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Fresh Eyes Column

by Caroline Downs

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Look at this . . .

Posted 7/16/13 (Tue)

One thing you may not know about me is that I was always the squeamish kid.

Wouldn’t touch a bug. Ducked when moths flew around lights in the house. Cringed when a cricket chirped under my bed.

I still refuse to develop much of a relationship with grasshoppers, but I’ve come a long way:

I don’t run from crickets any longer.

I can sit outside in the grass and calmly pick-and-flick the wood ticks crawling up my legs.

Spiders are more interesting than threatening.

I will actually touch and handle certain insects--notably ladybugs, butterflies and dragonflies.

Even so, I surprised myself last winter when I mentioned to someone that I was interested in putting together a children’s program focused on insects at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge.

Then I surprised myself even more when I talked to Kenmare Branch librarian Bree Aldrich about coordinating such an outing with the summer reading program.

Then I shocked myself by committing to a date and time.

And suddenly, I was making plans for catching and observing bugs, and for reading about and identifying bugs, and for getting creative with bugs.

True, I have a college degree in biology and I’ve been a science teacher, but insects have never been my strong suit.

On the other hand, you can have so much fun with them--the sizes, the shapes, the crazy facts about their eyes or lifespans or eating habits.

The Refuge’s management plan focuses on providing prime habitat for migratory waterfowl and certain migratory songbirds, and I don’t even know if insects are mentioned in the official, multi-page Comprehensive Conservation Plan document, but you know what?

The whole idea was to get kids outside to see what’s there, to make connections among the books they’re reading and the life around them, and to learn a little more about the neighboring national wildlife refuge.

Insects provided the perfect platform for those goals.

So 23 kids, ages 4 to 11, and I, with the help of at least 10 other adults along for the activity, searched for bugs, high and low, with nets and jars and buckets.

We looked in the air, on plants, in the water, and underground.

We spent three hours tromping around outdoors at the Boat Dock Day Use Area, mixing bugs and books and science and art. No one seemed too squeamish, and no one hid in the bathroom.

Instead, the kids got excited about the katydids, small crickets, aphids, ladybugs and water beetles they found.

We counted, with great enthusiasm, hundreds of tiny bugs that landed on pillowcases laid out beneath the shrubs we shook.

A caterpillar was a glorious discovery. A yellow butterfly was another. We looked very hard for bumblebees, to no avail, but earthworms, freshwater shrimp and snails proved fascinating, even though they are not insects.

I encouraged broadening the focus beyond bugs, as long as the kids kept repeating my favorite phrase of the day:

“Caroline, look at THIS!”

That’s what a day spent outside at a national wildlife refuge SHOULD be about, grasshoppers and all.

Many thanks to the Des Lacs NWR staff for providing equipment and resources to share with the kids, and for allowing me to volunteer. Many thanks to the Ward County Public Library and especially Bree for expressing an interest in the Des Lacs refuge. Much appreciation to the other adults who devoted their time to children, bugs and art that day.

And heartfelt gratitude to all the kids who participated in the program with so much energy. May you take every opportunity you can to go outdoors in order to  “Look at this!”