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Kids like bugs: entomology outreach in elementary schools (Part 2)

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/

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Insect Monitoring and Twitter

By Scott Meers, Insect Management Specialist, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

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My role as an entomologist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development consists largely of counting insects. We monitor the populations of seven different species on a provincial scale and several more on either an ad hoc or regional basis. We also carry out surveillance for potential new insect pests in crops. It is important to note that Alberta is a relatively large place, ranging 1066 km south to north and is 466 km at the widest. There are over 10,000,000 ha of land devoted to crop production. We do our monitoring work with two permanent staff and 2 to 3 summer students.

The first thing that becomes obvious is that we can’t do this work by travelling the entire expanse of the province. So we must communicate with those that are out in the fields and capture the results of their “footprints in the field”. Through various reporting systems we have had good success in developing a representative monitoring system. Check out our homepage at www.agriculture.alberta.ca/bugs-pest.

So where does Twitter fit in? In the two years that we have been using twitter we have collected nearly 800 farm related followers. Twitter is a great place to announce the results of our findings. If a set of traps or online reporting systems are reporting a concern we tweet it. The impact is instantaneous and widespread. Followers retweet (it is common for our in-season tweets to have 5 or more retweets), they ask questions, they check their fields and they let us know if their findings match ours. Talk about impact and talk about a reality check, it is awesome. We can then improve the quality and accuracy of the information we present.

We announce our new extension materials on Twitter. If we have a new You Tube video, radio broadcast (weekly during the growing season), new web page or even a chnage to our homepage, we tweet it. It is at least part of the reason we have over 2,000 hits on how to put together our Bertha Armyworm traps (we only put out 200 sets of traps across the province in 2012).

A big part of integrated pest management is the timing of insect activity. We have models for some insects and when they are supposed to be in their active scouting stage we tweet about it. Again instant feed-back! This helps us adjust and time our monitoring efforts to maximum efficiency. For those insects we don’t have models for we suggest timings based on experience. Agrologists and farmers tell us when they start seeing them. Again, awesome! Through Twitter we know when and where insects are showing up across the province. I am happy to retweet any credible source on insect activity and give credit where credit is due. A couple examples of this revolve around an outbreak of bertha armyworm (BAW) (Mamestra configurata) in central Alberta in 2012.

One case involves a comment about BAW in corn which is very unusual, partially because we have very little corn, and partially because BAW generally feeds on broadleaved plants. The conversation drew the attention of neighbors that were growing corn and they asked to see the field while we were inspecting it. The bottom line: the BAW laid their eggs on  lambsquarters which was uncontrolled under the canopy. The neighbors that had control of the lambsquarters had no BAW. Thanks to @landrashewski.

BAW in corn. Started on and ate all the lambsquarters then moved onto the corn cobs.

BAW in corn. Started on and ate all the lambsquarters then moved onto the corn cobs.

The second case was BAW in field peas, another relatively rare situation. The pictures tell the story though. There was substantial damage. If we have another BAW outbreak we will be sure to encourage producers to check their pea fields as well. Thanks to @Klams81.

Surveillance is where Twitter really shines. Last year I didn’t keep track of the requests for ID via Twitter but it was constant throughout the summer. There was a trend and repeats to the requests and there were questions about insects that we seldom see but were more common in 2012. Twitter gives us a chance to be in fields virtually. This a huge advantage because we can’t always be there in person.

We have also used Twitter to help us find fields to survey and to get permission from producers to access their fields. In addition we have recruited help from agrologists and farmers through Twitter. When we ask they are often happy to help us because they have been following us and the work we are doing. We also have several examples of people joining our monitoring network because of finding us on Twitter.

In short, Twitter is a valuable tool for monitoring insects in our program. We use it extensively. We welcome everything from the virtual coffee shop conversations to the private requests for identification. Twitter is, and will continue to be, an integral part of how we monitor insects in Alberta crops. It is good to be a part of the community and to give and receive in equal measure. We are looking forward to seeing what Twitter will bring in the new crop year!

What is this – a common Twitter question to @ABbugcounter last year. We reared it out and it turned out to be Pontia protodice or Checkered White Butterfly.

What is this – a common Twitter question to @ABbugcounter last year. We reared it out and it turned out to be Pontia protodice or Checkered White Butterfly.

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ESC Public Encouragement Grants

By Staffan Lindgren

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Given a stimulating, or even neutral environment, I firmly believe that the natural interest that most, if not all kids have for animals will be retained for life – once a bug nerd always a bug nerd. My parents’ photos of me as a kid almost always show me on all four turning rocks or peering down into some pond for any sign of life, and I’m not much different now (See photographs). I was fortunate to grow up close to nature with parents who pretty much put up with anything that I dragged home, usually alive (my mom drew the line at snakes, but spiders were OK as long as they were contained). Many kids are not as fortunate. They may grow up in a large city, or have one or two parents who at best believe that the only good bug is a dead bug and at worst go catatonic at the sight of even the tiniest spider.

