From The Times

August 9, 2008

Bugs as pets

Insects - even cockroaches - make ideal pets and can nurture a love of nature in children

In love with bugs.

Wendy Moore

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 South London for a pond-dipping event with her mum Joss and three-year-old brother Magnus. Fascinated by insects since she was a toddler, she persuaded her parents to buy her a pair of cockroaches for her eighth birthday last April and has now bred 300 of the creatures (six different species) in tanks at home.

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 Worcester . “Mum thought I was going to have them for a few months and then get bored with them. But they are cute and cuddly. I am not frightened by them at all.”

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 for her.”

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 Oxford University 's Museum of Natural History . “If I take one of my tarantulas into the museum I will be covered with kids in seconds.”

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 their parents.

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 London , children can come face to face with live tropical moths and butterflies in the Amazing Butterflies exhibition or taste edible bugs at regular drop-in events. “I defy any child not to be fascinated by something you pull out of a pond,” says Stuart Hine, the insect information manager.

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.

Oxford Natural History Museum , Parks Road , (01865 272950; oum.ox.ac.uk ); Every Sunday, 2-4 pm - Drop-in family session with wildlife activity backpacks.

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

Natural History Museum , London , (020 7942 5000; nhm.ac.uk/nature-live). Until August 17 - Amazing Butterflies. Explore tropical moths and butterflies in the giant maze and butterfly house.

Washington Wetland Centre, Tyne and Wear, (0191 416 5454 ext 227; wwt.org.uk). Visit the new insect garden, with plants and features that attract insects, and the “insect hotel” where bugs can hibernate.

Devil's Dyke, West Sussex, 01273 857712, nationaltrust.org.uk ); August 28 - Ugly Bug Safari: search for minibeasts on the South Downs