The Backyard Scientist: The Wonderful World of Bug Collecting
If your little backyard scientist is a budding entomologist, she’ll love observing, catching, and collecting insects in the back yard.
I grew up terrified of bugs, and I stayed that way until I took an entomology class in college. We had to amass a proper bug collection by the end of the semester, and as I got to know the little critters and came to understand the many ways in which they benefit us, I got a little less squeamish about them. I decided early on that no child o’ mine was going to be afraid of bugs like I once was.
So from the very start, I spent a lot of time with my kid catching, observing, and admiring backyard bugs of all kinds. Ruby had a butterfly net the minute she could walk, and we did the ant farm thing several times before she was old enough to really get it. Her favorite sandbox toys were giant plastic insects.
Unfortunately, it was all to no avaiil. This spring, when the tiny ants invaded our kitchen as they do every year, instead of admiring their tenacity and following their trail to see where they went like we used to do, Ruby just screamed at the top of her lungs every time she saw one, which was about every five minutes that first miserable week. The kid is a loud screamer, and to avoid a visit from CPS, I felt compelled to warn our new neighbors that they were going to get an earful of blood-curdling screaming whenever the kid sees a grasshopper, cricket or cicada in the back yard. Which will be about every five minutes in the summertime.
Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did getting your kids to appreciate the creepy-crawlies. If you want to get your kids excited about bugs, or if they’re already bug fanatics, here are some great ways to help them develop a friendly relationship with our six- legged friends. That way, down the road, when a moth happens to land on your kid’s new jacket, you won’t have to wash it before she’ll wear it again.
Observing, Catching, and Admiring Insects
Quietly observing insects is a great way for your backyard scientist to get to know them up close and personal. Before insects made her lose her freaking mind, Ruby and I spent a lot of time in the back yard observing ant hills and watching the busy little critters doing their thing, single file and weighed down with supplies for the homefront. One time, we laid a popsicle about five feet away from an ant hill and Ruby stayed busy for a good part of the day charting how many ants were on it at ten-minute intervals.
We tracked butterflies through the flower gardens, and we even found a caterpillar that we set up in a pitcher with some greenery, where we watched it spin a golden cocoon and emerge weeks later, a beautiful monarch we weaned on daylillies.
You can find and observe countless insects in the back yard and initiate meaningful conversations about bugs: Their habits and habitats, benefits and body parts, lore and life cycles. Look for bugs on leaves and flowers, hiding in the dirt, crawling across the lawn, and eating through logs. If you have a water feature, look for insects in, on, and around the water. Look in the cracks of the sidewalks for ants, around the foundation and in dark places for crickets, and under rocks for roly polys and beetles. But don’t just look: Listen, too. How many different kinds of insects can you hear in your back yard during the day and at night?
If your backyard scientist wants to catch insects to get a closer look, all you really need is a net and assorted jars with holes poked in the lids. But if you like to do things up fancy, here are a few great bug-catching tools you can find on Amazon.
American Educational Nylon Insect Net
This sturdy nylon insect net features a wide 14-inch ring to make it easier to collect flying insects. The long net makes it easy to “flip” the net mid-air to secure the bug inside. Seventy-six percent of the 321 reviewers gave this net four or five stars, citing high quality materials, easy assembly, telescoping aluminum handle, and sturdy net—it can get a bat or a humming bird out of your house, no problem. Poor reviews cite a flimsy handle and the fact that it’s too large to collect very small insects.
GeoSafari Jr. Bug Viewer
The crystal-clear GeoSafari Jr. Bug Viewer is a small plastic jar with a magnifying-glass lid that lets your child get a good look at whatever she catches. Twenty-one reviewers give this viewer a total of 3.7 out of 5 stars. Most liked it very much and reported that the magnifier, which is three inches wide, works great, but a few people had some issues. One kid dropped it and cracked it straight away, and another said that the magnifying viewer works great if the bug is in the middle of the jar, but not if it’s crawling up the sides, which it usually is. Some were surprised by the small size of the jar and didn’t think it magnified the bug very much, while others were surprised at how magnified the bugs were. But for just over five bucks, you probably can’t go wrong with this neat little tool for observing insects.
Insect Lore Bug Collector Observation Wheel
The Bug Collector Observation Wheel is the above-mentioned GeoSafari Jr. Bug Viewer on steroids. It has eight clear, removable collecting pods situated on a wheel that spins beneath a viewing scope so that your little one can examine a whole bunch of insects—or other natural things—up close. Eleven reviewers give this bug wheel 3.7 out of five stars, with 82 percent awarding it four or five stars. The positive reviewers said their kids liked it, while the negative reviewers said that it was smaller than they thought it would be and that the viewing scope is certainly no microscope.
