Observing And Collecting Insects With Kids


When we were younger, we used to go out into the back yard and  gather up a few bugs in a mason jar. We’d observe them for a short time until lunch or something more interesting grabbed our attention. After a few hours, we’d return to all the bugs dead lying at the bottom of the jar.

A dead insect could become part of a mounted collection, a smaller version of what you would find in an entomological museum or in the house of a bored, but able-minded aristocrat in the Victorian era. Alternatively, you might want your kids to trap living insects, keep them alive to watch their behavior, then release them back into the wild to continue their lives.  An alien abduction conducted by humans.

To collect insects, you could just send your kids outside with a jar and have them overturn a rock. That should scare up any number of critters, and they could scoop a few into their jar and bring them in. Depending on where you live, cool dark damp places are frequented by many species of beetles. Although mostly harmless, some types can cause pain to humans.  It might be a good idea to explore your yard with your child before encouraging any kind of collecting. For instance, the Blistering Beetle, secretes a toxin that causes skin to blister. Be aware of your geographic location in terms of the dangerous wildlife it nourishes.


A more discriminating child might want to choose a particular species of bug and go hunting for it. Lightning bugs are not only fun to catch, but are relatively harmless. If they exist in your part of the world, go out at dusk with a jar and let your eyes adjust to the low light. Soon you’ll see the familar twinkling as the fireflies take flight.  Every time you see a flash, run over to it with your jar in one hand and the lid in the other. Try to capture the bug before it flies away. I think this is how I spent every summer evening of my childhood. I have probably spent more hours of my life attempting to catch lightning bugs than I have doing any other activity, save perhaps sleeping or thinking about Star Trek.

Other bugs can be caught during the day. A butterfly net can be used to catch butterflies, obviously, as well as most other large, flying insects. Keep in mind that touching a butterfly’s wing could permanently injure it. I would recommend avoiding insects that sting, so you should probably supervise the first backyard safari expedition.

bug container

Once you catch your insect, you need to put it in a container that will hold it, but won’t kill it. You can put it in a jar with holes to transport it into the house, but as soon as you get there, you should put the bug in a more suitable habitat. This means the captive habitat will need food, as well as some dirt, pebbles, and enough moisture so that the bug doesn’t dry out. Spray inside its habitat every few hours with a water sprayer. An alternative to capturing insects would be to have your child take photos or draw pictures of the bug in their natural setting. This ensures that neither the insect nor the child risk injury.

Most bugs love sugar. Any insect that feeds on flowers or scavenges at picnic sites would be happy with a sugary snack. To make food accessible to an insect, you can make fake nectar. Take one part sugar and four parts water. Mix them together and boil the mixture. Let it cool until it is room temperature. You can soak some into a paper towel, then leave that in the container with your insect. Putting it in a cup could cause your insect to fall in and drown. If this came to pass, your kid would learn a lesson about nature, but likely not the lesson you had intended.

One of the best insects to keep for an extended period of time is a caterpillar. This will also give your kid a chance to watch the process of metamorphosis occur. If you want to keep your caterpillar for a long time, you will need to create a mini terrarium or purchase one. For a caterpillar, this is a large, empty plastic jar with holes cut in the lid. Fill the bottom with an inch or two of dirt. Add a twig with leaves attached. The leaves should still be green so that the caterpillar can feed. Be sure to check what type of food your caterpillar eats. If you pulled your caterpillar off of a tree, there is a good chance that it eats the leaves of that tree. Be sure to have an upright twig in your jar so that the caterpillar has a place to build his cocoon. Once your caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly or a moth, it is best to set it free. Butterflies and moths need a large territory, and the shape of their proboscises makes it difficult to eat in captivity.

Collecting insects is a labor of love. I recommend keeping only a few at a time, observing their behavior for a while, feeding them well, and then setting them free and catching new insects to take their place. Insects being short lived, will die of old age if you keep them too long. Not to mention, you will have the creepiest collection of dead bugs in old couscous containers, but if your kid is Wednesday Adams, that might be exactly what she wants.

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