40 Hands-on Activities to Explore the Insect World
By Cindy Blobaum
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2005 Cindy Blobaum
All rights reserved.
Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children are alone.
* * *
You're as busy as a bee.
* * *
Snug as a bug in a rug.
* * *
You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
* * *
The larger the middle band on a wooly bear caterpillar, the colder the winter will be.
* * *
Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite.
From the time you were every young, you have likely heard many sayings like these. What do all these sayings have in common? They show that people have been studying insects for a long time.
The formal name for studying insects is entomology (en-ta-MOL-a-je). Scientists who study insects are called entomologists. What exactly do entomologists do? Some identify and name new insects. Others keep track of insect pests and try to figure out ways to control them. Some try to figure out how to increase the number of insects that help humans. Others try to figure out how insects communicate, how their senses work, or how to use insects to solve human problems. Although humans spend billions of dollars every year on insects, you don't need a lot of money to be a good entomologist. You can find insects wherever you are, and the only equipment you really need is a pencil and a journal.
Make a Journal
Explorers and scientists have long used journals, also called logs, to record what they find, see, hear, and do. Most of the activities in this book include observations or questions for you to answer in your journal. Your notes will become a valuable record of what you see and think, even if you feel your experiences are ordinary or normal. Although any type of notebook will work, the following journal is one you can use for years.
Three-ring binder with pockets and a clear plastic cover sleeve
A three-ring binder makes a great journal for several reasons. It has pockets that can hold pencils, a magnifying lens, ruler, small field guide, and a bandage or two. It is easy to wipe dew, dirt, or mud off the plastic cover. It lies flat when you open it, making it easier to write in. It is simple to add more paper. It is easy to make a new cover and rearrange the contents for science projects or reports.
Use one piece of unlined paper and the markers to create the first cover for your journal. You might want to include your name, a clever title, and some sketches of insects or insect habitats. Slip the cover paper into the clear plastic sleeve.
If your unlined paper doesn't already have holes punched in it, lay a piece of lined paper with holes on top of three sheets of plain paper to use as a guide. Use the hole punch to make three holes so the paper can be put on the rings. Since you should use a separate sheet of paper to record your discoveries for each activity or experiment that you do, repeat this process until you have at least 20 sheets of unlined paper for your journal. Put the unlined paper and at least 20 sheets of lined paper on the rings in your binder. Finally, slip any equipment you want in the pockets, and you are ready to go.
It's essential to include in your journal entries: the date and place of each activity or insect find, the name of the activity (when appropriate), sketches of what you see, and specific things you notice, like how many different colored grasshoppers you find or the sizes of the ants that you catch. Also, copy down the questions from this book so that you know what your answers mean.
Draw an Insect
Even if you are a beginning artist, it is important to include in your journal accurate sketches of the insects you see. You can start by copying other drawings or photographs, but your goal should be to draw from actual insects that you find or catch. Remember, the more you practice, the better your drawings will become.
Insect (or insect picture)
Take a close and careful look at the insect you want to draw. Instead of trying to draw it all at one time, use your imagination to break it down into pieces. Don't worry about the little details at first; just look for shapes you recognize and can draw. It might help to think about traditional shapes (circle, oval, rectangle, pyramid) or to think about the shapes of common items (egg, crescent moon, ice cream cone, pencil).
Sometimes it is helpful to draw the middle part of the insect first and then think of it as a clock. Where are the legs? At 4:20, 6:30, and 8:40? Where is the head? Where is the abdomen? You also want to think about sizes. It is impossible to make a decent, life-sized drawing of some of the very tiny insects. Instead, for every insect, large or small, make a line to show its real size, then draw it whatever size you want. What is important is to show relative sizes. Is the head the same size as the body? Half the size? Twice as big? Figure out how big each piece is compared to the others, then lightly sketch the shapes you need together.
When you have drawn all the pieces, erase or adjust any that don't look like you want them to. After you have everything in place, spend some time erasing extra lines, making lines at joints, points, and special features darker, and adding shading to show different textures.
