Thursday, July 16, 2009

the basics of bug-collecting

"I love ants!" She says, about a hundred times a day.

No longer content to simply watch them, the other day she decided she wanted to bring some inside. Our new "pets" are seven tiny ants, rounded up from the back yard and lovingly relocated to a plastic food storage container. She carries the container around the house and the ants have been sharing a room with the kids. Luckily, they're pretty quiet and don't keep the kids up all night.

If you have a young'un who wants to bring some bugs home-there's not much to it.

First, supplies:
  • A decent bug net is great, if you have one. Those plastic numbers with huge holes (commonly sold as souvenirs at places like zoos and nature centers) are basically worthless. They're flimsy and the small bugs can easily escape the holes.What's best is a "sweep net"-a muslin net sewn around a wire ring, and attached with duct tape to a broom handle. I'll find a link to a super-easy pattern. If you don't have a net or don't want to make one, don't sweat it. Most bugs are pretty easy to scoop up in your hands or,
  • A plastic container such as a "to-go" container from the deli. You can use the fancy "official bug jar" kind with a magnifier for a lid, but you really don't need to. Clear plastic containers allow for easy viewing from all sides and the top. Do I need to mention, a lid is critical?

Where to go:

  • Go outside. Go anywhere. You can find a great assortment of those tiny, cute little black ants (sugar ants) on just about any sidewalk. If you must, pour something sweet on the sidewalk. Return in an hour or so and will likely find a party going on.
  • If you are into more exotic insects like grasshoppers, stink bugs, and the like, head to a place with tall grasses.
  • For walking sticks, sowbugs, and assorted spiders, head to a shady, wooded area, turn over a log or dig around under the leaves. You're also likely to find some worms this way.
  • If you prefer butterflies and moths, you need a large flexible container to keep them in. Check here for a pattern on how to make one.


  • If you're using a sweep net, sweep it rapidly back and forth in the grass a few times. Slowly turn it inside out, gently dumping the insects you find into your collecting container.
  • If you don't have a net, don't worry about it. Just plop down wherever you are and pick up the bugs with your hands. Don't use a pinching motion, that will likely crush the bugs. Just scoop them into your palm gently, then drop them into the container.
  • Don't want to touch the bugs? No biggie-just use a leaf or a stick to scoop them up. The kids and I make a game of just holding a leaf, putting it in the path of the ant (or whatever crawling insect you prefer) and letting it climb onto the leaf. You can then lower the leaf into your container without any physical contact with the bug. (this is how I collect caterpillars)
Getting them home:
  • Don't worry about poking air-holes in the container, unless you plan to keep your bugs for a long time (more than a few days). Insects consume a lot less oxygen than we do, so the air available in a typical pint container is plenty to sustain them. If it makes your kids feel better to have air holes, fine. Just make sure they are small enough that the bugs can't get out.
  • Make sure to add a little something from the bugs' natural habitat. Long pieces of grass from the prairie, or some leaf litter and rotting wood from the forest floor. They'll need to keep eating while in captivity, and they'll also appreciate the cover provided by the leaves. Some caterpillars have only one food source. So if you find a caterpillar, make sure to bring home a few of the leaves you found it eating.
  • Be gentle. Remind your kids to hold the container upright, and not shake it. Bugs are fragile and their legs and wings will break (or worse) if handled roughly.
  • After you've enjoyed your insects, you can make a game out of releasing them. Since many species depend on specific habitats and food sources found in those habitats, it's really a good idea to return to the place where you collected them.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I love that I'm not the only mom who loves bugs. I've embarrassed myself more than once that way, helping kids see or even touch a bug and realizing that the mom I'm also with is horrified and disgusted. We recently trapped a ground beetle for a couple of days,and a june bug after that and it was so amazing to watch them up close. Hell, the kids are just my excuse to do stuff like that. We also look bugs up in our bug books to see if they're beneficial or not, which has led to O sometimes saying "that's not very beneficial" when something not to his liking happens.