Dr Luke Tilley, Director of Outreach and Development at the Royal Entomological Society, writes about insects.
Insects are easily the most abundant and diverse group of animals, with over 24,000 species in the UK alone. They can be found in almost every habitat on Earth and are fundamentally important to ecology, conservation, food production, animal and human health, and biodiversity. Insects are a prominent feature of almost every food web in the UK and worldwide. They can be directly beneficial to humans through pollination, nutrient cycling and the predation of plant pests, or they can be detrimental, as vectors of disease and crop pests. They truly are the ‘little things that run the world’. This is why the Royal Entomological Society, through its National Insect Week (NIW) campaign, aims to raise the awareness and understanding of insects and other terrestrial invertebrates. National Insect Week 2016 (20-26 June) brings together scientists, educators and naturalists to show people, particularly children, the fascinating world of insects and entomology (the study of insects).
Life in the undergrowth
We are fortunate in the UK to have relatively safe outdoor spaces for children to explore, without threats from wildlife. Most risks posed by living things are already well known by adults and children (nettles, brambles, some fungi, stinging wasps and bees etc.). So once the usual risks of outdoor education have been assessed and managed (water, trip hazards and sunburn, for example) what remains is safe compared with many other continents and countries.
There are simple and inexpensive things that can be done at school or at home to encourage insects and provide more opportunities to watch and understand them.
Get sweeping! Sweep nets are good for swishing through grass and catching small insects, although they are not really suitable for butterflies or moths. You can make your own with a coat hanger, a bamboo cane (no more than 1 m long) and a wide carrier bag or old pillowcase – white or pale is best so that you can see what you catch. Pull out the coat hanger to make a circle but don’t untwist or cut it. Straighten out the hook, slot it into the hollow in the centre of the bamboo cane and secure with some tape. Attach the carrier bag or pillowcase to the coat hanger using strong tape. You have a sweep net!
Find an area of long grass (just allow grass to grow through spring) and on a warm day walk through it while moving the net gently from side to side in a figure-of-eight shape, making sure that the mouth of the net hits the grass first so that the insects go into your net. When you have moved the net back and forth several times, inspect your catch. Leave the net open for a few seconds before emptying to allow any bees or wasps you might have caught to escape before you take a look. Empty the net into a shoebox or tray by reversing it through the coat hanger frame. You will be surprised how much you catch even in a small patch of long grass and weeds.
Minibeast hunts The end of June is a perfect time in the UK to get children out and get up close to invertebrates. The most important equipment for this is the children’s eyes. It is also useful to have a container to put things in and a magnifying glass to see more detail.
One thing that teachers sometimes struggle with is the identification of the finds. You can use online pocket guides to help identify your catch. A simple start to narrowing down what an invertebrate might be is to group things as insects (wings, six legs, three body parts) or as another invertebrate (no wings, fewer or more than six legs and fewer or more than three body parts). There are many online guides available which can be accessed from the NIW website.
Habitats at school/home Create an insect-friendly habitat with a patch of wildflowers in your school. This can link to topics on growing plants and observing the environment through different seasons. You can show the relationship between food and insects by watching insects visit the flowers and track the transformation of the flower into a fruit or seed, thanks to the insects. It is also possible to show how some insects control pests on our food; for example, aphids (green or black fly) on beans are likely to attract ladybirds and you can watch the predators clearing your plants of aphids.
Tree tapping If you have trees within your school grounds or garden, tree insects can be easy to explore once you know how. Trees are often teeming with insect life; The wildlife species pages of the Woodland Trust website are a good resource for learning more about these insects.
Some insects will only live on certain types of tree. Bees, for example, don’t just collect nectar and pollen from flowers close to the ground but they also visit the flowers up high.
Insect education and the global need for entomology
Entomologists (those who study insects) do not just go out and look for ‘bugs’. They work in genetics, medicine, agriculture, ecology, conservation and even engineering. The study of insects provides opportunities for learning at every age and can lead to careers in important sectors, such as:
Genetics The fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, was among the first organisms to be used for genetic analysis and it is one of the most widely used and genetically best described of all multicellular organisms.
Medicine Mosquitoes carry malaria; the World Health Organisation has estimated that in 2010, there were 219 million recorded incidences of malaria and the disease killed between 600,000 and 1.2 million people (WHO, 2010). Understanding mosquitoes is fundamental to reducing the occurrence of malaria worldwide.
Agriculture It is estimated that more than 150 (84%) European crops are directly dependent upon insects for their pollination – worth £3.5 billion per year (Williams, 1994).
Ecology Insects are incredibly diverse (over half of all known species worldwide are insects); they are herbivores, carnivores and detritivores (decomposers). It is this diversity that makes the study of insect ecology so critical.
Conservation Conserving our habitats is becoming increasingly important worldwide, especially as global population continues to grow. Insects are part of most terrestrial food webs and perform crucial services within our ecosystems. Without insects it would very difficult to continue living on this Earth.
Engineering For many years, engineers and architects have been studying termites to learn how to naturally ventilate high-rise and large buildings without using powered, mechanical methods.
Join the buzz
Get involved in National Insect Week, 20-26 June 2016, and show children how easy it is to get close to British wildlife. Over 70 partner organisations come together to celebrate insects and entomology (the study of insects). There are a number of ways in which teachers, parents and young people can get involved in the campaign:
Access learning resources The website for National Insect Week has activity packs, podcasts and videos on offer for all ages.
Attend an event There were over 400 events up and down the country in 2014. The aim is to beat that total in 2016. You can join a minibeast hunt, a bioblitz, a public talk or an activity day. Event listings will be regularly updated throughout the six months before 20th June 2016.
For more information, click here.
Williams, I. H. (1994) The dependence of crop production within the European Union on pollination by honeybees. Agricultural Zoology Reviews, 6, 229–257.
This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 111). To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.