An Ordinary Observation Becomes an Extraordinary Opportunity
Like many kids who live in the country, high school student Rachael Collier knew the easiest place to find monarch caterpillars was on the milkweed plants growing along the gravel roads near her home in Iowa. She noticed that the milkweed plants were often dusty, and she began to wonder if the road dust had any effect on the monarch larvae's health. Instead of waiting for someone else to answer her question, she turned a bathtub in her home into her laboratory, and started raising monarchs. Each day, she gave the same caterpillars milkweed plants that had a layer of road dust on them, and gave other caterpillars clean milkweed plants. She weighed the caterpillars at each stage of their development and kept track of how many lived and how many died. By the end, her records showed that monarch caterpillars exposed to limestone road dust were not as large and were more likely to die than caterpillars that ate clean milkweed. She presented her findings at science fair competitions, where she was awarded several thousand dollars in scholarship money, plus a summer research job in another country.
Although a journal and pencil are your most essential and valuable equipment, a few other things will make your study of insects easier and more fun. A magnifying lens is helpful for looking at very small insects, a ruler is important for noting the size of insects, and a jar where you can keep an insect from flying or crawling away while you are trying to sketch it is also handy. (Activities in chapter 5 will teach you how to catch insects, and chapter 6 has more information on making temporary insect homes.)
Insect cages come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and are made from a wide variety of materials. While netting is good for airflow, it makes it hard to see the small details on insects. If you want to observe an insect for a short time, a clear, plastic container is your best bet.
A large, clear, plastic jar with a lid (large peanut butter containers work well)
Drill with very small bit (or a barbecue fork)
Insects need air to breathe, just like every other animal. To make your looking jar ready for temporary insect visitors, you need to make plenty of air holes. However, many of the plastics used today are brittle and will split if you try to punch holes in them. With the help of an adult, you can either drill very small holes in the lid and near the bottom edge of the jar or heat the tip of the barbecue fork over a flame and melt small holes in the lid and near the bottom edge of the jar.
The larger the mouth of the jar, the easier it will be to put insects in. After you have watched your insects and made notes and sketches in your journal, turn the jar on its side and open the lid. Don't shake the jar to get the insects out, just wait a few minutes and they will be gone.
Field Research Tips
Many activities in this book should be done outdoors and with live insects. Since insects have a wide range of defense strategies, including biting, pinching, stinging, spraying, and spitting, here are a few tips and tricks to help you feel the most comfortable out in the field.
If you are going to be collecting insects in tall grass or brushy areas, wear long, light-colored pants, a long-sleeved, light-colored shirt, closed-toe shoes, and a hat. These clothes will help protect you from scratches, scrapes, poison ivy, and insect attacks.
It is a good idea to bring a simple first-aid kit with you. Tweezers, alcohol swabs, first-aid ointment, and bandages can be a big help.
If you get stung by a bee, pull the stinger out immediately. To help ease the pain, put ice, baking soda, meat tenderizer, or barbecue sauce directly on top of the sting.
Ticks are tiny creatures with eight legs. They can be as small as the size of a period to as big as the end of a pencil eraser. Most ticks need blood from a warm-blooded animal in order to continue their development or lay eggs. To discourage these bloodsucking ticks from feeding on you, tuck your pant legs into your socks. When you go inside, check all over your skin and in your hair to see if any ticks managed to sneak by. To remove a tick that is crawling on your clothes or skin, place the sticky side of a piece of tape on the tick. Lift up and fold the piece of tape in half (tick side in) to create your own piece of ticker tape. If a tick has its head stuck under your skin, have an adult use tweezers to remove it.
Do you have your journal and pencil ready? Are you dressed for adventure? Get ready to explore how insects are similar to and different from you as you attract, catch, study, mimic, and release insects in your area.
Put a butterfly and a cricket side by side, and what do you notice? Even though the size, shape, color, and sometimes the function of each part can be different, the basic body plan for both insects, and every other adult insect, is the same. (Immature insects can look very different than adult ones. See chapter 3, "Metamorphic Magic," for details.) They may seem similar to each other, but how do insects compare to you? Can they see better with those huge eyes? Are they really able to lift more, jump farther, and run faster than humans? Get ready to find out.
Insects are cold-blooded invertebrates (in-VUR-ta-brats). Invertebrates are all animals that do not have a backbone, including worms, clams, slugs, and insects. Instead of having bones to hold their bodies up, insects have exoskeletons. Exoskeletons are like miniature suits of armor. These hard shells protect insects' bodies and give a place for their muscles to attach. However, a solid, hard shell would be too hard to bend and move, so insect bodies are divided into three parts, and each part has smaller segments.
