Catch the Bug!

Text | Kristin Barron

Why not start the spring season sightseeing in your own backyard? Start by introducing your kids to some of the interesting insects common to the Upper Delaware and open a door to discovery and appreciation of our local natural history.  “Bugs,” from luna moths to spittle bugs and even those pesky potato bugs, can bring the adventure of the wild, teeming, natural world right to your doorstep.

How do you begin?  It’s as easy as turning over a rock.  Children as young as three and four will spend hours doing this, engrossed in the excitement of finding a glossy, black field cricket or the scurrying world of an ant hill.

Summer light show
Children of all ages love chasing after fireflies—which are actually beetles. The whole family will enjoy watching the firefly light show and children are especially delighted when they hear that fireflies (aka lightning bugs) are conversing with each other by means of their own code of flashing lights.
Collect a few fireflies in a jar to create a firefly lantern, then show kids how to hold the jar upright in a bowl of warm water—the lantern should become brighter because fireflies always shine brighter in warm weather.  Try dipping the jar in cold water to see if the firefly lights will fade.

Each species of firefly flashes in a specific pattern. Males, looking for a mate, will fly around flashing a greeting signal for the females on the ground who will respond with their own answering signal. Kids can try to mimic the flashing lights with a small flashlight and see if they can trick a firefly into coming to them. Children can also try making their own “flashlights” by wearing a net bag full of fireflies tied to their wrists—as is done in some parts of South America and the Caribbean. Amazingly, there are even stories of doctors using firefly light to perform emergency operations. At the end of the fun, be sure your kids release the fireflies unharmed.

Night fliers
Other night fliers, like the spectacular luna moth with its lovely, long wing tails and delicate green color, are wonderful for teaching the life cycle (metamorphosis) of the insect order Lepidoptera, which includes moths and butterflies.

Adult luna moths emerge in early spring from cocoons and lay eggs on a number of different food trees such as hickory, oak and walnut. The caterpillars eat and molt until they are ready to make a cocoon of silk and leaves and then emerge as second-generation adults in early summer.
One way to interest children in these beautiful moths and other nocturnal insects is to purchase a blacklight that includes a fluorescent bulb which emits ultraviolet rays to attract these intriguing insects. (A specific blacklight made for insects is needed.)

A trip to a local pond or stream might be a good way of introducing kids not only to frogs and salamanders but also common aquatic insects such as caddisflies, water striders,  whirly-gig beetles and, of course, dragonflies. Female dragonflies lay eggs in water where the nymphs develop, feeding on other aquatic insects.  After several growing cycles, they leave the water, the skin splits and the adults emerge. Look for the cast off skins of the nymph stage of the green darner dragonfly clinging to rushes and cattails at the water’s edge.

Kids will also notice the nymph stage of the froghopper (often called “spittlebugs”) hiding in a mass of frothy bubbles at the stem of a blade of grass. Open the mass of bubbles with your fingers and you are likely to see a tiny, frog-like insect inside. Eggs are laid on plants in the fall. Nymphs emerge in spring, form small masses of bubbles for protection and feed on plant juices. Adults (tiny hoppers who jump from plant to plant) emerge after several molts.

In the garden  
Of course, one of the best ways to show your kids the natural world is to grow a garden. Even “pest” insects such as cabbage white butterflies and potato bugs provide an opportunity for learning. If you are growing carrots or dill or parsley (all members of the carrot family), you might be able to raise black swallowtail butterflies. If you find the green, yellow and black larva eating your herbs, you can easily collect them to raise in captivity. Feed caterpillars from the food plant you found them on and wait for them to spin their pretty, spiny chrysalises. (The word chrysalis has its root in the Greek word for gold, Khrusos.) Black Swallowtail larval stage is from two to three weeks and pupa stage is about 10-20 days.

You can use a large jar (with air holes punched in the cover) or any covered cage or aquarium to raise the caterpillars in.  Cover the top with gauze or a fine screen mesh so that the caterpillars will get air but won’t be able to escape. Provide them with fresh food from their host plant and watch them grow. You may also want to provide twigs or small branches for the caterpillars to crawl on when they begin to spin their chrysalises.  It is always fun to release the butterflies after they have hatched and are ready to fly free.

Many elementary schools make a project out of raising monarch butterflies each fall which, amazingly, migrate to Mexico to overwinter. As one of our most recognized and loved butterflies, the monarch is one of a host of insects that feed on milkweed plants. Find their striped caterpillars on milkweed on local roadsides or a wide variety of habitats including weedy fields and meadows. Locally, kids can get involved in studying the life cycle of monarchs at the Butterfly Barn in Milanville, PA which hosts a monarch program in August.

Finally, where would weather prediction be without the banded woolly bear? The woolly bear is the immature larva of the Isabella tiger moth. The caterpillar spends the winter months in hibernation. In summer, the caterpillar feeds on dandelion and plantain, then spins a tan, hairy cocoon before hatching as a tan colored moth.


Explore local insects at Lacawac Sanctuary, 10am, FREE. August 14, 2011

Learn about the monarch life cycle w/ Ed Wesely at Lacawac Sanctuary, 2pm, $7, members $5, under 12 FREE.  August 27, 2011

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