Teaching entomology in a world afraid of bugs

Perched on a cantaloupe slice, the palm-sized animal – with its glossy chitinous surface and half dozen legs – sat motionless. The black-green bug looked more like a statuesque chess piece and less like a creepy insect. It was probably the reason why Dan Babbit chose the Atlas Beetle as his companion and ice breaker. Babbit is the manager of Smithsonian’s Insect zoo, and that day he was addressing a new group of museum volunteers and he started with the blunt question: “Is anyone afraid of bugs?”

Never before had I’d seen a science discussion start with a disclaimer.

Dan was being careful before bringing the live specimen for the volunteer’s closer inspection. Who can blame him – in the US alone there are 19 million entomophobes. How can we teach entomology to such a crowd? Can we break the bug phobia stereotype?

Here at Sci-Ed we started investigating reasons that may explain the fear of bugs. We mentioned repulsion, disease-carrying potential, cultural aversion, and even deeper philosophical issues. Now, we list suggestions to encourage the general public to value insects:

  1. Changing our perception of the bug. Phillip Weinstein recommends we “put insects in a more positive light, and to remove such fears as may be passed on from parents, zoos and museums can play an integral educational role.” At the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo, Dan Babbit creates a safe and fun environment for visitors to learn more about insects and arachnids. Which brings me to the next topic…

    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.

    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.

  2. Creating mesmerizing museum exhibits.  At the Smithsonian’s insect zoo, visitors can face their fears by watching the daily tarantula feedings. Children sit on the floor in expectation, and adults toughen up to touch a cockroach atop a researcher’s hand. At the Florida Museum of Natural History, visitors can watch students and volunteers pin butterflies for the museum’s lepidoptera collection. (An epic collection, housed in a three story building, library-style: each book-sized spot contains one box of butterflies or moths). If you catch curator Andy Warren, you may even get a behind the scenes tour of oddities in the moth and butterfly world.

    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

  3. Fostering cool class projects, like spidernauts. Babbitt, who keeps a space spider in his freezer, has talked to Sci-Ed earlier about engaging the public and raising their interest in arthropods. Stories like the space spiders brought a lot of attention to those invertebrates. Jumping spiders were sent to the space station and broadcast to thousands of classrooms on Earth. Kids accompanied the arachnid’s journey by observing their own hand-caught spiders. After the experiment was over, one of the spiders, Nefertiti, was flown back to Earth and housed in the Insect Zoo. Visitors who may walk right past a spider exhibit felt compelled to stop and ask about the space spider.

  4. Exploring resources. Websites have resources for kids, such as a bug identification chart (pdf) and “mini-beast” mansion tutorial.   Bloggers such as Alex Wilde and Bug Girl are popularizing the insect topic.

  5. Taking advantage of outreach programs. According to entomologist turned psychologist Jeffrey Lockwood, “About 20 percent of children fearful of spider and insects report learning their aversion from parents”. Kids are not innately afraid. During a visit to the University of Florida Entomology Department, I asked resident expert Stephanie Stocks if she observes the parent effect during school visits. Much like Dan Babbit, Stocks brings zoo bugs in tow. She reported that, up to second grade, children are unanimously curious. Some older kids, however, learned from their parents that they should step back. Arachnologist Chris Buddle visits kids in their classrooms and describes the experience in his blog – along with a powerful call to arms. Buddle states that spending time teaching kids about entomology is always worth it.

    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.

    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.

  6. Participating in pop culture.  Like we said before in Sci-Ed, using storytelling and heroes to teach science won’t hurt. One study (pdf) found, unsurprisingly, that children did much better at identifying Pokémon types as opposed to animal or bug species. Films such as A Bug’s Life and Antz took the anthropomorphic route. In the words of Lockwood, “If turning humans into insects countenances hate, then turning insects into humans has the opposite effect. Artists humanize insect heroes by transforming their alien features into eyes, mouths, heads, and appendages more like our own.”

    A Bug's Life. Photo credit:  Walt Disney Pictures.

    Anthropomorphized insects in A Bug’s Life. Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

  7. Keeping a pet bug.  Curator Andy Warren told me he was once afraid of spiders, which sounds like a peculiar setback for an entomologist. Warren conquered his fear after caring for a pet tarantula. One study tracks thousands of children to look into the effects of  keeping an invertebrate pet. The authors observed several benefits from keeping a pet insect that go way beyond loosing fear of bugs and contribute to an expanded view of ecology and science.

I might get a pet beetle myself. And hope that one day we won’t need to start classes by asking if anyone’s afraid of bugs.

Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

References and further reading

  • Balmford et al. Why conservationists should heed Pokemon. Science 295 (5564): 2367b, 2002.

  • Prokop et al. Effects of keeping animals as pets on children’s concepts of vertebrates and invertebrates. International Journal of Science Education, Vol 30, No 4, 431-449, 2008.

  • Snaddon et al. Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness? PLOS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002579 , 2008.

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5 Responses to Teaching entomology in a world afraid of bugs

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  2. Pingback: Teaching about Insects in a World Afraid of Bugs – Entomology Today

  3. Tuomas Aivelo says:

    While working as a guide in zoo, there were at some point theme days when I just sat in the lobby of Africa house with a terrarium of Malagasy hissing cockroaches and let people look at them closely and if they looked reliable enough, take them on their hand. It was pretty much a rule that small children for up to something like 10 years were fascinated with insects and wanted to touch them, whereas kids older or their parents were freaked out by cockroaches.

    The most memorable moment (and probably the clearest reaction of learning I’ve ever seen) was when a girl of I’d guess six years come to cockroaches really enthusiastic and wanted to take them to her hand. Her mother hadn’t noticed what was happening but when she saw the insects she shrieked _really_ loudly: “Don’t touch those, they’re horrible.” The girl got very scared, took couple of steps back and didn’t dare to come close the cockroaches anymore.

    So, I’d say have the kids young enough in a setting where there’s no strong influence from their parents or make sure their parents know what’s going on and keep their opinions to themselves :)

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  4. Ian Renedder says:

    It would help if entomology societies weren’t so secretive. I have a developing interest in insects, but the various entomology societies in Australia have MINIMAL info on their websites as to what they do, share MINIMAL photos to get you started or enthused, and what little I have been able to find has been horribly ELITIST (eg using scientific terminology without plain English translations).

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    • Bugwitch says:

      Part of the problem is historically scientists have pretty much kept to themselves and it’s taking some serious arm twisting to get some movement and transparency. We are making a lot of progress though. The Entomological Society of America not only keeps a fairly updated and accessible website but they also maintain a blog. A number of us (myself included) have just given the whole matter an additional push by maintaining entomological blogs of our own.

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