Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Kids Put Insects to Good Use as Source of Amusement

What good are insects? It is a question as old as time itself. There is an ecological answer. Insects are a major component in the web of life. These six-legged creatures do all kinds of jobs in nature. Insects pollinate plants, recycle dead plant and animal material, feed on plants and other animals, and provide food for many animals. Some plants even consume insects. For instance, the aptly named Venus flytrap!

Of course, on a very practical basis, for some of us, at least, insects provide jobs. Entomologists, insect pest control operators and some chemical company personnel wouldn't be employed in the absence of insects.

Kids don't worry about adult things like ecology and employment. But young people have creative minds, and, over the years, kids have conjured up many ways to utilize insects for entertainment purposes -- for instance, having an insect pet. While insects aren't warm and fuzzy, they can be fascinating creatures. Many are the caterpillars that have ended up in a cage in some young youngster's room. A successful caterpillar pet might, through the miracle of metamorphosis, end up a moth or butterfly!

Catching fireflies has been a popular activity for children for hundreds of years. Few children, who grew up in the United States east of the Rockies, haven't pursued these "flies of fire." Of course, a successful capture results in fireflies in a jar -- a jar, no doubt, retrofitted with holes poked in the lid to provide air for the little flashers. Some kids might have even squashed a firefly to make a glow-in-the-dark ring!

Speaking of killing insects -- eliminating pest insects has been a human activity of long standing. Swatting flies comes to mind. Indeed, this has been a good job for kids, a job many approach with gusto. After all, the activity has all the elements of a good TV program, the thrill of the chase, blood and guts, and success stories! But swatting flies is, well, swatting flies. Some kids have made fly swatting into a decapitation process. It works this way: use a knife to sever the fly's head. It's not easy; with multifaceted eyes, the fly has good vision. The fly also has quick reflexes. And can fly. Now, there is a challenge worthy of reality TV!

Farm kids of days gone by had a lot of opportunities to amuse themselves with insects as the foil. Few farm children who had to milk cows by hand did not take the opportunity to douse a fly with a stream of milk straight out of the cow's udder. You could hit a fly with such force that you could knock it into the pail of milk. Fun, but probably not good for the milk quality! After all, flies are not known for being picky about where they walk, prior to flying to the milk house.

Another insect that provided amusement for country kids who trod in cow pastures was the dung beetle. These beetles find a fresh cow pie and fashion a ball out of the manure. With great enthusiasm, two beetles roll the ball around the cow paths. The beetles are intent on burying the dung ball as a food resource for the offspring. A creative kid can steal the ball and get a great deal of enjoyment in watching the beetles search for their treasure.

Grasshoppers are always a source of entertainment. But first you have to catch one and get it to regurgitate. The tobacco spit is used by the grasshopper to discourage a predator set on a grasshopper meal. When you taste the spit, you can understand why it works. Such activity today is known as experiential learning.

The ultimate insect-related activity for pure excitement was the encounter with a nest of stinging insects. Bumble bees were great for a fear-factor episode long before the TV program of that name. It works this way. Find a friend or two and arm yourselves with a suitable weapon. Tennis rackets work well. Stir up a bee nest, stand back to back and swat them before they sting you. This is the ultimate test of courage and friendship. There is an old saying about "stirring up a hornet's nest." It has something to do with bad things that can happen. That is exactly what a kid who did such a thing found out. From practical experience, I know this to be true. Just call it a learning experience!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox