National Wildlife Refuge System

Using Bugs to Instill a Sense of Wonder

By Janet Butler

photo of girl in mantis costume
Sienna Stocky, in a praying mantis costume, illustrates basic insect body parts at an Ohio River Islands Refuge insect safari.
Credit: Jeremiah Hunter/ USFWS

You need a special draw to entice families to activities at Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge during the sticky heat of summer. With no huge flocks of birds, herds of bison or wild ponies to lure them, we rely on what experience has taught us: Bugs fascinate kids, and children will come in swarms with their parents for a guided insect safari.

Bug hunts, or insect safaris, adapt well to almost any wild landscape and offer a useful if humble tool for exploring habitats and explaining connections in nature. They cost little to implement. Start with a few nets, clear plastic jars (peanut butter jars work well) and some basic field guides. Magnifying glasses for closer looks and small artist–type paint brushes to delicately remove fragile insects or spiders from their hiding places also help.

Because it´s hot on July and August afternoons, morning safaris are preferred at our refuge, which consists of 22 islands and three mainland tracts along nearly 400 miles of the Ohio River, primarily in West Virginia and Ohio. August typically offers the greatest abundance of butterflies. Spiders, which are always a draw for the "eek" factor and the intricate beauty of their webs, also peak here late in summer.

Before starting a safari, we establish ground rules. We stress that safety is a must, especially when the typical participant is younger than 10. No one wants to get stung by a bee, wasp or certain bristled caterpillars. Adults always accompany the kids during the hunt.

It´s "catch and release" on our safaris, despite the occasional protest. Recently, I talked a six–year–old into releasing his self–described "army" of soldier beetles. But I didn´t win with a four–year–old obsessed by caterpillars. As we neared his point of raging meltdown, I hastily relented and gave his relieved mother a discreet "okay" and instructions for the care of a monarch caterpillar. That incident was my fault: I failed to start the hunt with a clear message about this part of the game plan.

Encourage Observation

We keep things simple; we don´t take reservations. Weather, location on the refuge, publicity and other factors affect attendance. After broadening event publicity last year, 100 people showed up, as compared to the previous 10 to 20. Even with a summer student and a volunteer, I felt overwhelmed until the crowd spread out along the trail and groups spontaneously formed around someone´s captured bug.

It helps that one of our volunteers, a retired chemist named Brad Bond, has an interest in insects and a rapport with audiences. Much of what I know about insects I´ve learned from him, and it isn´t all about merely labeling them.

While Bond can identify the majority of the bugs we find, his real skill is in encouraging observation. His knack for sharing his own sense of wonder about insects is a special quality that seems contagious.

Volunteers also help in other ways. As 80 people assembled for our most recent safari, we began with local mom Lori Hall´s presentation about her monarch butterfly–raising project. We watched an adult butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. We then introduced a giant praying mantis (11–year–old volunteer Sienna Stocky in costume) to explain the basic body parts of an insect.

While these "wow" features helped entertain the large group and allowed me to assess the audience before starting out on the trail, the best part is the spontaneous discovery that comes during the walk. Crickets and grasshoppers become magical when shared with children. The kids´ sense of wonder merges with my own, and all from humble bugs.

Janet Butler is visitor services manager at Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

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Refuge Update March/April 2011

Last updated: April 12, 2011