The author (left) and a friend looking for moon jellies on the Baltic Sea coast, Arkösund, Sweden, 1958 (Photo R. Lindgren).

The author (left) and a friend looking for moon jellies on the Baltic Sea coast, Arkösund, Sweden, 1958 (Photo R. Lindgren).

Part of the mandate of the ESC and its affiliate regional societies is to stimulate an interest in entomology through education. One of the tools by which ESC tries to do this is by making available a small grant available annually to the regional societies. The ESC committee guidelines on these “Public Encouragement Grants” state:

(a) Each Affiliate shall be eligible to apply to the Committee for an annual grant of $200 for public education.

(b) Application for the Grant shall be made annually to the Chair and should indicate how the money is to be used.

(c) Funds may be accumulated for a maximum period of three years (i.e., up to $600).

(d) Applications in excess of $200 shall be considered.

(d) The difference between the amount made available annually by the Society for public encouragement, and the amount given to Affiliates, shall be called the Public Encouragement Discretionary Fund. This Fund may be used to augment grants to Affiliates or finance direct public encouragement activities of the Committee.

In 2012, two such grants were awarded, one to Société d’entomologie du Québec (SEQ), who reported:

The $200 granted to the SEQ by the ESC for public education and outreach were given to the AEAQ (Association des entomologistes amateurs du Quebec). …They used the funds to grant free access to their annual meeting (6-7 July 2012) to participants of less than 18 yrs old that could not afford registrations. The annual meeting of the AEAQ is primarily a field meeting with some presentations, and a number of interesting faunistic records were made this year. A recap of this meeting with pictures can be found in the bulletin of the AEAQ at the following url: http://aeaq.ca/nouvl/nouvailes222automne2012.pdf

The second grant was made to the Entomological Society of Manitoba (ESM), who reported:

As part of the Youth Encouragement and Public Education Committee activities, members of the ESM travel to visit schools and various special interest groups to talk about insects, and there are many groups that visit the facilities of the Department of Entomology as well to see the live insects and to learn about insects. The Program received $200 from the ESC this year, and this money was used in part for some minor renovations to the insectary (see photograph) in the Department of Entomology. There is now space for new colonies, and the rearing room can now accommodate small groups for tours. The grant was also used to print business cards, which are provided to the different youth groups visited, or to interested parties during festivals where the Youth Encouragement Committee is present.

University of Manitoba insectary after upgrade partially funded by ESC Public Encouragement Grant (Photo: Matt Yunik)

University of Manitoba insectary after upgrade partially funded by ESC Public Encouragement Grant (Photo: Matt Yunik)

It may not appear that activities like these have much impact, but sometimes it takes very little to stimulate the minds of young people. Providing access for youth to meetings allows them to interact with entomologists and learn that we are people too! I was profoundly influenced by the kind, patient, and carefully typed replies (on official Uppsala University letterhead) when I as a 13-year-old confined live spiders in matchboxes and sent these in regular letters by snail-mail to the arachnologist Dr. Åke Holm! (He did tell me that the spiders generally did not arrive in very good condition, incidentally). I have never forgotten that, and I try to treat budding bugologists with equal kindness. Who knows how it will affect them?

It is clear that you can’t necessarily convert entomophobic people to entomologists, but you may be able to provide some fuel for whatever pilot flame burns in youth that possess even a modicum of interest and curiosity regarding life on earth. Every now and again, you encounter some really exceptional students, and those are the individuals that can make the smallest gesture extremely important. I have been lucky to associate with a number of such exceptional undergraduate students here at UNBC. Some have continued in entomology while others have moved to other disciplines. Three former students who carried on to pursue doctoral degrees are noteworthy.  One is now a pollinator specialist with the Government of Alberta, one is a PhD student at York University, and one is a PhD student at Utah State. All have published in entomology journals, and are obviously successful. More importantly in the context of this blog, they have all kept in touch and expressed appreciation for the mentoring they received here at UNBC.

The author and his son looking at tidal pool life, Lighthouse Park, North Vancouver, BC, 1997 (Photo L.M. Friskie).

The author and his son looking at tidal pool life, Lighthouse Park, North Vancouver, BC, 1997 (Photo L.M. Friskie).

The ESC grants are relatively small, but they may make a huge difference in someone’s life and future career path. Therefore, as Chair of the Science Policy and Education Committee, I hope to be the recipient of several applications from regional affiliates this year.

Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant
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The trouble with common names

By Dr. Staffan Lindgren, University of Northern British Columbia

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When teaching Invertebrate zoology, entomology or forest entomology, I am regularly asked by students if they can use common names. Mostly this request is precipitated by the perceived difficulty of memorizing, let alone pronouncing, Latin names. I am fairly relaxed about these things, particularly with forestry students, who are quite unlikely to become entomologists no matter how you define that term.  It should be clarified that forest entomology is taught within a Disturbance Ecology and Forest Health course at my institution (UNBC), with diagnostics in half of a separate lab course. My stock answer is thus that they may use common names as long as the name clearly defines the species they are referring to.

