As an elementary science teacher, parent, and aunt, it has been one of my long-term goals to help young people learn about the environment and the web of life by directly observing living things. With my own children and with those of friends and relatives, I have often led walks in the woods and on the beach and have even gone “marsh mucking.” Every year, though, I find a certain percentage of students in my classroom are very apprehensive about being around insects, arthropods, and other non-traditional pets, and their first reaction to an insect is to squash it.
 
My goal is for kids to overcome their fears of insects so that they will at least look at an insect or crayfish and eventually work up the courage to touch or hold one. I want each student to develop a respect for living things and understand the role they play in the ecosystem that sustains us all. Most students just need the opportunity to see me and their classmates handling the critters while they observe them from a distance. They become more comfortable fairly quickly, even asking if they can take turns doing the housekeeping duties for some of our classroom pets.
 

Help Your Child Overcome a Fear of Bugs by Raising Them at Home

 
Probably the easiest organisms to raise at home or in the classroom are mealworms (scientific name Tenebrio) which only grow to about 1-2 cm. They must be housed in a plastic container as they will eat through a cardboard box.
  • Provide them about a 3 cm layer of dry bran meal that serves as their food as well as their habitat.
  • Many people buy or raise mealworms to feed fish, pet reptiles, or crayfish.
  • They can be purchased at a pet store, bait store, or from a biological supply company online.
  • Use a plastic box the size of a shoe box and place a double layer of paper towel over the top of the meal. Spray it once or twice a day with water and you will have very healthy mealworms that produce many generations of insects.
You can help your children learn the scientific skills of observation and inference and how to set up a controlled experiment to test different habitats.
  • Children can provide different conditions around their habitat or out on a table and then they can observe the mealworms for several minutes at a time.
  • To deduce the mealworms’ habitat preferences, be sure that only one variable is changed at a time.
  • Offer a choice of light or dark; a choice of moist or dry; or later place some larvae in the center of four pieces of colored paper in a pinwheel configuration.

How to Raise Butterflies

 
If mealworms don’t sound enticing, butterflies are always a hit! Painted Lady butterflies are easy to raise, change from larvae (caterpillar) to chrysalis to butterfly in a few weeks, and are indigenous to North America, so you don’t need to worry about releasing them once they have completed their life cycle.
  • Kits can be purchased at toy stores or online through biological supply companies.
  • The only draw-back to Painted Lady butterflies is that they are actually a little too easy to cultivate. They come in a plastic cup with food in the bottom and your child never needs to touch or care for them because the culture is self-contained. 
  • You still get to see the miracle of metamorphosis, but once they have spun some webbing around the inside of the plastic cup they become less active and less visible.
  • Once they have formed a chrysalis you need to move them to a larger container and hang them from the ceiling of the container well before they emerge to be sure that their wings can hang downward and dry properly to enable them to fly.
  • They can be fed sugar water for a few days before releasing them.

How to Raise Silkworms

 
My favorite organism for observing metamorphosis is Bombyx mori, or silkworms.
  • Eggs can be purchased from a biological supply company and articles below give some details about raising them that will be helpful.
  • Silkworm larvae are only 1-2 millimeters long when they hatch from their eggs, barely visible.
  • They must have a supply of young, tender mulberry leaves from the day they hatch or they can be fed a nutrient that can be purchased with the eggs.  
  • Over a period of approximately 6 weeks they do nothing but eat and grow, increasing their mass 10,000 times!
  • Never fear, they still are only about 6 centimeters long and about a centimeter in diameter (about the size of an adult ring finger) when they begin the job of spinning their cocoon (an absolutely fascinating stage of their life cycle). This fairly quick, dramatic growth makes them ideal for study by children.

 Raising silkworms can also lead into a great multicultural lesson.

  • The earliest cultivation of silkworms began in China almost 5000 years ago. Older children (and their parents) can research the history of the silk trade in ancient times and learn about the opportunity silkworms present for families to become self-supporting in third world countries even today (sericulture). 
  • Silkworms only eat leaves from the mulberry tree. When the eggs were smuggled out of China centuries ago, mulberry tree seeds had to come with them!
  • In an effort to find an insect that would produce silk but not be such a picky eater, an American naturalist brought an insect called the gypsy moth to America. It was accidentally released in Massachusetts in 1869 and the rest is another lesson we have learned about introducing exotic plants and animals to a non-native habitat. 
Whether you decide to raise mealworms, butterflies or silkworms to combat “critter phobia”, consider another area of research for older children. I have mentioned that both mealworms and silkworms are raised in the U.S. as pet food. The next step is to suggest that your child find out which cultures use insects as human food!
 

Resources

Carolina Biological Supply http://www.carolina.com
Connecticut Valley Biological Supply Company http://www.ctvalleybio.com
Ward’s Natural Science http://wardsci.com
University of Nebraska Department of Entomology http://entomology.unl.edu/images/silkworm/silkw_cocoons2.jpg
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2004/51409/index.html
 
Teresa Auldridge, a mother of two young adults, ages 22 and 25, currently teaches middle school in the Salem, Virginia public schools. She earned a B.S. degree in elementary education from Miami University (Ohio) and a Master’s degree in Environmental Education from The Ohio State University and has been a public school classroom teacher for 25 years in Ohio and Virginia. She is a former Supervisor of Science with the Virginia Department of Education and has served as adjunct faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Virginia, Longwood University and Radford University in Virginia, teaching elementary science and elementary mathematics methods courses.