insect landed upon the board, a quick capture could be made by placing the kill-jar against the board, and giving the board a small tap. This caused the insect to fly up into the kill-jar.

Screen illuminated by the mercury-vapour lamp (Photo by P. Manning)

June beetle captured with light trapping (Photo by P. Manning)

As the mercury vapor lamp began to buzz, insects began to make their way out of the dark and against our screen. The diversity was stunningly interesting, quite surprising. Tiny midges, large scarab beetles, hawk moths, and nocturnal icheumonids were included amongst our varied group of visitors.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJNKIzoC-yE]

Sweep samples were also taken in an area of darkness within the field. We used ethyl-acetate fumigated from a ventilated jar, within a larger Tupperware container to effectively kill the insects without struggle. The diversity from these samples was very different; being attributed mostly to beetles and small flies.

Insects were analyzed to find whether or not they carried pollen using methods. By swabbing the eyes, head, and mouthparts with a small cube of fuchsin gel.  By sealing these slides with the aid of a Bunsen burner, blueberry pollen was easily detected through its distinctive tetrad shape using a light microscope.

As the samples have been analyzed, the diversity of insects that may represent the nocturnal pollinators of wild blueberry is staggering. Though the work has been challenging and sometimes very tedious (have you ever attempted removing pollen off the head of a thrips?). I’ve learned a great diversity of things, including: an incredibly simple way to differentiate between icheumonids and brachonids; that there are an incredible number of fly families that vaguely-resemble a typical housefly; and that iced-cappuccinos do contain caffeine (after finally drifting off to sleep at 4:30 AM on a Sunday morning).

A small moth visits the light screen after sampling finishes (Photo by P. Manning)

This project has been a great way to open my eyes to the diversity of insects responsible for ecological functions. When prompted with the cue ‘pollination’ – my mind has been switched over from the typical image of a honey-bee – to a myriad of insect visitors among flowers. This is a vision of pollination which to me is something more; diverse, representative, and inclusive of this invaluable ecological service.

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References:

Beattie, A. J. 1971. A technique for the study of insect-borne pollen. Pan-Pacific Entomologist 47:82.
Cutler, C. G., Reeh, K. W., Sproule, J. M., & Ramanaidu, K. (July 01, 2012). Berry unexpected: Nocturnal pollination of lowbush blueberry. Canadian Journal of Plant Science, 92, 4, 707-711.