Don’t let the criminals of the bug world scare you away.
Our kids seem naturally drawn to the bug world. Yet, for whatever reasons, we parents can be a bit squeamish when it comes to the creepy crawlies around us. The criminals of the bug world—the stingers, biters, crop-destroyers, and disease-spreaders—seem to get all our attention. But, of the over one million insect species identified worldwide, less than 1 per cent are considered pests. The other 99 per cent deserve our respect.
“Humans wouldn’t survive in a world without bugs,” says Anne Bell, Director of Conservation and Education at Ontario Nature. “They decompose waste, create soil, control pests, pollinate plants, serve as a food for many animals, and are used in medicine and other human endeavours.” In fact, the advancement of science is often dependent on bugs, as you’ll see in the examples at right.
Experts agree it’s important to encourage kids’ engagement with their natural surroundings. It’s only through a knowledge of how resources, plants, animals, and humans are connected that our kids can become good stewards of the environment. And showing some bug love is a good place to start.
So it’s time to get to know the bugs around you. This spring take a scavenger hunt with your child and meet six of your pollinating, pest-controlling neighbours. Most of these “good guys” begin to emerge in mid-April and become more numerous through the summer months. All are easily spotted in your backyard, city park, or nearby stream bed. And remember, there are hundreds of thousands of other good guy bugs we couldn’t do without!
The vast majority of flowering plants (75-90%) depend on animals for pollination. Insect pollinators play a critical role in the production of many food crops, such as apples, almonds, and squash. “In Ontario, thousands of species of bees, moths, wasps, flies, and beetles contribute to the pollination of our native plants and vegetable gardens,” says Sheila Colla, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at York University. Sadly, many of these vital species are under threat (see Protect Our Pollinators). “Conserving our native pollinator species will help us maintain our natural ecosystems,” says Colla, “and will help us have sustainable agriculture.”
Stout and distinctly furry, the bumblebee is distinguished from wasps and other bees by its “teddy bear-like” appearance. There are many bumblebee species, ranging from half an inch to an inch (1.2-2.5 cm). While they tend toward black and yellow, there can be much variation.
Though these insects can sting, they are typically quite docile unless harassed. Bumblebees use buzzing vibration to shake grains of pollen loose. Some plants are dependent on this “buzz pollination.”
Cool bumblebee science: Like a canary in a coal mine, the bumblebee may act as a warning. The recent and rapid decline in bumblebee populations has spurred new studies on the effects of human activity on our ecosystems.
To do: Be a citizen scientist. Post pictures and locations of the bees you see, helping researchers track local bumblebee populations at Bumble Bee Watch (www.bumblebeewatch.org).
Red Admiral Butterfly
This medium-sized black-and-red beauty has a wingspan of 1.75-3 inches (4.5 – 7.6 cm), and prefers fluttering about damp areas. The caterpillars feed on nettles and thistles (so take care when collecting specimens). Adults eat tree sap, rotting fruit, bird droppings, and drink nectar from plants such as asters, milkweed, alfalfa, phlox, and clover. While butterfly and moth pollinators are not as efficient as bees, they tend to travel farther. And they are, of course, beautiful to watch as they flit from flower to flower.
Cool butterfly science: The iridescent properties of butterfly wings have been studied in order to produce similarly brilliant colour in screen displays.
To do: Visit a butterfly conservatory and walk among an astounding array of live butterflies from around the world: Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, www.niagaraparks.com/niagara-falls-attractions/butterfly-conservatory.html
A midsummer night’s dream might truly be found in the twinkling of fireflies over a meadow. These 1⁄2-inch (1.3 cm) black insects are not actually flies, but beetles. The larvae are predaceous, making quick work of slugs and grubs. The adults are pollinators, alighting on a variety of flowers between nocturnal flights. Collect a few in a jar and observe the magic of bioluminescence—then set them free.
Cool firefly science: The chemical process used by fireflies to create “cold” light is the same used to make glow sticks. In addition, “Fireflies contain two rare chemicals used in research on cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and heart disease,” notes Anne Bell from Ontario Nature.
To do: Play Firefly Ring Toss for nighttime fun. Make rings using necklace-length glow sticks; tape a couple of glow sticks to your target post with glow-in-the-dark tape.
Protect Our Pollinators
Pollination is a process necessary for plant fertilization and subsequent seed production, and occurs when pollen from one flower is transferred to another flower.
Pollen sticks to the feet and bodies of insects as they travel among plants in search of food (nectar, pollen, or other insects), mates, and/or nesting material. Many of our food crops are dependent on insects, particularly bees, for pollination.
Populations of wild bees as well as farmed honeybees have suffered sharp declines over the past several years. Researchers are studying the overuse of pesticides, habitat destruction, introduction of pathogens and non-native species, and climate change as possible causes.
What can you do to protect insect pollinators?
⇒ Reduce use of pesticides.
⇒ Landscape your yard with native flowering plants.
⇒ Buy organic and local when possible.
⇒ Protect natural habitat in parks and green spaces.
⇒ Participate in community pollinator education programs.
Research has shown that overuse of pesticides has had a negative effect on our environment. Too often these chemicals reach much further than the intended targets, and have long been implicated as one reason for the population decline of certain beneficial insects. Ironically, many bugs—including insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates—do an excellent job of naturally controlling the pests.
Green Darner Dragonfly
At nearly 3 inches (7.6 cm) in length with a 4-inch wingspan, this emerald-and-sapphire hovercraft is one of the larger dragonflies. Though they are voracious predators in the bug world, they are harmless to humans.
Aquatic nymphs (baby dragonflies) prey on mosquito larvae and other tiny water creatures. Adult green darners can be seen performing aerial maneouvres in fields quite a distance from a water source. Ontario Nature’s Anne Bell says dragonflies are “welcome summer companions as they eat many times their weight in mosquitoes, horseflies and deer flies.”
Cool dragonfly science: “Because of their unique ability to fly forwards and backwards and hover in mid-air,” says Bell, “dragonflies have inspired the design of airplanes and space ships.”
To do: Play the “Bug Bingo” game, by Christine Berrie. Sixty-four bugs from around the world are featured, including the Giant Hawker Dragonfly. www.laurenceking.com/us/bug-bingo
Yellow Garden Spider
With their bold colouring and enormous webs—often measuring two feet (61 cm) in diameter—these large black-and-yellow orb weaver spiders may seem intimidating. But they are harmless to humans, and trap numerous flying pest insects, including mosquitoes. With a leg span of up to 4 inches (10.2 cm), the females are much larger than the males, and an individual may consume prey twice her own size.
Cool spider science: Spider silk is unique as a super-strong, yet super-lightweight substance, and scientists are learning how to produce it synthetically.
To do: Read E.B. White’s classic story Charlotte’s Web with your child, and instill a lifelong appreciation of spiders.
European Ground Beetle
Any kid who enjoys looking under rocks and discarded boards will be delighted to find many of these nearly inch-long bronze-coloured beetles. They prefer a moist, dark environment. Like most ground beetles, they are fierce predators. Robert Anderson of the Canadian Museum of Nature says that although the European ground beetle is a non-native introduced species, “their preferred diet of garden slugs and snails means they are usually thought of as beneficial.”
Cool beetle science: The bombardier beetle (another ground beetle) has a unique defense mechanism—the ability to shoot a burning chemical mixture at an enemy with great accuracy. Scientists are learning to use this technique to improve pressurized devices such as fire extinguishers and nebulizers.
To do: Make a pitfall trap to catch beetles and other nocturnal creepy crawlies. Don’t forget to release. www.bnhs.co.uk/youngnats/to-do/build-a-pitfall-trap