My 9yo son is most definitely a future entomologist. Everywhere he goes, he flips over logs and digs through debris to find new and unusual bugs. While many parents might squirm when they have a bug in their face (and believe me I do when it comes to things like dobsonflies), I try to turn it into a learning opportunity.
While we do the obvious things like researching each bug he finds and reading lots of books from the library about insects, I also allow him to bring many of the bugs home. I know many of you are cringing at the thought of actually bringing more bugs inside. But bugs can actually be an educational, cheap and easy pet. Read on to learn how to keep insects as pets and how you can use this as a great teaching tool for your kids.
First, decide what kind of insect to keep as a pet.
This step will require some research (teaching opportunity alert!). Some bugs are easier to care for than others. For example, the patent leather beetle (or the horned passalus or bess beetle) requires very little care. All they need is a piece of rotting wood and a regular misting of water (check out this guide for caring for bess beetles). They even eat their own poop so you don’t need to clean their habitat! The patent leather beetle is my son’s absolute favorite bug pet because they make a squeaking sound when held. They are gentle, slow-moving arthropods. Despite their vicious-looking jaws, they don’t bite, and they can’t fly or climb glass.
The praying mantis, on the other hand, is a little more difficult. They need a specific humidity and temperature to survive as well as an enclosure that is at least three times their body length so they have room to move around (see this guide for caring for the praying mantis). They also eat live prey, such as flies, crickets and caterpillars, so you need to be prepared to catch bugs every few days or buy some at the pet store or online.
Second, find your new bug pet.
Many insects, including exotic ones, can be purchased online and even in some pet stores. You can find things like praying mantis nests on eBay so your child can hatch their own. Personally, I find it more fun and educational to find bugs around your own home. Patent leather beetles can be found hiding under decaying logs. Mantis nests are hiding in plain sight on the branches of bushes and trees. Caterpillars can be found munching on the plants in your yard. Finding these creatures can be like a treasure hunt for your child, and a great opportunity to learn about the habitat and food sources of different bugs.
Third, create a habitat for your pet.
As mentioned above, different insects will require different habitats. For many, a large jar will do but others will require something larger like an aquarium. The size of the habitat will also depend on how long you will keep your bug. If you are only keeping it around for a day or so to observe, then a jar will do just fine. We keep a steady supply of glass and plastic jars around for exactly that reason. If you want to keep patent leather beetles around for a while, an aquarium is a better choice. You can buy a butterfly habitat for flying insects, just choose one with a zipper so that it seals well (we learned that lesson the hard way with our recent batch of baby praying mantises).
Fourth, figure out what your pet bug likes to eat.
Another great opportunity for kids to do some research! For some bugs, this is easy. For example, I always tell my son to pay attention to what type of plant he finds his caterpillars on because this is most likely what they like to eat. Then, we make sure to keep a fresh supply in the caterpillar’s enclosure. For meat-eating insects, you will need to keep a supply of live bugs for them to eat. Pet stores often sell things like meal worms or crickets or your child can collect them outside. You can also build your own fly traps to catch meals for your pet bugs.
Our recent batch of baby praying mantises were particularly tricky to feed because they needed tiny prey and our fruit fly trap wasn’t working (I think because the weather was too chilly). My husband devised an ingenious method of feeding praying mantises by putting a flashlight in their enclosure and setting it outside at night (with the lid slightly open). Within minutes, it was full of tiny bugs! He closed the habitat and let the mantises feast.
Finally, observe and enjoy your bug pet!
Your child can pay attention and even keep a journal regarding what the bug likes to eat, when it is most active, how it interacts with other bugs, what kind of noises it may or may not make, and whether it mates. Encourage your child to draw pictures of the bug and engage in a discussion about the different parts of an insect. Talk about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly. Check out books from the library about insects, and do research online. Read biographies about famous naturalists and entomologists (stay tuned for a post about this in the future). Find novels about other children who love nature and bugs (stay tuned for more about this as well).
We discovered a great book about keeping bugs and other creatures as pets – Pets in a Jar: Collecting and Caring for Small Wild Animals. But there are also tons of resources online available through a simple Google search!
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