I am surrounded by eager faces demanding invertebrate identifications. There is a big moth with red on dark grey markings. I panic as my brain freezes then suddenly recall five spotted burnet moths. *
Here is a gloriously green metallic thick thighed beetle and a plant hopper.. And a sawfly larvae.. a garden spider spiderling…I am just about keeping up.. Phew.
When I was asked by an old colleague, a few wintery months ago, to give a family bug talk in Oxford, it was an easy yes for me. Especially easy as they were including bug hunting activities in a heavenly wildlife spot. Thank you Helen and Low Carbon West Oxford, for the invite and all your magnificent work.
So, I arrive at a stunning, wildlife-filled, ex-cricket ground on my birthday as it happens. Very soon I am having an thrilling time opening a box of treasures – insect sampling kits the wonderful organisers had bought in advance: pooters, nets, even the latest Collins insect ID guide. Treats for me let alone the children.
And those children got the gist of the task so quickly. With their parents and carers, they were soon enthusiastically bug gathering. So enthusiastically that it became necessary to move them from the fabulous meadow into the equally fabulous orchard to ensure minimal wildlife disturbance. This was a nice problem to sort!
One sweep with the butterfly nets and a whole range of bugs were caught. Pooters are another gadget entirely – a special glass or plastic container with two tubes attached, one for you to suck in and one to put near small bugs you want to examine. There is a gauze on the sucking end, so you don’t get a mouthful of angry bug. I was astounded by quickly the young children grasped how to manage this gadget. I could not ID fast enough! (See photo above!).
We found spiders, butterflies, moths, plant bugs, hoppers, bush crickets, caterpillars, mayflies and so much more. The sun shone despite doom warnings of rain and thunder. Hedgehog and mammal expert, who also is a great photographer, Hugh Warwick, took photos of the day. It was a good birthday.
Hogacre Common was the 14-acre site for our bug revels and it’s a wonderful community wildlife reserve, created out of a gift of a sports ground and pavilion, by Corpus Christi College in 2011. Annual rent is a jar of honey from the plentiful hives now on the stream lined site. The community have already planted thousands of trees, maintained an orchard, started a fabulous food growing and training site, and created wild areas and meadows to explore. The gorgeous old pavilion is a cafe, using produce from the site.
Every village, borough, town, should have such a resource for wilding ourselves, learning about nature in nature, and having community events rooted in nature.
Rebugging the planet is as much about rebugging attitudes as anything. It’s the chapter in my book that folk often comment on. I feel attitudes are changing and if this day was anything to go by, we have some seriously top-notch bug ambassadors in Oxford. If you live in the area do sign up to the Hogacre newsletters and go to the events and café.
But we need more. Do spread the word. And if you need any more reminders about why I wrote Rebugging, have a watch of this wonderful film by Professor Dave Goulson, the BBC, and Studio Panda.
*I am now quite convinced it was a cinnabar moth😏. hey ho.
This blog is all about rebugging the planet with children. I look at why it’s fun, and also vital to get children rebugging in families and at school, and I’ve provided a list of activities you can start with and resources from great organisations.
Why get rebugging with children at home or in a school?
Children are a ready-made interested audience, finding invertebrates intriguing, ambiguous and they usually want to know more. Their tiny size and being so different to the cuddle pets they know… This creates huge opportunity for fun and learning.. It means any activities are likely to be interesting for them and you. Always a good start.
There are also so many ways to build children’s skills especially if you are out in nature. You could be counting legs or ants, drawing and creating, looking and observing, staying still. It will lead to questioning, telling stories, and all these help build children’s skills for the future. This article talks expertly about how bugs are a great way to teach kids about nature.
But another reason to get rebugging with kids is to ensure they understand them and to avoid putting the ‘fear’ into them about bugs. Too many children quickly pick up messages from their carers and elders. The message often is, frankly, that any old bug they see is dangerous, dirty, going to sting you, going to climb into your ear and so on.
You need to take care, obviously around wildlife.* But the vast majority of bugs are utterly harmless. And they are all a hugely valuable part of nature and our lives in so many way (read my book for more on that!).
Sadly children can quickly loose the fascination. It turns to fear, disgust or disinterest. We all need to avoid doing that and actively starting doing positive activities about bugs will help enormously.
