Planning a family trip to the museum or local petting zoo? Wait! Before you embark on anything more major than opening your own back door, arm yourself and your kids with a magnifying glass and step outside into your own yard – it’s a jungle out there, and the animals are just waiting to be discovered!
Bugs (an Americanism which we in New Zealand have now adopted to refer to anything in the world of tiny animals) live out their extraordinary lives right under our noses. The shapes, colours, sounds, movements and habits of these mini-creatures are more bizarre and fascinating than any of the larger animals your children will view in zoos, it’s just that it requires a little more detective work to spy on their secret lives.
Luckily, for the parents of young children, most preschool and primary school age kids have not yet been infected with the fears and phobias that so often surround bug-life. This gives you, parent and caregiver, the opportunity you need to play enthusiastic entomologist (insect expert). So, whatever your own personal dislikes of tiny animals (and, yes, that includes spiders), try to button it when exploring the bug world with your child.
Treat bug-hunting, literally, as detective work. You may even like to arm your child with a special detective hat, dark glasses, notebook and pencil (or Ipad) and, if you have it, a magnifying glass. Start by looking for insect evidence: chew-marks on leaves (flaxes frequently display these), eggs on the underside of foliage, slime trails on paths, webs on plants and buildings, ‘spit’ on leaves. Next, listen for insects: humming, buzzing, and chirping are all clues that insects are not far away.
Finally, start to search using your eyes. Children are prepared to search longer if they’re in a comfortable position, so first search foliage which stand at a child’s eye level, or sit little ones on the ground where they can lift leaves, turn over sticks and stones, scratch in the soil, and fossick under hedges. Gently remind children to replace any insect cover they lift up by pointing out that such objects are the roofs of bugs’ homes.
Prior knowledge is always useful when you’re aiming to be the best parent educator you can be, but don’t be put off if you know almost zero about bugs before you begin – there’s still loads of general knowledge information you can impart to your child. Start by using simple classification to talk about bugs. Watch how the tiny animals move and ask your child: “Is this one a crawler or a hopper, a jumper or a flier? Hey, maybe it’s a wriggler!”
Do exactly the same with colour. When you find a bug with camouflage colour, go with: “This bug is hard to see. It’s almost the same colour as the leaves and it’s keeping very, very still. Maybe its colour helps it hide from other animals that want to eat it.” Or “This bug is very bright. It must want other animals to see it. Perhaps bright colours tell other animals to keep away.”
Classification can also include allocating different environments to the various bugs you spot. Let your exploration take you to wetlands. These can be as simple as puddles at the foot of the dripping garden tap which hold mosquito larvae, or you may have the opportunity to go further afield to a pond in the park sporting water boatmen and dragonflies. Visit the vegetable and flower garden, wild spaces of long grass and weeds. Even the inside of your own home is a world of wildlife: flies, earwigs, cockroaches …
(perhaps we should leave it at that!).
Armed with a little prior knowledge about the bugs which you’re almost certain to discover, you’ll be able to wow your junior entomologist with some amazing facts. “Did you know,” you can ask them, “that a female earwig is a very careful mother? She licks her eggs clean of mould and gathers them together into a pile if they are disturbed.” Dozens of mind-boggling facts are just waiting to astonish little people. Water boatmen have little blade-like oars on their limbs to help pull themselves through the water, and ladybirds use their bright red colour to remind bugs that want to eat them that they taste really, really yuck!
Such common facts are easily found in books, on the Internet, or in your local library. You don’t have to be an expert to ignite in a child an awareness of bugs that can lead to an hour, a day or a lifetime of interest.
Instant insect discoveries can be made by lining a roasting dish with white paper and placing it beneath foliage. Let you child gently shake the foliage and watch as tiny animal life falls onto the paper. This is where the magnifying glass really comes in handy. Gently tip your finds back into the foliage when you are finished enthusing.
capture and release
Some bugs (such as worms in a container of damp soil) will be happy to board with you for a short time in your home providing you can guarantee to them a suitable environment and food. Others, however, will not tolerate this. Always check with a reliable source such as DOC or Landcare Research NZ if you’re not sure or, better still, choose a purpose-built bug to observe in your home, such as a monarch butterfly caterpillar purchased from a garden centre. The caterpillars come complete with their own living food source.
bugging your home environment
Encouraging a wide range of bugs into your backyard requires a degree of untidiness. Don’t be in a hurry to pick up that piece of fallen branch or piece of bark. As it decays, a whole host of tiny creatures will colonise it. Leave some grass and weeds to flower and go to seed. A forgotten bucket or an ice-cream container that has tumbled from the recycling bin and filled with rain water can often be found teeming with mini-wildlife. If you’re a tidiness fanatic, consider allocating just a few square metres behind a shrub at the bottom of the garden for the world of bugs to take over, and your children to explore.
where to find the low-down on bugs
Check out second-hand books stores for bug books (the great thing is that the world of bugs doesn’t change very much so even older books are useful). Don’t be afraid to let your child colour in black and white illustrations in older books.
Library loans of books by authors such as Andrew Crowe, Diana Noonan (the ‘I Spy’ series), and Nic Bishop will all help with identification and fascinating facts.
Go native by exploring www.landcareresearch.co.nz/resources/identification/animals/bug-id, a site which holds New Zealand-specific bug information, photo identification, and moving images that even very small children will be able to tap into.
Explore the Maori dimension to New Zealand bugs at www.nhc.net.nz/index/insects-new-zealand.
Catlins author, Diana Noonan, is one of New Zealand’s best known writers for children. With her love of gardening and the outdoors, she can often be found writing on subjects of natural history.