The three body parts are the head, thorax, and abdomen.
On its head, an insect usually has two sets of jaws, two kinds of eyes, and one pair of antennae.
An insect's thorax has three segments. Each segment has a pair of jointed legs, so an insect normally has six legs. Most insects also have one pair of wings attached to the middle segment, and another pair of wings attached to the back segment. But some insects have only one pair of wings, and a few have none at all.
The abdomen is the softest and most flexible part of an insect's body. It usually has between eight and eleven segments with tiny holes called spiracles on the side of each segment. These holes are how an insect breathes. The abdomen also holds an insect's stomach and other organs.
Almost 300,000 kinds of beetles have been identified so far, making them the largest group of animals on the earth. Their hard exoskeletons are one reason they have been so successful. How do exoskeletons help beetles and other insects survive? This activity will give you some ideas.
Spray bottle with water Paper towels 4 toilet paper tubes Watch or clock Red food coloring Egg
Wet one paper towel and stuff it inside a toilet paper tube. Wet another paper towel and wrap it around the outside of a different tube. Record the time on your watch in your journal, then stand both tubes on end and set in a safe place. While these are drying, stuff a dry paper towel inside a third tube. Add food coloring to the water in the spray bottle. Lay the tube down and spray it until color has seeped through the cardboard and stained the paper towel. Place an egg inside the fourth tube. Roll it across the ground until the egg breaks.
There are three main parts to an insect's head: the antennae, the eyes, and the mouth. How these three parts look and are used depends on what senses an insect needs to be successful where it lives. A cave cricket spends most of its time in caves, hollow trees, or under rocks. Being able to see well is not as important as being sensitive to smells and touches. So its eyes are very small, but its antennae are longer than its whole body. On the other hand, a fly has tiny antennae but its compound eyes take up two-thirds of its head. If a fly had a head the size of yours, its eyes would be about the size of cantaloupes. This lets a fly see almost all the way around its body without ever having to turn its head.
People use antennae on televisions, radios, and other electronic devices to get better signals. Insects use their antennae to get better signals, too. Insect antennae can be used to taste, touch, smell, and hear. There are at least 14 types of antennae. Antennae are different lengths and shapes, and have a different number of jointed segments. Entomologists often use the shape and the size of antennae to help them identify insects.
Insects have two kinds of eyes, simple and compound. In larvae, the simple eyes, called ocelli (?-SEL-?), can detect some colors and shapes, while the ocelli in adult insects are sensitive to light and movement but cannot see images.
It is the compound eyes on nymphs and adults that really see things. They are called compound eyes because each eye is made of between two and 23,000 lenses. Even with all these lenses, most insects are nearsighted — they can only see things that are pretty close to them. However, they can focus on things that we would need a microscope to see!
People use fingers, forks, spoons, straws, and cups to help get food into their mouths. While insects don't eat exactly the same way we do, they have mouthparts adapted to do many of the same jobs. These mouthparts determine the type of food an insect can eat.
A Plantastic Feast
A single plant can provide food for many different insects, with each kind feeding on a separate part of the plant. The coiled tube mouthpart of a butterfly is great for sipping nectar but is useless in trying to bite a green leaf. The chewing mouthparts of a grasshopper make a quick dinner of a leaf but can't pierce the stem to drink the sap. The piercing-sucking mouth of the spittlebug can do two jobs, first making a hole in the stem, then sucking out the plant juice, but can't soak up the juices that dribble down the side or spill on the ground. However, nothing goes to waste, as those juices are great for the sponging mouth of the fly.
Pointed-end straw (from the juice bag)
1 sheet of green construction paper
Sturdy plate (not paper)
Lettuce or spinach leaves
1 sheet of red construction paper
Small paper cup
1 inch (2.5 cm) piece of clean sponge
Remove the straw from the juice bag. Wrap the sheet of green construction paper around the juice bag, tape it in place, and set it on the plate to create the stem of your plant. Tape the lettuce or spinach leaves to the side of your stem. Draw some flower petals on the red paper, cut them out, and tape them around the top rim of the small paper cup. Tape the cup to the back edge at the top of the stem and pour a bit of juice inside. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Insectigations! by Cindy Blobaum. Copyright © 2005 Cindy Blobaum. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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