Children are the generation that will need to put protection of invertebrates and all nature at the heart of their lives, habits, consumption, economies and, eventually, their politics. They are critical.
Schools can do so much and many do. I’ve heard over the past few year of wonderful schools and teachers putting learning about bugs into their school time, being so creative and using local resources and community and local business help. They are building bug friendly spaces in school grounds and gardens. Many have been liaising with local companies to get supplies of soil, wood, tools and seeds.
So I have a few ideas here but this is just a tiny sample to whet appetites.. I also list some great organisations with downloadable resources. And its worth reaching out to local authorities, green and nature groups and businesses for help and resources.
A few ideas for activities
A bug hunt – select a few ways you can spot bugs or the presence of bugs in an area. Then ask the children to go find them and write down what they saw and talk about it after. Bugs are sensitive so may not be in view with loud children around but often ants, spiders, worms, flies and other flying insects can be seen. Do tell the children to stay still and quiet for a while in one spot. They may be surprised at what they see.
Be a bug detective – on a bug hunt, they may just see the signs of bugs – such as the mines of a leaf miner bug in a grass blade, bush or tree leaf – the white lines that show a larvae has chewed through the middle layers of a leaf like the sandwich filling – you can even see their tiny poos. They larvae (maggots) will then form a hard pupae you can sport and feel and emerge later as an adult. Moths and flies do this and horse chestnut trees tend to often have mines but many other plants like dandelions. Another sign could be a hole ina leaf where a bee cutter has been at work, a spiders web, a slime trail of a snail or slug, a worm cast of soil in the grass, or some ladybird eggs under a leaf. The children can be detectives and search for bug clues.
Drawing bugs – gather some books on bugs and ideally find some in a green space near you.. and ask the children to draw them.. looking out for special features like colours, strange shapes, how many legs (6 on an insect, 8 on a spider and so on). They could invent their own bugs.
What do bugs need? – get the children to think about what the bugs may need (much like what we need) and how they get these things. You could start to look at features on bugs which they have found and which may show how they get these. For instance the sucking mouthparts on a butterfly to get the nectar in flower, or pincers on a beetle to grab prey, or a web to catch food, slimy skin on a worm to move through soil..
Get an expert to talk bugs – Get the local wildlife experts and organisations (such as your local wildlife trust, RSPB group or nature group) to give a talk or a wildlife walk showing what’s there – they will have expertise and the right places to see bugs.
Make the school grounds and buildings bug friendly – with a beetle log pile, a solitary bee hotel (they don’t sting!), bushes and wildflower patches. A pond is great way to bring in the invertebrates and can be a safe place done carefully. Your home or school buildings can host flower pots and window boxes and attract pollinating insects most of the year. You can get the children to do designs and think about what the creatures may need.
Read bug story books – there are many out there now – and talk about what happens to the bugs – here is a good list from BBC Wildlife magazine for starters.
Keep invertebrate pets – I did keep Indian stick insects when my kids were young and that was fabulous – they are very easy to keep and free to feed. But do check out best care and what not to keep.
Some useful resources and organisations
Buglife The Invertebrate Conservation Trust – is a great organisation in the UK and you could download some of their resources here for children and schools – Activities to do with children and in schools
The UK Royal Entomological society runs Insect Week each year to introduce everyone but especially children to insects (sadly not all bugs!) – their website is here and is great with short animations to watch and discuss, lots of learning resources and plenty of ideas of things to do. And each you they run events around June time you can visit.
Garden Organic have fabulous school resources and a site to visit to learn about growing your school’s own bug friendly food.
RSPB have a load of great resources online which will include invertebrates as well as wider wildlife and birds especially . They have a wild welcome pack for children with a magazine designed for different age groups.
There are many specific bug organisations that have great learning resources too such as such as Butterfly conservation and Bumblebee Conservation Trust and many others so if you have a specific bug to look at, do see if there is an organisation for it – there usually is, do google it and I list many in my book.
The Field Studies Council have fabulous guides to use for identifying wildlife including bugs and they also and run field courses for schools at all key stages.
Happy rebugging with the children!
*I well recall a camping trip where my young children disturbed a wild bee nest! My youngest was stung many times but he recovered and did not become scared of bees. We explained why they stung (and gave him a good dose of antihistamine!).
The Organic Trade Board and its members have started a petition to BUG THE NEW PM: Save nature in your first 100 days of government. Please do sign it here.
