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Today's Family Magazine

Bugged Out!

Apr 18, 2017 11:42AM ● By Today's Family
By Ashley Talmadge
Kids seem naturally drawn to the bug world.  And experts say our children’s health and well-being are enhanced when they engage with their natural surroundings.  Yet, for whatever reasons, parents are often a bit squeamish when it comes to creepy crawlies.  The criminals of the bug world—the stingers, biters, crop-destroyers, and disease-spreaders—seem to get all our attention.  But, of the over one million insect species identified worldwide, less than one percent are considered pests.  The other 99 percent deserve our respect.

As environmental educator Anne Bell puts it, “Humans wouldn’t survive in a world without bugs.  They decompose waste, create soil, control pests, pollinate plants, serve as a food for many animals, and are used in medicine and other human endeavors.”  In fact, the advancement of science is often dependent on bugs.  And it’s only through a knowledge of how resources, plants, animals, and humans are connected that our kids can become good stewards of the environment.

It’s time to meet the bugs around you!  This summer, take a scavenger hunt with your child and learn about six of your pollinating, pest-controlling neighbors.  Most of these “good guys” begin to emerge in the spring and become more numerous through the summer months.  All are easily spotted in your backyard, city park, or nearby streambed.  And remember, there are hundreds of thousands of other good guy bugs we couldn’t do without.
The vast majority of flowering plants (75 to 90 percent) depend on animals for pollination.  Insect pollinators play a critical role in the production of many food crops, such as apples, almonds, and squash.  Sheila Colla, an assistant professor of environmental studies, says, “Thousands of species of bees, moths, wasps, flies, and beetles contribute to the pollination of our native plants and vegetable gardens.”  Sadly, many of these vital bugs are under threat due to habitat destruction, overuse of pesticides, introduction of pathogens and non-native species, and the effects of climate change.  Colla goes on, “Conserving our native pollinator species will help us maintain our natural ecosystems, and will help us have sustainable agriculture.”

Stout and distinctly furry, the bumblebee is distinguished from wasps and other bees by its “teddy bear-like” appearance.  There are many bumblebee species, ranging from half an inch to an inch.  While they tend toward black and yellow, there can be much variation.  Though these insects can sting, they are typically quite docile unless harassed.  Bumblebees use buzzing vibration to shake grains of pollen loose.  Some plants are dependent on this so-called “buzz pollination.”

Cool bumblebee science: Like a canary in a coal mine, the bumblebee may act as a warning.  The recent and rapid decline in bumblebee populations has spurred new studies on the effects of human activity on our ecosystems.

To do: Be a citizen scientist.  Post pictures and locations of the bees you see, helping researchers track local bumblebee populations.

Bumble Bee Watch:
Red Admiral Butterfly
This medium-sized black-and-red beauty has a wingspan of 1.75-3 inches, and prefers fluttering about damp areas.  The caterpillars feed on nettles and thistles, so take care when collecting specimens.  Adults eat tree sap, rotting fruit, bird droppings, and drink nectar from plants such as asters, milkweed, alfalfa, phlox, and clover.  Butterfly and moth pollinators are not as efficient as bees, but tend to travel farther.  This may help to maintain greater genetic diversity among the plant species they visit.

Cool butterfly science: The iridescent properties of butterfly wings have been studied in order to produce similarly brilliant color in screen displays.

To do: Visit a live butterfly exhibit and walk among an astounding array of butterflies from around the world.  Find a garden near you:

Learn About Nature:
The Butterfly Website:

A midsummer night’s dream might truly be found in the twinkling of fireflies over a meadow.  These half-inch black insects are not actually flies, but beetles.  The larvae are predaceous, making quick work of slugs and grubs.  The adults are pollinators, alighting on a variety of flowers between nocturnal flights.  Collect a few in a jar and observe the magic of bioluminescence—then set them free.   

Cool firefly science: The chemical process used by fireflies to create “cold” light is the same used to make glow sticks.  And Anne Bell notes, “Fireflies contain two rare chemicals used in research on cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and heart disease.”

To do: Play firefly ring toss for nighttime fun. Make rings using necklace-length glow sticks; tape a couple of glow sticks to your target post with glow-in-the-dark tape.

Research has shown that overuse of pesticides has had a negative effect on our environment.  Too often these chemicals reach much further than the intended targets, and have long been implicated as one reason for the population decline of certain beneficial insects.  Ironically, many bugs—including insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates—do an excellent job of naturally controlling the pests.
Green Darner Dragonfly
At nearly three inches in length with a four-inch wingspan, this emerald-and-sapphire hovercraft is one of the larger dragonflies.  Though they are voracious predators in the bug world, they are harmless to humans.  Aquatic nymphs (baby dragonflies) prey on mosquito larvae and other tiny water creatures.  Adult green darners can be seen performing aerial maneuvers in fields quite a distance from a water source.  Bell says dragonflies are “welcome summer companions as they eat many times their weight in mosquitos, horseflies and deer flies.”

Cool dragonfly science: “Because of their unique ability to fly forwards and backwards and hover in mid-air,” says Bell, “dragonflies have inspired the design of airplanes and space ships.”

To do: Play the Bug Bingo game, by Christine Berrie.  Sixty-four bugs from around the world are featured, including the Giant Hawker Dragonfly.
Yellow Garden Spider
With their bold coloring and enormous webs—often measuring two feet in diameter—these large black-and-yellow orb weaver spiders may seem intimidating.  But they are harmless to humans, and trap numerous flying pest insects, including mosquitoes and biting flies.  With a leg span of up to four inches, the females are much larger than the males.  An individual may consume prey twice her own size.

Cool spider science: Spider silk is unique as a super-strong, yet super-lightweight substance.  Scientists are learning how to produce it synthetically for human use.

To do: Read E.B. White’s classic story Charlotte’s Web with your child, and instill a lifelong appreciation of spiders.
European Ground Beetle
Any kid who enjoys looking under rocks and discarded boards will be delighted to find many of these nearly inch-long bronze-colored beetles.  They prefer a moist, dark environment, and like most ground beetles they are fierce predators.  Entomologist and beetle expert Robert Anderson says that although the European ground beetle is a non-native introduced species, “their preferred diet of garden slugs and snails means they are usually thought of as beneficial.”

Cool beetle science: The bombardier beetle (another ground beetle) has a unique defense mechanism--the ability to shoot a burning chemical mixture at an enemy with great accuracy.  Scientists are learning to use this technique to improve pressurized devices such as fire extinguishers and nebulizers.  

To do: Make a pitfall trap to catch beetles and other nocturnal creepy crawlies.  Don’t forget to release.