Nature Bound Bug Vacuum with Light-Up Habitat Case
This cool bug catcher kit comes with a bug vacuum with a built-in LED laser light so that your kiddo can find and catch bugs at night. The light-up habitat case comes with batteries and a sturdy handle for little kids who want to tote their new friend everywhere they go. This kit gets 3.7 stars from 93 customer reviews. Seventy-one percent of reviewers gave it four or five stars, citing good suction and happy kids. Thirteen one-star reviewers cited terrible suction and cheap plastic.
Backyard Safari Critter Shack
I wish I’d had the Backyard Safari Critter Shack during my entomology class, when we had to raise a Madagascar hissing cockroach and observe the lifecycle of a butterfly. This crystal-clear container has a breathable mesh lid and sturdy handle and works for both wet and dry habitats. It can also house a turtle, frog, lizard, or other small creature. The Critter Shack scores a total of 4.3 out of five stars. Ninety-two four- and five-star reviewers tout its durability, versatility, and enjoyability. Two of the three one-star reviewers cite defects, and the other one just says, “Cheap!”
Melissa & Doug Snake Magnifying Glass
This darlin’ snake-shaped magnifying glass is shatterproof, easy to grasp, and durable. Ninety-two percent of 48 reviewers gave this magnifying glass four or five stars for durability, its nice size and weight, and magnifying ability. It’s probably more suited to little kids, but your older backyard scientist will enjoy this classic mahogany-handled, Sherlock Holmes-style, 2.5x magnifying glass that gets 3.8 out of 5 stars.
Pop-Up Butterfly Cage
This compact, pop-up butterfly cage is parasite-proof and can hold all of the butterflies or fireflies your little one catches—or raises. Release the critters with a quick zip, then fold the cage flat until next time. Eighty-seven percent of the 151 people who reviewed this cage gave it five stars. They like the size, which apparently is roomy enough to put a potted milkweed inside for the perfect butterfly habitat. The only one-star reviewer complained that it was basically a pop-up laundry hamper like you can get at the dollar store. Except that it has a zipper. And a top. So, not really the same at all.
Books on Insects
The wonderful world of insects is fascinating. You can spark your kid’s curiosity with a good book on the little beasts. Here are my top five picks on Amazon for the budding backyard scientist:
National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Bugs
120 pages, ages 4 to 8
This is a great overview of insects for kids of all ages, jam-packed with eye-catching graphics, photos, and amazing facts about all kinds of insects the kids will find in the yard.
On Beyond Bugs! All About Insects
48 pages, ages 4 to 8
Another chapter in the Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library, this easy-to-read book is a perfect intro to insects for the preschool set. In simple terms and Seuss-style rhymes, the Cat in the Hat teaches kids the basics about insects, including how they’re constructed and how they see, navigate, communicate, and pollinate.
Ultimate Bugopedia: The Most Complete Bug Reference Ever
272 pages, ages 7 to 10
This National Geographic kid’s book covers everything from ants to wasps and features brilliant color photographs, amazing close-ups, and tons of incredible facts about the weird ’n' wild world of insects, including life cycles, courtship, sense organs, habitats, and prehistoric insects.
DK Eyewitness Books: Insect
72 pages, ages 8 to 12
Like all DK Eyewitness books, this book on insects is an excellent reference that provides an in-depth look at insects of all kinds. This book covers everything from insects’ body parts, diets, and habitats to how they see, hear, smell, and behave.
Everything Bug: What Kids Really Want to Know About Bugs
64 pages, ages 8 to 11
A different take on insects, this Q&A-style book gets mentions by Booklist and the School Library Journal for its straight-forward and entertaining answers to questions like How long do bugs live? and Is it true that old poop would pile up around us if insects disappeared? and other burning questions from curious young minds.
Backyard Insect Collecting
If your backyard scientist wants to create a beautiful butterfly or beetle collection to display in her room and show off at school, she’ll need some supplies and a little know-how. BugGuide has a clear, concise article entitled “How to Start a Proper Insect Collection” that explains the tools and techniques for trapping, catching, killing, mounting, labeling, and storing insects.
Basically, you need a net or trap to catch the insects and a kill jar to put them out of their misery. You need forceps to handle the bugs, a relaxing jar to loosen ‘em up, a spreading board for moths and butterflies, a pinning block, entomological pins, labels, and a storage box.
Nets are used to catch flying insects, and you can swish them through the grass machete-style to collect them, as well. An effective backyard scientist needs a sturdy net. See the Observing, Catching, and Admiring Insects section above for a quality net you can get on Amazon.
