Science in the Backyard: Bug Safari

by Christy Peterson

Ahhhh, autumn. School’s back in session; the weather is cooling; and I’m starting to dream about big pots of stew and cozy sweaters. Must be time for a bug* safari—the perfect September nature activity! In most places the temperatures still get high enough during the day for maximum bug-sighting potential. And, since most creepy crawlies don’t live through the winter, early autumn is the time they are looking for a mate, laying eggs, and generally being more impressive and conspicuous than at any other time of the year.

Hunting with a Net

You don’t really need any special tools to launch a bug safari. Prowl the garden and turn over a few rocks and you are bound to find something interesting. However, a field guide, a bug net (you’ll find instructions for a homemade bug net at the end of the article), and a few clear containers are useful additions.

For best results with the bug net, sweep it back and forth just brushing the surface of the lawn or other vegetation. Move it gently and quickly enough to fill the net with air—this keeps what you’ve caught inside. After a few passes, close the top of the net like you would a balloon full of air.

The tricky part, of course, is moving your catch into the container without having it escape. Take a peek inside to see where everyone is. You might lose a fly or two, but that’s okay. Then you can carefully maneuver your container over the bug you wish to observe and slide the lid on top.

This all takes a bit of practice. You’ll have some escapees as you work to get the hang of it. Kids can do it too—just make sure they don’t try to contain or bee or wasp they might catch by mistake.

Safety First

The vast majority of bugs are harmless, and all bugs, including those that bite or sting, can be enjoyed safely if reasonable precautions are followed (i.e., observe from a distance). Please save the hands-on observations for creatures like grasshoppers, ground beetles, ladybugs, and mantids. Teach kids to handle creatures gently and to return them to where they were found.

September’s Stars

Spiders are very prominent in September. The bejeweled, circular webs of the orb weavers and the “blanket” webs and sneaky, hidey-holes of the funnel weavers are most impressive when there is a heavy dew on the ground, so an early-morning walk is recommended.

Mantids (praying mantises) are fierce predators with a charming appearance that kids love. North American varieties of mantids can reach lengths of 3 inches and they are fully-grown in the fall. Mantids are skilled camouflage artists, so you are more likely to stumble upon one than find it on purpose. While you are on the lookout for the adults, also look for mantid egg cases, which look like oval-shaped blobs of expandable foam insulation.

If you are lucky enough to live along a migration corridor, you might see monarch butterflies headed to their winter homes. Other butterflies and moths are on the move as well, as they search for viable food sources. To attract these late-season butterflies, fill your garden with late-season flowers and provide puddles (either mud or sand) as water sources.

Crickets are primarily nocturnal and prefer to hide under rocks and logs, so you may not see them. However, listening to the cricket chorus while eating a late-summer ice cream cone under a darkening sky is a memory your kids will cherish (especially if they get to stay up past bedtime!).

Why Can’t I Find the Bug I Found in My Field Guide

There are 100,000 species of insects, spiders, and related arthropods known to live in North America. No field guide could ever hope to cover that many, so insect field guides show representative of each group, rather than showing every species. For more extensive ID help, you can consult websites like BugGuide.net.

Making a Homemade Bug Net

You’ll need:

• A pillowcase
• A wire hanger
• A sturdy stick, broom handle, or dowel (about 2 ½ to 3 feet)
• Duct tape
• Scissors

1. Bend the wire hanger into a shape that is roughly circular.
2. Unwind the “neck” of the hanger.
3. Make two small cuts (about ½ inch) in the pillowcase opening on either side of the seam.
4. Fish one end of the hanger through the hole and bring it around until you have one end of the hanger hanging out one of the holes and the other end out the other hole.
5. Re-wind the neck of the hanger.
6. Straighten the “U-curve” of the hanger.
7. Use the duct tape to attach the neck of the hanger to the stick or broom handle.

It will be a bit floppy, but it will get the job done. If the kids turn into budding entomologists, you can spring for a real one!

*For purposes of this article, “bug” is applied generically to refer to insects, spiders and other arachnids, and other arthropods like centipedes and millipedes. Scientifically speaking, the term “true bug” refers to a specific group of insects. Box elder bugs, for example, are true bugs.