Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Care and Keeping of Junior Entomologists

This post was written by my brother NJ Renie. It originally appeared on Simple Kids and then my short lived homeschool blog, The Dynamo Rhino. Now it lives here at Homeschool by the Book.  NJ is an entomologist, beekeeper, and writer.  I'm happy to be sharing his wisdom on insects and young entomologists with all of you. 

One area of the natural world which attracts almost universal interest is that of bugs. Whether we are afraid or amazed we can’t stop wondering how our tiny neighbors work, why they do what they do, and where they go.

Bugs are literally everywhere we go and come in virtually endless varieties.

If your child is out exploring the natural world, they may find insects fascinating –really, really fascinating. You might be a little unsure how to proceed in nurturing this interest.

It’s okay, I was that kid and now I’m here to help you with the care and keeping of your junior entomologist.

The Bare Minimum

A Field Guide

The first thing that your child will probably want to know is “what is that?” For this purpose a field guide is essential. If you do nothing else, get a field guide for your household. Choose one with a lot of color plates or illustrations so that your child will be able to compare the guide with the genuine article.

A field guide will also provide interesting natural history information about the bug. I would suggest scrounging around a used bookstore or flea market (the nice thing about the natural world is that it doesn't change that much so old stuff will do just fine).

Bonus: Create a Habitat

If you have the room, plant a nice flower bed in your garden or allow a patch of weeds to grow in your yard (although the later might invite scorn from your neighbors).

Flowers and weeds attract a wide variety of insects and often grow to eye level, making them an ideal place to observe bugs in action.


If you have a Junior Entomologist on your hands, they will probably want to start a collection. 

While "catch and release" is certainly a fine way to go, some junior entomologists may wish to curate a lasting collection or even join a local entomology club or participate in insect collecting as part of 4-H.

Note from Kara:   Our family is getting more and more into entomology as we've been observing insects, and for now photograph collections are working fine for our family.  However, I have seen first hand the benefits of keeping a collection and the career path it led my brother to, so I certainly don't have any qualms about keeping one if that is where my children's interests lead.

Hobby insect collecting is a life-long endeavor, inexpensive, and can be done anywhere.

You will need a few things in order to get started, but less than you think:

A Net

It doesn't have to be fancy at all. You can buy one cheap or make a decent one out of a coat hanger and some cheesecloth. Either way make sure it has a handle that is long (~100 cm for reach) and light (for speed). Bamboo makes an ideal handle material because it's very strong and very light.


Insect collectors use special nylon-coated pins. Everyday straight pins will work for a school project, but will eventually rust and ruin specimens. Several online science supply catalogs carry these pins (sizes three and/or two will work best for general purposes).


Nothing fancy here, a small piece of paper and a pencil will do. Record where, when, how, and what was collected and pin it under your specimen. Your field guide (you did get your field guide, right?) will contain valuable information about mounting, labeling, and collecting.

Things Not to Worry About

Don't Buy/Make a Killing Jar

One night in the freezer will kill just about anything. If you're not too keen on bugs in the freezer I would suggest a small, wide-mouth bottle of rubbing alcohol for anything that isn't a moth and butterfly (the scales will come off in the fluid).  Always try to use plastic containers.

Don't Buy Boxes or Expensive Equipment

There is no shortage of cool stuff offered in the science supply catalog you'll get with your pins. Skip it. For now, an old cigar box with styrofoam glued in the bottom will do just fine for a collecting box.

Ready, Set, Collect!

Now that you’ve outfitted your Junior Entomologist, get him outside to a variety of environments where he can find new things. Hiking trails and farms are great places. If he is going to collect in public lands, be sure to inquire with a game warden or ranger first.

Collect for her. Carrying an old prescription bottle in you pocket works great. Give her the opportunity to say "Oh, that’s a ____." Your child will love it when she can show you what she's learning.

Collect on warm nights. Have your child hang an old white sheet under a UV light and the bugs will come to him! A white garage door with a security light above it will work just as well. Nocturnal collecting will expose him to several new and exciting varieties.

Get her to 4-H. 4-H offers great programs for children interested in bugs. Unfortunately, they can't start until they’re 9 years old, but contact your local clubs about programs for younger kids.

Above and Beyond

Take him to an expert. If your kid gets into middle or high school and is still spending their weekends looking under rocks, I would suggest introducing them to some real-life entomologists. Many universities have entomology open houses and public programs. Research collections at museums and universities will often take on interns and volunteers.

As always, giving your child tools with which to explore the world will be as rewarding for you as it is for them. The world of bugs is so vast that there is always something interesting to learn. Your child will be able to take that learning with them, wherever they go.

Are there any junior entomologists in your family? What are your child's favorite bugs?

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