Early last summer, my two older children suffered multiple yellow-jacket stiongs when they inadvertently walked through an active nest. Since then, they have given almost all insects a wide berth. Tired of watching them dodge and weave to get out of the way of flies and ladybugs, I decided to educate them (and myself) about insects so we can all enjoy our time outside a bit more
The first step, according to Patrick Scheuer, Sanctuary Director at the Lorrimer Sanctuary in Franklin Lakes, is to overcome the anxiety of handling and being near bugs. He says the best way to do this is to use plastic bugs and scatter them around the yard. "I tell kids to go find some of these little fake bugs, andthen we identify them, separate them and practice observing them."
Once little ones are over the ick factor of handling insects and other crawlers, Scheuer suggests a bug box like the Clear Lucite Magnifying Bug Box from www.acornnaturalists.com to capture any insects we find. This bug box has a large opening and a magnified bottom that makes it easy for young kids to observe insects safely. Oriental trading (www.orientaltrading) also offers a Bug Catcher Box Craft Kit.
Other useful equipment includes an aquarium net for catching flying or fast-moving insects, a spoon for scooping up insects or replacing them in their habitats and a magnifying glass for observing insects without disturbing them.
Before we begin our exploratino, Dr. Karen Latimer, a family practice physician in Ridgewood, who blogs about medical topics on her website, www.yesfive.net, suggests, "In the summer season, wear long pants and sleeves in a fabric that is cool, dry and non-irritating. Hiking boots or appropriate shoes are essential to protect against blisters, injury from the terrain and falls. Pack bug spray and sunscreen to use on the areas that are exposed. A hat with a breathable fabric is a good choice for prevention of sunburn and to keep your head cool."
We won't have to go far to find our first specimens. JohnTarrant, ownwer of Outraghiss pets in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., advises finding a fallen log in the back yard or in the woods. Once it's turned over, he says, there's a whole world living underneath.
Some of the most common inhabitants, centipedes, millipedes, and roly-polies are not actually insects, though they are arthropods (they have an external skeleton, a segmented body and jointed appendages). Once we have uncovered some of these creatures, tarrant suggests taking a moment to observe their defense mechanisms. "Touch a roly poly and watch it roll into a ball. The millipede will give off an odor when approached. Birds, frogs and other animals won't eat it after they smell it."
And if we find a log that is rotting and soft, Scheuer suggests gently pulling it apart so we can view the tiny insects and organisms that make their home there. He cautions that "when you're turning over a log, roll it away rom you to create a barrier between you and what you're observing. And always put your log right back where you found it. It's the roof of their house."
before we release what we've caught, Scheuer suggests a bug race. Draw a few concentric circles on a piece of poster board or in chalk on the driveway and pace the bugs, two at a time, in the center ring. The winner is the bug that makes it to the edge of the largest circle fastest. (Scheuer hints that the daddy long legs and the centipedes are generally the ringers.)
OK, so let's say we make it through the easy part. Crawling bugs don't seem to alarm my kids the way flying insects do. But, what about those bees, anyway? Frank Mortimer, backyard beekeeper and president of the northeast branch of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association assures me, "You have to work hard to get stung by a honeybee."
According to Mortimer, the most important thing for kids to know is thaty "bees are good and yellow jackets are bad. The biggest difference between honeybees and yellow jackets is that honeybees get all they need from plants and flowers. Yellow jackets, which are a kind of wasp, are carnivores and scavengers. The yare the ones that are in your soda can or on your sandwich."
Mortimer continues, "Another key difference between honey bees and yellow jackets is that a honeybee's stinger is barbed, so when they sting you, they die. A yellow jacket's stinger is like a syringe so they can sting you repeatedly."
And he says that identifying bees is relatively easy. Bees are fuzzy and yellow jackets look as though they are made out of plastic.
Once a honeybee is positively identified, Mortimer suggests looking at its legs. "Honeybees are directly responsible for one-third of the food we eat because they pollinate so many different plants. As they fly from flower to flower, they collect pollen by pushing it down into saddlebags that are located on their legs. This pollen looks like bright colored balls stuck to the sides of their legs. These balls are visible to the naked eye and the flowers bees have been visiting can be identified by looking at the color of the balls."
Mortimer suggests the family activity of planting bee-friendly, indigenous plants and ceasing the use of pesticides in order to create an environment that is welcoming to bees and other insects. For a complete list of pollen-nectar plants that can be grown in this area, visit www.njbeekeepers.org/PollenPlants.htm. Mortimer also offers that many backyard beekeepers welcome visiters to their hives. He suggests contacting a local NJBA representative (www.njbeekeepers.org) to find local backyard beekeepers. He says he prefers honey that is from the hives of beekeepers he knows and that one of his favorite ways to eat honey is by freezing it. "Frozen honey gets rich and creamy and takes on the consistency of sorbet."
For a slightly more benign flying insect, the monarch butterfly is Patrick Scheuer's pick. One of the activities at the Lorrimer Sanctuary summer camp is to search for milkweed, the food of choice for monarch caterpillars and, therfore, the plant on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Monarch eggs are about the size of the period at the end of a sentence. Once the caterpillars hatch, it takes them a little more than two weeks to grow big enough to form their chrysalis.
Scheuer suggests collecting the milkweed and storing it in a cage in order to watch the entire process unfold. And, he says, if milkweed is not in plentiful supply, dill or fennel plants will attract swallowtail butterflies. But he cautions that it is better to observe butterflies than handle them. "Their wings are so delicate and easy to damage. It's better to just get close to them as they feed on a flower."
Scheuer says the only way to find the more exotic praying mantis, cicada or stick bug is to "get lucky," though finding a cicada shell hanging from a tree is still possible.
John Tarrant of Outraghiss Pets says that late in the summer when the stick bugs and mantis are full-grown and looking for a mate, a walk in the woods can even result in stick bugs clinging to clothing. But both he and Scheuer say that finding insects in the back yard isn't as easy as it used to be. Tarrant says that as a boy, large colonies of baby praying mantises were common. He too points to the proliferation of pesticides as a reason that some people don't even have fireflies in their yards anymore.
And what's a story on summer bugs without a mention of the firefly? It's the one flying insect that doesn't scare my kids. Scheuer assures me that fireflies are able to handle one night in a jar with holes in the lid before being released. But he also suggests taking our nighttime observation one step further by hanging a white sheet in the yard with a light shining on it. "The nocturnal bugs will be attracted to the light and you can really see them against the white sheet."
Dr. Latimer has one last piece of advice for us before we call it a night. "It is crucial to check for ticks on yourself and your children when you undress. Tick bites are relatively painless making it unlikely that you will know you have been bitten and the risk of disease transmission from a tick increases significantly after 24 hours. Check all body areas with a full-length mirror, including parts that were covered by clothing as well as your scalp. If you find a tick, use blunt tweezers or forceps to remove the tick, taking care not to crush or twist it. Check the skin carefully for any remaining mouth parts and remove those as well. Immediately apply an antiseptic cleanser. Prophylactic antibiotic use is not reccommended."
So, as we head into the summer, I'm hoping that the combinatino of more information and the familiarity of a closer look will give my kids the confidence to enjoy their time outdoors. As Frank Mortimer tells the student groups he works with, "Look how much bigger you are than them. If anyone should be scared it's the bugs."