A key part of rebugging is being part of the movement for change so please do sign if you can. And share the petition with friends, family, anyone you can!
Here’s their pitch if you need more info:
Nature’s keyworkers such as earthworms, ladybirds and bees don’t have a voice. They have no choice in the matter when it comes to the harmful pesticides and fertilisers that are being sprayed on crops, which is ultimately leading to their decline. We need you to help make their voices heard.
Not only are insects a vital part of a balanced ecosystem, providing food for other animals and recycling nutrients, they also play an essential role in our global food system. One in three mouthfuls of food depends on pollinators and without pollinators we wouldn’t have potatoes, strawberries, tomatoes, coffee, chocolate or cotton.
Organic farming works with nature, not against it, encouraging natural predators like ladybirds and pollinators like bees and butterflies rather than spraying harmful pesticides. As a result, on average, plant, insect and bird life is 50% more abundant on organic farms. There are up to seven times more wild bees in organic grain fields. So if nature did have a voice – it would choose organic.
If pesticides were substituted for more sustainable farming practices (like organic), this could slow or reverse the decline in insects.
In the build up to Organic September 2022, the Organic Trade Board (OTB), its partners and 150 members, on behalf of the UK organic industry, is using this petition to give nature a voice for the very first time.
On behalf of nature, the OTB is requesting that in their first 100 days of government, the new Prime Minister commits to protecting nature in any policies – and represents the UK at the crucially important UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in December.
The hope is that even tiny insect-sized steps can make a big difference when it comes to keeping nature’s crucial keyworkers thriving.
Illustration by children’s author and illustrator, Kate Pankhurst, who is also a relation of the Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst
I have been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘rebugging the farm’ lately. This was partly prompted by a wonderful session I did with two great bug lovers Gillian Burke of BBC SpringWatch fame (who also wrote the forward to my book) and the great dung beetle advocate Sally-Ann Spence @minbeastmayhem and @berrycroft_hub) at the Oxford Farming Conference in January 2022.
It was great fun and so interesting to hear from them both. You can watch the exchange here
Afterwards I was recalling the days I have spent on farms over the years and what I’ve learnt. It takes a fair bit for farmers to embrace the bugs after all these years of trying to remove them. I put a fair bit in the book but there is so much to say and so little space! A few thoughts I want to record here and I may expand on this…
‘It takes a whole village’ – To rebug the farm takes a whole food community – not only the farmer and their staff…but those that supply inputs to the farm – because these will have to change (pesticide reductions, introducing new tools, knowledge, finance!), and those that buy the produce (because what is produced may look different, less ‘perfect’, or just a different crop to suit the needs of the new system) and everyone in between.
It takes a whole lifetime probably … mistakes will be made and farmers will sometimes have to go backwards to accommodate a less than responsive market.. If the produce buyers demand perfection its hard to leave the bugs alone and bugs are an unreliable bunch at the best of times and we have a climate crisis ahead .. and so on. Dung beetles are a great case in point but can be coaxed back with the right measures, stock, and understanding and will reward your efforts a hundred fold.
It takes a willingness to embrace diversity and more complexity and more knowledge on the whole farm – with more rotations, different breeds of crop or livestock, and a more knowledge-input less chemical approach. Mixing livestock with crops and trees will be more suitable in many situations, moving away from the specialisation we’ve come to expect. Farmer to farmer learning will be key.
It takes a bit of mess – more places the useful bugs can find a refuge, a nesting place, a food source… rebugging usually likes more mess.
But in return
It gives more beauty, wildlife and natural rewards which a farmer can bank and bank for the next generation of farmer to come
It can save costs – those biological controls may be a bit unreliable but they costs little, will self replicate each year and don’t need to be sprayed around taking machinery, fuel and time. Yields may go down but so will costs and the bottom line may not suffer. You may find more reward in the market place too if you can sell more direct or get an accreditation that means better prices or a more conscientious buyer.
It will probably gain you more support from the taxpayer as grants will be based on providing ‘public goods’ like more wildlife and protected water courses. Markets are strong for organic produce which always holds more invertebrates because the organic farmer needs them to do the work – keeping pests at bay and building soil fertility.
Just a few thoughts on why rebugging the farm is a thing..
There are many more great experts out there too willing and able to share. I will post some contacts but for starters