Entomology: The Study of Insects
- Wednesday, July 19, 2006
One Family's Foray into the Strange and Fascinating World of Little Vermin that Slither, Scamper, Crawl, and Climb
How does one get into the study of bugs? Well, in our family it all began one day, several years ago, when we heard a scream from the basement and ran downstairs to find one family member in slight terror over the creepiest bug we'd ever seen hanging by its pincers from the ceiling ductwork. Needless to say, a child was sent, at a high rate of speed (it's okay to run in the house when there's a bug to catch), to the kitchen to find a container suitable for catching this vermin.
We managed to catch the bug, about four inches long, which looked like a cross between a scorpion and a cockroach. This bug had large pincer-claw looking things in the front, long antennae, a very long tail, and to make matters worse, smelled awful, just like sniffing a bottle of vinegar. We had no clue what this bug was, but we were determined to find out. After a little research in our insect field guide, we determined that this scary-looking bug was something called a vinegarroon, or whip scorpion.
Now what were we to do? After a family meeting we decided that this critter was destined to become a family pet. We went out to the garage and rounded up an aquarium and some reptile sand (we actually have several spare aquariums at any given time since one never knows when a bug, snake, lizard, or some other living thing might join the family--we like to be prepared), a small hollowed out log for shelter, and a small water dish. After fixing up a nice home, our vinegarroon was placed inside and the aquarium located in the kitchen. Were we in for a surprise. This bug wandered around making the most fascinating tracks. What an interesting thing to watch.
Over the next two and a half years, this vinegarroon was a great pet. It ate crickets, enjoyed plunging itself, head first, into its water dish and remaining there for hours, and wandered around leaving tracks. Watching it catch the crickets we provided for food was often a family event. It could grab a cricket with its pincers in no time flat, eat it, and then clean up the mess by moving the debris and leveling the sand with those same pincers. We also found that if it was frightened, it would shoot that vinegar-smelling stuff out of its long tail and pretty much stink up the aquarium. After Vinny finally died, we had another opportunity to catch a vinegarroon and, again, this second one lived about two and a half years. A very cool pet indeed.
Then there was and is the tarantula we have living in its own little aquarium in the kitchen. We found that our snakes shed their skin, and we were fascinated by the process; and similarly, tarantulas molt, shedding their skin. Well, although we have seen tarantulas cruising around our property and on the front porch, we went to a pet store and purchased a tarantula so we could watch it molt. We have had Hairy for 8 years now, and in all that time he has only molted twice. Molting is an interesting site to behold, but we'd like it to happen more frequently.
Then there was the black widow spider pet. This was, by far, the most educational vermin we've ever had. We found this black widow outside, minding its own business, and felt compelled to catch her. We caught her, put her in a bug container, and added some twigs and grass. This bug, like the others, found its home in the kitchen.
Often, after dinner, we'd feed this spider at the dinner table. She was always in her bug container, and we'd grab a cricket from our cricket supply container, throw it in, and watch her swoop down, tie it up, and then suck it dry. What a sight to witness.
Well, all was going smoothly with the black widow when we noticed that she'd produced an egg sac. Steve, the dad, told Heather, the mom, that she'd have to get rid of the black widow because of the egg sac. Further, he stressed that normal people don't have black widows for pets, they don't keep them in the kitchen, and egg sacs are not wanted.
It was winter, we'd grown fond of this spider, and we didn't want anything to happen to her outside. Thus, we stalled, watching daily for any sign of babies, especially since we didn't know what to expect. One day one of our sons squealed, announced that there were babies, and over the next 24 hours or so we were the proud kin of hundreds of tiny little black widow babies. Demonstrating that we were not irresponsible, we put our bug container with our black widow and all babies in a giant Ziploc bag. We didn't want any chance of an escape, especially in the house, and more especially in the kitchen.
We showed Steve the babies and he was horrified. He suggested that we kill them and get them out of the kitchen. We suggested a black widow mail order business. People could send us some sum of money and we'd send them black widow babies. Needless to say, out came the ethyl acetate and some cotton balls, and the black widows were history. What a fascinating pet to have.
From our daily life experiences with bugs, Joe, our 11-year-old, signed up for a 4-H entomology project. For the next several months, the whole family was involved in catching bugs. We learned to hunt for, catch, gas, pin, and mount all sorts of bugs. We also learned that sometimes a gassed bug is only asleep and not dead, as evidenced by Joe running down the hall one morning screaming, "It's a miracle--God's resurrected my bugs!" We looked and, sure enough, there were about 20 bugs, formerly dead, now moving and flapping their wings while still secured by pins. This was a slight miscalculation that we've not repeated.
Joe ended up with a first-place win in entomology at the county and state fairs. What fun we've had and continue to have since our fascination with bugs has truly captured almost everyone's interest in the family.
Entomology has become a family event for the most part. We now take bug jars, nets, killing jars, ethyl acetate, pinning boards, storage containers, and other bug paraphernalia on all our trips cross-country. We take the nets and jars on hikes and in the car when running errands. We now have small containers in our youngest child's diaper bag since you never know when you might find a bug.
Joe now is in his third year of entomology. Emily (7) is in her second year and usually works with Joe searching for bugs. And Hana (2), our newest entomologist, never misses a bug and loves watching this whole process. Then there's Ed (13). Ed is not particularly fond of bugs. In fact, when we go hiking in search of bugs, Ed brings a book, finds a rock to sit on, and then reads until we return. More recently, Ed announced that he'd like to have a mom who was normal. You know, one who squishes bugs when she sees them. He's concerned that his mom not only doesn't squish them, but catches them alive and has them sealed in Ziploc bags all over the kitchen counter. Well, he's probably right, but then again, maybe all those squisher moms are missing educational opportunities.
Entomophobia, insectophobia, and arachnophobia are the fear of bugs, insects, and spiders. What better way to conquer such fears than to study and discover the wonders inherent in vermin that slither, scamper, crawl, and climb.
If you're at all interested in a foray into the world of entomology, our suggestion is that you watch for sales of nets and bug containers and buy as many of each as you can (we never seem to have enough, and the nets don't last very long if you're really using them regularly). You'll want to also obtain some cigar boxes or plastic containers with lids, put cork material in the bottom into which you can stick your pins, and then purchase some ethyl acetate and make a killing jar. A killing jar is just a small, wide-mouth jar, prepared by putting about ¼ to ½ inch of plaster of Paris in the bottom and letting it harden. Then you're all set. You'll pour a small amount of ethyl acetate in the jar and let it be absorbed into the plaster of Paris. Be very careful to keep the lid on tight, and when it's off for brief periods when a bug is being put in or removed, try not to smell the chemical. We've tried other chemicals, such as acetone and finger nail polish remover, but we feel the ethyl acetate works best for us. We order the ethyl acetate and mounting pins (they're longer than typical straight pins and don't rust or corrode) from the Homeschool Training Tools catalog. Our children also keep journals documenting things they find interesting. They draw pictures, add details from their research, and have a fascinating record of what they've learned. Entomology knowledge is a great addition to their journals, and we've found our children can spend hours poring over their numerous field guides. This is education at its best for our family.
Heather Allen is the Town Square chief contributing writer and Senior Analytical Consultant For the Old Schoolhouse Magazine. She has a PhD in Experimental Psychology, served as an Aerospace Experimental Psychologist in the US Navy, and worked 11 years for Sandia National Laboratories. She and her husband Steve have homeschooled their three children for eight years.
Copyright 2006. Used with permission. Originally published in the Spring 2006 The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. Right now, 19 free gifts when you subscribe! www.TheHomeschoolMagazine.com
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