Classify Insects Zoom in on True Bugs

Check with a teacher, parent, or guardian before undertaking these projects. Some insects sting: be cautious in handling any living creature.

“Bee” an Entomologist
You can learn a lot by observing the world around you. Use a notebook as your field journal. Sketch the insects you see and take notes on their features including shape, coloring, and behavior. Refer to a guidebook to narrow down what kind of insects you've found.

• Keep your bug guest alive. If you capture a live insect, and want to observe it for a short while before setting it free, put it in a clear container with enough room for it to fly around. Make sure to punch holes in the lid so the insect can breathe and add some leaves to the environment. Instead of a lid, you could also wrap old panty hose or cheesecloth over the container and secure it with a rubber band. Keep the container moist by lightly misting it, or by putting a clean damp sponge inside it.

• Make your buggy guest "feel at home." Add some grass or leaves from near where you found the insect to the container. If the insect is able to walk or fly near familiar vegetation, it will be less motivated to try to escape.

• Return the insect to its natural habitat. After a few hours of observation, return the insect to where you found it. If you’re extra careful, you can sometimes keep an insect for a day or two.

• Keep a field notebook. Write down when and where you found the insect, and any interesting information about its behavior. Be as precise as possible. If you can, use a field guide or a friend to identify what kind of creature you found. Keep track of any questions that occur to you.

• Start an Insect Photo Album. You don’t have to be a shutterbug to have a great time taking pictures of insects. Borrow a camera. Then take a photograph of any interesting bug you see. Keep a notebook of all the pictures you take, so you can remember when and where you spotted the featured creature. Next, post and label the finished photos in a homemade album or online.

• Don’t leave your specimens unlabeled. To remember details about an insect, write down key information. Make note of when you found the specimen (date and time), where you found it (specific city, state, park, etc.), and any questions you had at the time. If you captured the insect on a plant, describe the plant as well.

• Don’t forget to respect you subjects. If you can learn about an insect by observing it alive, this is better than killing it. In some cases, it will be impossible to get a close look at an insect unless it is preserved in alcohol or dried out.

• Don’t over collect. Only take the number of insects you need for your scientific observation. For more essential tips, learn about responsible collecting (PDF).

Catching Backyard Bugs
Without the right tools, insects can be tricky to catch. Here are three homemade bug-catching devices you can make by yourself. Good luck!

Make a Homemade Net
Make a Homemade netEntomologists often use hi-tech equipment to study insects. But sometimes a simple tool, like a net, is all that’s needed to catch a specimen. To make a net you’ll need a wooden handle from an old broomstick, a wire coat hanger, duct tape, a sewing needle, thread, and about 1.5 yards of fabric. If you’re planning to swoop your net through the air, use soft fabric such as silk or nylon. If you want to catch insects that live in tall grass, use a thicker fabric such heavy cotton or canvas. First, attach the net to the hanger using needle and thread. Then use the duct tape to connect the net to the broomstick. Take your finished net to a buggy area. If you see an interesting insect fly nearby, swoop the net to catch it. If you have a thicker net, drag it quickly through tall grass. May the bugs be with you!

Set up a Berlese Funnel
Sometimes the secret to catching small insects is making their cozy homes less cozy. If their habitat is dark, cool, and moist, many small creatures will probably stay put. But if their home is made brighter or hotter, they’ll search for more comfortable digs.

An invention called a Berlese (burr-LAY-see) funnel can encourage a variety of small animals to abandon leaf litter, rotten wood, or soil. To create one:

  1. Get a funnel that fits on the top of a glass jar.
  2. Put a moist paper towel at the bottom of the jar.
  3. Inside the funnel put a small circle of coarse mesh.
  4. Insert the funnel in the jar.
  5. Set up a lamp over the funnel, but make sure it’s not too close (or the funnel might catch fire).
  6. Put some leaf litter or soil in the top of the funnel and wait.

You’ll hopefully soon see some small insects moving downward. Observe your insects: make sketches and notes on their appearance, habits, and where you collected them. Once you’ve observed, you can set them free in the same area that you found them.

Observing Animal Pollinators at Work
A window-box garden is a perfect environment to observe insects at work. Insects move from flower to flower collecting food: nectar and pollen. They serve as pollinators when the sticky pollen from one flower clings to their bodies and rubs off on another flower.

Keep a logbook of the kinds of insects you observe. Pick a specific time — early morning is a good bet — and observe your flower box everyday. Experiment with different flowers and keep in mind that bees tend to favor flowers that are yellow or blue and sweet smelling. Beetles tend to favor flowers that are white.

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