Kate on Conservation

Bug Safari: A fun way to get children outdoors this summer

child on a bug safari in the garden

The school holidays are a great time for children and parents alike to engage with nature.

Most of us are aware of the benefits of getting outside and interacting with our surroundings, in terms of improving our wellbeing and having positive impacts on our mental health. The same is true of children.

Research has shown that there are many benefits to children playing outdoors, including helping them to feel happier and calmer, with more opportunity to get rid of built up energy and to naturally absorb vitamin D — which is proven to help improve moods and create a positive mental attitude.

What’s more, children’s imaginations are often stimulated by the natural objects around them, away from the constraints of familiar indoor environments and technologies. Which is why going on a ‘bug safari’ is a great way to encourage kids to get outside and explore the world around them.

All you need to do is take a look around plants, soil, grasses and ponds (if you have one) to see how many insects you can find.

Keeping a tally, drawing sketches or writing down descriptions of bugs (i.e. What colour is it? Does it have wings? How many legs does it have?) are good ways of recording your findings, or using a bug book to help you identify the species you’ve uncovered.

10 bugs and insects you might find in your garden…

I’ve spent the last week or so teaching my daughter about the bugs and insects in our backyard.

In the strictest terms, the word ‘insect’ refers to a small arthropod animal that has six legs and generally one or two pairs of wings.

The word ‘bug’ is often used to refer to small crawling creatures, such as insects — and small animals that are not insects, such as spiders and millipedes.

This may not be the way that scientists use these terms (more on that later in the post!), but for the purposes of sharing our experiences, I’m going to use these words a little more loosely, to share with you the fascinating critters we’ve found just feet from our front door.

1. Moths

Apparently, there are more than 2,500 species of moth in the UK; some 900 species of large moths (known as macro-moths) and a further 1,550 or so species of micro-moths — meaning the chances of finding a moth in the garden are pretty high!

Bug Safari elephanthawk moth

This beautiful find, I’m reliably informed is an Elephant Hawkmoth.

We spotted it in the early evening, showing that at different times of day, you can find different insect species. Moths, in particular, are known for being seen around dusk.

2. Butterflies

I’ve previously written a blog post about the Big Butterfly Count, which is a citizen survey that I take part in every year. This year, results are being collected online until the 11th August 2019, so this is a great way to turn your bug safari into an important scientific contribution. Find out how to log your sightings here.

Bug Safari small white butterfly

This rather weathered little critter is a Large White butterfly, identified by the (albeit faded) black tips at the top of its wings, and a black spot on each.

3. Bees

Back in 2016, I learnt how to make bee hotels by reusing old plastic bottles and pieces of scrap paper (if you missed that, you can read all about it here).

One of the many interesting bee facts I learned during this time was that there are approximately 250 species in Britain, some with very different characteristics from one another; such as the fact that solitary bees do not sting!

Bug Safari bumble bee

As pollinators, bees (such as the bumble bees pictured above) help to produce more than three-quarters of the world’s crops, but they are under threat due to fewer suitable nest sites and fewer wild flowers.

There has also been an increase in pesticide use in the UK.

Of the approximate 250 bee species in Britain, 25% are listed as endangered. These guys are well-worth observing and appreciating in your garden.

4. Beetles

Who knew beetles could be so beautiful? There are so many beetle species in Britain (around 4,000), that it’s not too hard to find beetles in the soil or under a rock.

However, it was only recently that I discovered my first dor beetle (pictured below).

Bug Safari Dor beetle

They are a fairly large size (around 2.5cm long) and are actually a species of earth-boring dung beetle — mainly associated with cow dung.

Perhaps most exciting though, was to see how beautiful this creature looked underneath, with this bluish, purple sheen.

Bug Safari dor beetle

We actually found the dor beetle on its back, and helped him the right way up.

5. Arachnids

Of course, when most people think of arachnids, they think of spiders. But did you know there are many species of arachnids that aren’t spiders? (including mites, ticks, etc.).

Bug Safari harvestman daddy long legs

Although it looks like a spider, the Harvestmen pictured here is an example of an arachnid that’s technically not a spider.

Unlike a spider, it has no segmented body, but appears as one ball-like structure in the middle of legs that are much longer than its body (which is where it gets its nickname; daddy longlegs).

The front legs are used as feelers, as they have poor eyesight.

The harvestman has no fangs and no venom glands, does not build webs, and does not liquefy food like a spider, but eats small pieces of prey instead.

6. Caterpillars

Ok, so perhaps I’m cheating a bit here, as I’ve already listed butterflies and moths — but to a child, caterpillars seem very different to their ultimate winged form.

Bug Safari Cinnabar moth caterpillar

It’s interesting to see the difference in colouration and pattern between caterpillars and their moth/butterfly counterparts — and its something that can excite and amaze little ones.

These orange and black stripey caterpillars we discovered, are Cinnabar moth caterpillars. They will eventually complete their metamorphosis to look like the below image.

Image source: Pixabay

7. Wasps

Wasps might not be the top of your list of welcomed garden visitors, but there are many more types of wasps to be discovered than the black and yellow ice-cream stealing kind.

Bug Safari Pimpla rufipes the black slip wasp
Pimpla rufipes, also known as the black slip wasp

We discovered this black slip wasp, a species of wasp belonging to the family Ichneumonidae.

Large females are the largest ichneumonids in Britain, though some can
be considerably smaller, and males are particularly variable in size.

They are particularly common in pine forests and around log piles, where large horntail wasps burrow into dead timber.

8. Hoverflies

Hoverflies notoriously resemble other insects, such as bees and wasps — which means they can often go unnoticed or undetected among other insects.

Bug Safari hornet mimic hoverfly
Would you be fooled?

This big beauty is the hornet mimic hoverfly; and it’s the largest hoverfly species in the UK at almost 2cm long.

It also known as the ‘belted hoverfly‘ (due to its stripes), it is an excellent mimic of the hornet, but is harmless to humans. We were delighted at this find.

9. Ladybirds

Ladybirds are my daughter’s favourite garden critters at present — and in many cultures they’re considered good luck!

Bug Safari lady bird

This is the UK’s most commonly seen species; the seven-spot ladybird (pictured above), which has a shiny, red and black body.

In it’s year-long life, a single seven-spot ladybird consumes more than 5,000 aphids — and many other plant-eating pests too — meaning they’re probably a favoured species of many plant lovers and farmers too!

10. Bugs

For scientists, the word bug has a much narrower meaning than that which I’ve used here. 

In the strictest terms, bugs are classified as insects that have mouthparts adapted for piercing and sucking, which are contained in a beak-shaped structure.

Scientists would therefore classify a louse as a bug, but not a beetle or a cockroach.

In fact, it is said that scientists often call lice and their relatives ‘true bugs’ to distinguish them better from what everyone else calls bugs.

Can you find any ‘true bugs’ in your garden?

How good are your insect identification skills?

With that in mind, I have no idea whether the creature I captured in the photograph below is actually a bug. Or an insect for that matter.

Unidentifed Bug Safari insect

In fact, I have no idea what it is! Can you help? Leave your answer in the comments below.

And please let me know what you on your own bug safaris!

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