Bugs & Slugs: Insect Adventure

What do you get when you cross 11 school age boys with insect exploration? Lots of high energy insect fun. Bugs and Slugs marked my second of two week-long adventure camps run from the Goodman Community Center this summer. Bike camp was in June and Bugs & Slugs was in August. As this was my first time teaching this camp, I learned a lot about kids and about teaching in the outdoors.

Kids love insects. Insects are fascinating, endlessly diverse, cool looking and perhaps most important, they are everywhere.  It takes so little to study insects, but the learning can be huge.  I used the 4-H insect curriculum for most of my lessons this week. I also talked with entomologists at UW-Madison and looked online for information. The week was divided up between outdoor insect exploration, outdoor play like swimming and games, and indoor insect exploration (microscopes, pinning, videos).  I really think it’s important to have a diversity of activities during the week, and not just insect related. This keeps the week moving and ensures that there is plenty of time for summer fun, in addition to learning about insects.

We started the week with a visit to the UW-entomology Department’s insect library.  There, the boys got to see a collection of insects from around the world. Giant beetles and walking sticks were among the coolest insects. They also got to see a live tarantula (not an insect) and a cockroach colony. One boy wasn’t sure about the tarantula and stayed in the hallway a bit before getting closer. Afterward, we stopped at Babcock Hall to get ice cream.

The next day, we went collecting and made pitfall traps. The kids filled their jars with grasshoppers and other insects. We talked about insect body parts and what makes an insect an insect. Most of the insects we let go, but the kids did keep the insects for observation for a few days, especially the ones that they couldn’t identify. I checked out Golden Guide insect guides from the library so we could identify some insects. However, the internet proved to be a better identification source since there are so many insects.

Later in the week, the kids did do some pinning of the insects they found. We started with Japanese Beetles because they were so abundant and we talked about the damage they do to plants. We popped them into the killing jar and waited for them to die. Then, the kids pinned and labeled their specimens.  Not all the kids pinned insects. I left it has an optional activity, since some kids did not feel comfortable with this. Insect, they wrote in their journals or worked on an art project. We also watched a movie called Ant Bully, which was a good insect movie. Most of the insects that the kids pinned had died on their own, so they didn’t have to use the killing jar. The kids that pinned insects did enjoy it and did a great job. They appreciated the scientific aspect of making a collection and worked hard at it.

We tried looking for aquatic insects, but that was the most disappointing aspect of the week. We went to Lake Wingra, but didn’t really find anything. The kids had a lot of fun playing in the water though and they did find tiny crustaceans. We used small vials to collect things and the kids enjoyed putting rocks, shells and water plants in the vials. One kids called them his potions. To better explore water insects, I need to find a wetland that has more insects that we can see. Lake Wingra wasn’t it. I’d also like to rent some paddle boats and take the kids out on Lake Wingra so that we could closer where the insects would be. There simply were few insects along the shore.

The pitfall traps proved to be a huge hit and very, very simple to make. The kids dug a whole and put a cup in the ground. Then, they put food in the cup. We left the traps alone and then went back to see what insects fell into the traps, hence the name pitfall trap. The results were fascinating. For the kids, it was kind of like Christmas everyday because you never knew what would be in the cup. We found spiders, ants, bees, beetles. The kids even created rain covers for their traps to keep the rain out, but the insects could still get to the food. I loved watching that.

The highlight of the week was a trip to the Spring Green Nature Preserve. The preserve is a dry prairie and is home to rare insects and usual plants like the prickly pear cactus. The place is magical and the kids really enjoyed it. Half the group immediately wanted to climb to the overlook. Forget about stopping to look at insects. The other half wanted to look for insects. We had plenty of adults to make this happen. Of course, we could only look and release any insects here. We found a gorgeous dragon fly, a huge orange ant, lots of little yellow ants and a variety of katydids and grasshoppers. We were fortunate to have an entomology student with us who helped with identification of insects. At the top of the bluff, the view was amazing. All together we hike about 3 miles, which is pretty good. These kids did it fast too. Not all groups are like that.  Afterward, we went to Culvers and had ice cream. They loved that.

We also went to see a honey farm, where they learned how honey is made. They liked putting on the bee keeper hat and gloves and looking at the equipment. Of course, they got to taste some honey too.

Overall, the week was a lot of fun. I would change the following: 1) Find a better place to look for aquatic insects or delete that part of the week. 2) Do more collecting and pinning of insects. 3) Purchase our own nets and microscopes. it’s difficult to borrow equipment and very time consuming. 4) Have more computers available in the room for insect identification and microscope work.

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