The Kill Jar
When I collected insects for my entomology class, I used a Mason jar with a lid and tossed in four or five cotton balls soaked with nail polish remover. It did the trick nicely. A piece of cardboard over the cotton balls keeps the bugs out of direct contact with the killing solution. You can also buy kill jars. Here’s one you can get on Amazon. It comes with ethyl acetate, which is a little less harsh than fingernail polish remover and won’t dry out the insect so quickly.
Handling insects by hand can damage the specimen. You can use tweezers to move and position the insect, but tweezers can damage them, too—especially the wings. Forceps make it easy to handle the little critter. These entomology forceps will do the trick nicely.
The Relaxing Jar
If the insect isn’t pinned right away after killing it, it will get all dry and brittle over the course of a couple of days. Before pinning it, you’ll need to relax it so that it doesn’t break apart when the pin goes in. I used a regular jar with a tight-fitting lid and cotton balls in the bottom. Just moisten the cotton balls with water and add a little splash of ethyl acetate to prevent fungus from growing. Put a piece of cardboard or cork over the cotton balls, and use the forceps to place the insect on the cardboard. In a couple of days, the insect will be relaxed enough to pin. If you want to do it up right, here’s some appendage relaxing fluid to get those bugs all loosey-goosey.
The Spreading Board
The spreading board is used to spread a butterfly’s wings out to dry so that you can see the full wings and beautiful patterns when it’s pinned. This simple spreading board is pretty standard in price and design.
The Pinning Block
A pinning block is a three-tier block of wood with a hole drilled in the middle of each level. The pinning block helps you position the insect on the pin just-so. Once the insect dries on the pin, you can’t readjust it. The pinning block ensures that all of the insects are in the same position on the pin for a better-looking collection. Here’s a pinning block on Amazon, or if you're handy that way, here are some instructions from the University of Kentucky for making your own pinning block.
The pins hold the insects in position on the display board. Most insects need a size 2 or 3 pin. Here’s a pack of one hundred size 2 pins that should last a while.
You gotta label your insects. Labels go on the pins below the insect and specify the location (city and state,) the date of collection (MM/DD/YYYY), the name of the collector, and where it was found (a pond, a tree, under a rock.) The labels are small—they should be around 1/2-inch x 3/4-inch, cut from sturdy paper, and uniform in size.
The Storage & Display Box
The box you store the insects in needs to be air tight to keep microscopic critters away from your collection. Mites can turn a collection to dust in a matter of months, as I learned the hard way. Here’s an 8’’ x 12’’ insect display case made from heavy-duty cardboard with a glass top. The bottom is lined with 3/8’’ foam for pinning the insects into position. Here’s a smaller box—8’’ x 6’’ x 3’’—that’s also made of heavy-duty cardboard and has a glass top. It’s got 1/2-inch foam on the bottom for pinning. I kept my insect collection in a cool cigar box, but critters got in and snacked on my bugs. After a year, it was just a box filled with dust. I shoulda put ‘em in an actual display case made for insects.
Insect Collecting Kits
It may be simpler—and cheaper—to buy an insect collecting kit for your budding backyard scientist. Here are two highly rated bug collecting kits you can buy on Amazon.
Bio-Quip Products Student Insect Collecting & Mounting Kit
This insect collecting and mounting kit comes with:
- A high quality 12-inch diameter net.
- Two pocket-size kill jars.
- A spreading board.
- Insect pins.
- A fiber board insect box for storage.
Eleven reviewers give this collecting kit 4.3 stars, and none gave it a one- or two-star review. One guy bought it for his wife, another bought one for his kid. Reviewers like how professional the kit is and how easy it is to use, but they disliked that there was only one size of pin and that there were no order forms for replacement supplies.
Educational Science Entomology Lab Insect Collecting Kit
This insect collecting kit comes with:
- A net.
- A kill jar with ethyl acetate.
- Vials and envelopes for soft-bodied specimens.
- A display case with a plastic lid.
- A folding magnifier.
- A spreading board.
- A pinning block.
- Pinning forceps.
- A 30-page how-to booklet.
- Milkweed seeds to grow a butterfly’s favorite plant.
- Some other fun stuff.
Two reviewers gave this kit 4.5 stars. They liked that it had everything you need—and more—to collect insects.
So there you have it. Insect collecting is fun, and it nets you a really cool box full of beautiful bugs that you can enjoy for years to come (if you store them right. No cigar boxes!) Collecting insects is a great way to get your backyard scientist excited about the natural world and instill a lifelong appreciation for bugs.