From The Times
Bugs as pets
Insects - even cockroaches - make ideal pets and can nurture a love of
nature in children
Sitting in the long grass on Wimbledon Common munching a
sandwich, nine-year-old Rachel McLeod squeals as a beetle crawls over her leg.
It's a familiar enough sound for any parent whose vision of a happy family
picnic has been spoilt by children fleeing in terror from marauding ants and
dive-bombing wasps. But Rachel's exclamation is one of delight.
Rachel is visiting the common in
She recently gave a talk on the social habits of the
Madagascan hissing cockroach to a group of adult amateur entomologists, and
fielded their questions with as much aplomb as many postgraduates.
“I have wanted cockroaches since I was 5, ever since I
went to a zoo and held one of them,” says Rachel, who lives in
While Rachel's parents may not completely agree with that
- especially given the time when one of the cuddly creatures escaped and turned
up in bed - both agree that her unusual hobby has provided her with endless
entertainment as well as being educational. “She has got so much out of this
last year,” Rachel's mother says. “Incredible opportunities have opened up
Hissing cockroaches may not be everyone's idea of the
perfect family pet. Yet, as film-makers have discovered, the tiny world of a bug
can prove compelling for small minds. Pond-dipping, sampling edible insects in a
museum or simply watching ladybirds in the back garden can provide cheap,
accessible and stimulating diversions from the television and Nintendo.
“Insects always engage kids,” says Darren Mann,
assistant curator of the entomology department of
Children learn to fear insects
Up to the age of 6 or 7, most children are not naturally
afraid of insects, Mann says. “At open events you find little kids want to
grab everything.” Later on many acquire “learnt fear”, transferred from
Yet while a few may deliver a bite or sting, 95 per cent
of the world's insects are beneficial to human beings, Mann explains. He
believes that understanding the importance of insects to our wellbeing - from
pollinating the cacao plant (which provides chocolate) to keeping down pests -
is crucial in encouraging children to care for the environment, he believes.
“Kids who have an interest in natural history and
ecology tend to be more responsible individuals in the future and understand why
dropping litter or setting fire to grassland is a bad thing.”
For children who become really hooked, bugs can make great
pets. According to Mann, cockroaches are robust, easy to keep and hygienic -
despite their unsavoury reputation - while tarantulas are placid, entertaining
and, provided you buy the right type (Mexican red-kneed are the best),
completely harmless. Mann has even used insects to help schoolchildren with
behavioural difficulties. One boy, whose attention constantly wandered in class,
recently spent two hours sorting tropical specimens in the museum.
Insect-mad today, scientists tomorrow
Indeed, it is the youngsters who are passionate about
scorpions and stick insects today who are likely to become the scientists of
tomorrow, says Dafydd Lewis, secretary of the Amateur Entomologists' Society,
which runs the Bug Club for young enthusiasts such as Rachel. Members aged
between 5 and 15 enjoy museum visits and field trips - including butterfly walks
and spider safaris - and benefit from the advice and encouragement of adult
experts. One youngster on a recent field trip discovered a stag beetle in an
area where they had previously never been seen.
“There is nothing - absolutely nothing - that is so much
fun as messing about with bugs,” Lewis enthuses. “They are very accessible,
and their life cycles are truly fascinating.”
At the Natural History Museum in
For information on the Bug Club and links to other events
and organisations, visit www.projects.ex.ac.uk/bugclub
A raft of bug-hunting, pond-dipping and creepy-crawly
handling events is taking place throughout the summer. Some incur admission
charges and some may need booking. Check with organisers.
Slimbridge Wetland Centre, Gloucestershire, (01453 891900; wwt.org.uk
). August 22 and 29 - Mothing by Moonlight. A talk at 9pm followed by an
expedition to observe moths. Book on 01453 891223.
Beewatch 2008 Map British
bumblebees and help their preservation. Simply record any species you see, or
e-mail digital photographs if you need help with identification, to the
Bumblebee Conservation Trust at bumblebeeconservationtrust.co.uk
Washington Wetland Centre,
Devil's Dyke, West Sussex, 01273 857712, nationaltrust.org.uk ); August 28 - Ugly
Bug Safari: search for minibeasts on the