Foresters are prone to colloquial terms, whether with respect to insects, trees or other organisms. For example, subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) is called balsam by many, if not most foresters in BC, even though it is a distinct species from balsam fir (Abies balsamea) of eastern North America. Similarly, Pissodes strobi, the white pine weevil, is called spruce weevil (a legacy of the days when this weevil was considered three separate species, two of which primarily infest different spruce species in the west) or simply leader weevil.  The reason, supposedly, is that it is the wood quality that matters in terms of trees, and the type of damage with respect to insects. The consequences of being a bit loose with the taxonomy of a particular species may therefore seem fairly inconsequential in forestry.

Incidentally, our forestry students have even more to worry about when it comes to pathology, which they have to learn at the same time, as the same biological organism often has two completely different Latin names (including genera) depending on whether it is the sexual or asexual form (why this remains an accepted practice is beyond me), and they often do not have common names. Add the fact that fungal species seem to change name more often than I change vehicles (I was going to write ‘shirt’, but didn’t want to gross anyone out making you think that I wear the same shirt for years), and it becomes rather a nightmarish proposition for the poor students.

When it comes to entomology in general, however, common names are most commonly used in casual conversation, particularly with members of the public. For entomologists this is usually not a problem, but for non-entomologists it can be very confusing.  For example, colloquial use of ‘bug’ is pretty much anything that is small and crawls or flies around. Taxonomically it is quite specific (Hemiptera: Heteroptera). Ladybugs (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) are perhaps the most recognizable insects to people in general, but they are clearly not bugs. Plant lice (Aphidoidea and Phylloxeroidea), bark lice (Psocoptera) and body lice (Phthiraptera) represent three vastly different taxonomic groups. In addition, if the non-louse groups above were to be correctly written to show that they are not Phthirapterans, there should be no space – however for these common names that principle is never applied as far as I can tell. It is to differentiate dragonflies, damselflies, stoneflies, mayflies, whiteflies etc. from the true flies. For example, a dragon fly, if there were such a thing (and probably there is somewhere – perhaps a decapitating fly (Phoridae) comes close enough to earn that epithet!) would be a dipteran, whereas a dragonfly is not. How is a non-entomologist supposed to know that (assuming that it is important to anyone except us entomophiles)? Then we can go on to more obvious misnomers such as ‘white ants’, which aren’t ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) at all, but termites (Isoptera).

Going back to forest entomology, one can have all kinds of fun with some common names, the origin of some could serve as fodder for endless speculation. For example, when discussing the problems with common names, I ask my students what they think a sequoia pitch moth (Synanthedon sequoiae)(Lepidoptera: Sesiidae) would attack. The correct answer is naturally “mostly lodgepole pine, but not sequoia”. Similarly, the Douglas-fir pitch moth (Synanthedon novaroensis) commonly breeds in lodgepole pine, but as far as I know not in Douglas-fir. I then go on to western spruce budworm, which as the name does not imply primarily attacks Douglas-fir.

Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant

Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant

Clearly one cannot expect members of the public to keep track of Latin names of insects, so common names are here to stay. I was interested to find in a book I recently purchased (Ellison et al. 2012) that the authors had invented common names for every species by essentially translating the Latin species epithet. That creates an interesting situation vis-à-vis the attempt of entomological societies to standardize common names (http://www.esc-sec.ca/ee/index.php/cndb; http://www.entsoc.org/common-names). Nevertheless, some ants simply retained their genus name, e.g., Harpagoxenus canadenis became “The Canadian Harpagoxenus” (not sure why, as they named the genus “The robber guest ants”), Formica hewitti became “Hewitt’s ant”,  Myrmica brevispinosa (the species in the photo accompanying this article) is called “The short-spined ant”, and perhaps my favourite Lasius subglaber was named “The somewhat hairy fuzzy ant”. Common names aren’t generally that innovative, but Latin names certainly can be.

Many years ago May Berenbaum (1993) wrote a column on this topic. If students would all read Dr. Berenbaum’s eminently humorous take on how insects get named, they would without a doubt get a new appreciation for both Latin names and their creators, and perhaps feel less trepidation about memorizing them. Then not only true blue entomologists would be tempted to buy a bumper sticker that read “Sona si Latine loqueris” (Honk if you speak Latin) (Unverified from http://www.latinsayings.info/).

Berenbaum, M. 1993. “Apis, Apis, Bobapis….”, American Entomologist 39: 133-134.

Ellison, A.M., N.J. Gotelli, E.J. Farnsworth, and G.D. Alpert. 2012. A field guide to the ants of New England. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 398 pp.