Featured image of post Successful bug hunting
Episode 20

Successful bug hunting

As we think about moving into the new school year I hope teachers will try and make more use of outdoor spaces. A staple outdoor activity is the bug hunt or minibeast safari. It’s also a super easy activity to do as a family in almost any outdoor setting.

  • Tips for success in finding invertebrates. (0:00)
  • A who’s who of reliable invertebrates to expect. (8:17)
  • Suggestions for how to plan effective lessons incorporating bug hunting. (16:20)

Setting up the space

Choose an area of your school yard which will be relatively undisturbed. Make sure there will be enough space for the whole class to hunt at the same time.

Think about how kids will access the space. Raised beds can act as subtle indication not to walk on the habitat. Linear log piles against a wall/fence allow good access and provides a guide for tidying up the log pile after use.

Access could be from a path from a path. If you have space for a larger meadow, mow a path through it and allow the rest to grow tall. Alternatively, leave a 1m strip of a playing/sports field to grow tall.

Don’t over design the space. Logs piles which are too rigidity/neatly arranged will quickly look like a disaster zone. Consider having a well defined log area rather than perfect stacks of logs.

Log piles

Logs 40-60cm long, 10 cm diameter is a good compromise of small enough for most kids to look under easily and safely, take a while to break down, not too many logs to make a decent sized pile. Smaller pieces of wood are more likely to go missing through play and can be a pain tidy up. Have more than one pile if at all possible, allows kids to spread out.

Upturned flower pots and coarse wood chip is a good substitute if a log pile is not possible.


Can shake branches and catch what falls out on beating trays, old sheets/pillow cases, or large pieces of paper. Choose native species which are more likely to support local insects. Caterpillars can be very picky eaters. More exotic garden plants may not be suitable food plants for caterpillars. In the UK willows and elms work well, host a range of butterfly and moth species.

Rose family like roses and bramble are fantastic, but thorny. More a risk to nets and equipment than kids once they recognize it. Thornless varieties are available.

Meadow areas

Wildflower meadow seed mixes are tempting and host many species, but do not stand up to ‘investigation’ by kids. Grasses are more robust to trampling and handle sweep netting very well. Another option are grains like wheat and barley. Harvest own birdseed in autumn!

Include yellow rattle, parasitizes grasses and reduces their vigour. Robust flowering plants to include: clovers, vetches, buttercups, wild geraniums, mints.

Invertebrates to count on


  • Follow them back to their nests, or follow them to their aphid herds
  • Look for soldiers, some ant species have specialized guard workers, look for larger ants with wider heads


  • Look for flat vs rounded species, newly moulted woodlice can look almost white
  • Flip them over and look for white patches or spots on the tail end, these are for breathing. Like gills they need to stay moist to exchange oxygen with air.

Snails and slugs

  • Can be found under logs and upturned flower pots on sunny days.
  • Snails are great for getting started identifying because there aren’t too many different species and they can generally be identified by looking at their shells. No microscopes or dissection necessary.
  • Look for a hole on the side of their head for breathing, this is the pneumostome.

Planning an effective lesson

Developing appreciation for animals or habitat

  • Spending time in the environment and with the animals is what is most important.
  • Being an interested adult and sharing in the experience is the most important support.
  • Allow the kids to take the lead in what they want to do and know
  • Monitor interactions with the habitat and animals to keep kids safe, animals treated with respect, keep disturbance to the habitat reasonable
  • Range of equipment available but not necessary to use, paper and pencils, camera, field guides
  • Introduction mainly about health and safety, use of equipment, and treatment of animals

Exploring habitats

  • Frame looking for invertebrates with concepts about habitats.
  • Consider collecting from specific habitats/microhabitats and observing in separate containers so they can be compared
  • Role focus becomes structuring interaction with the location
  • Point out different locations which might be good for exploration
  • Steer discussions towards where animals were found and what they might have been doing there


  • Frame looking for invertebrates with what types of invertebrates they might find
  • Sort or isolate animals collected for more detailed observation
  • More time devoted to observation of invertebrates - consider strictly limiting the number of different invertebrates observed and returning all the others
  • Role focus during collection becomes again monitoring H&S, animal welfare
  • Once invertebrate have been collected, refocus on observing invertebrates and applying classification skills/knowledge

In general

  • May be helpful to refocus the group between collecting and observing

    • Recap classification and invertebrate orders, key characteristics
    • Refocuses the kids on the objective of the session
    • Settles energy levels and helps transition from exploration, moving quickly to catch things, towards working carefully
  • Visit the same location more than once if you can.

    • First visit about exploration and developing appreciation. Second visit they will already have some familiarity with the site and are will be less conflicted about spending time focusing on a topic instead of exploring where they want.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring classroom elements out of doors to help.

    • Whiteboards with instructions/keywords, if they help in the classroom they can still help outdoors. Students who benefit from those support will still benefit from them.
  • Familiarity with the site is invaluable.

    • Learn the locations you can count on for things to be hiding.
    • What are the animals you find most reliably?
    • Develop resources which link with what you find in your area.
  • Focus on different areas depending on weather.

    • In hot dry spells log piles can become dry, and their normal residents can move underground. You can cheat by watering the log pile a few hours before use.
    • Grass and shrubs work well on sunny days and in dry spells, but are not great in wetter conditions. Insects found can be squashed by soggy nets or can drown in trays.

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