Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of child with insect collection © Alli Ganino

Collecting insects is a fun way to learn a little science and appreciate artful forms.
© Alli Ganino

June 2010

Creature Comforts

Kids bugging you?

Kathryn A. Kahler

Few activities compare to insect collecting to nurture a child's curiosity about the natural world, and there's no better time than the dog days of summer to get them started. Whether you're looking for ways to keep the kids busy in the waning weeks of summer vacation or on the family camping trip, or if you just have a curious pre-schooler in the family, the insect world provides literally millions of opportunities for discovery.

You don't need to spend a fortune to get your youngster started down the path to what could become a lifelong hobby. Many online sites offer inexpensive materials made especially for kids. The University of Kentucky has a great website, Entomology for Kids and Teachers, with ideas and activities available free of charge.

Start out simple with a few items around the house, like an empty peanut butter jar and a magnifying glass. If you find you have a budding entomologist on your hands, you can invest in a sweep net, an identification guide (be sure to check out second-hand book stores), a mounting board and some collection and labeling supplies. Serious student entomologists will find the Kentucky 4-H Entomology Guide to Insect Collecting and State Fair Projects especially useful for learning proper pinning and labeling techniques.

Parts of insect collecting can be harmful if not done properly, so young children should be carefully supervised. But don't let that keep you from getting out and discovering the wide world of bugs. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Butterfly or sweep net: Generally, butterfly nets are made from lighter material to keep from damaging delicate wings. They are used to catch specimens in flight. Sweep nets are made of heavier material and are used to sweep through tall grass and vegetation.
  • Hand lens: an essential for inspecting insect body parts, minute hairs and antennae. Usually 10x magnification is sufficient. Try to find one that you can tie to a shoelace around your neck.
  • Killing jar: Freezing insects overnight is the best way to kill them, but when the freezer isn't handy, you'll need a killing jar. Find a clear plastic jar with a tight fitting, screw-on lid. Fill the bottom with absorbent material (e.g., an inch of plaster of Paris, or cotton balls covered by corrugated cardboard). Saturate with alcohol or nail polish remover, but use only enough so that it doesn't pool. Drop crumpled tissue paper into the jar to keep the insects from jumping around too much and label the jar with "POISON" in large letters. You'll need to replenish the fluid from time to time.
  • Small vials: Use them for catching small insects or for freezing specimens. Empty film canisters or pill bottles work well and can easily be slipped into pockets or backpack.
  • Tweezers: For picking up and handling delicate specimens.
  • Displaying the collection: If you can find them, cigar boxes work well for display, or fit a layer of Styrofoam or foam core in the bottom of a sturdy cardboard box. Very young children can start out by gluing specimens to small pieces of white card stock. Cut out small V-shaped pieces of card stock and put a drop of white glue or clear nail polish at the small end. Drop the insect onto the glue and when the glue has dried, run a straight pin through the large end of the paper. Pin to the cardboard and label with the date, location the specimen was found and the insect's name.

Don't like the thought of sacrificing bugs in the name of science? Consider letting your child collect and study live insects, start a photo collection or create an online collection. Capturing insects on film or a digital camera has the added benefit of teaching basic photography skills. Take it a step further and they can learn computer presentation techniques including photo editing, word processing and web posting skills. In your favorite web search engine, enter "how to create a photo insect collection" in the search box.

Kathryn A. Kahler is staff writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.