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Insect Science Projects

Simple, Fun, and Educational Insect Science Projects

The projects below are easy to set-up, take a minimum of material, and are educational. They are also fun. Best of all, they help us to shift our focus to the world of the very small and the wonder that it contains.

Checking out the ant food preference project.
Checking out the ant food preference project. | Source

Insect Science Projects versus Insect Science Experiments

In this article, I have provided information on science projects rather than science experiments. It’s an important distinction. A science project is something we do to help us engage with the natural world. It can be a way to observe something in nature or demonstrate a scientific principle. An experiment, on the other hand, is far more rigorous. Experimentation is a method of gaining knowledge and involves isolating a single variable, having a control group, and detailed measurement.

The projects below have the flavor of science experiments, but not the rigor. However, by adding some controls, isolating variables, and gathering detailed data, one could turn the latter three projects into interesting experiments.

Insect Collection
Insect Collection | Source

Insect Collections

I know that you already thought of this one. It’s the first thing that people think of when they think about an insect science project. Please allow me to make a few observations.

  • More important than the collection itself is that the collector gets out into nature and starts looking at the world in a much more detailed way. By necessity, our everyday visual orientation passes over the world of tiny creatures, but when we stop to look we realize that there is a world teeming with life that we rarely notice.
  • Insect collections tend to focus on the adult stage (reproductive stage) of the insect life cycle. This is an unfortunate human bias. Many insects spend more time in other stages of their life cycle, often with complex and interesting behaviors. Don’t forget about the other stages of an insect’s life.
  • Serious collectors use a kill jar, usually containing ethyl acetate, to kill newly captured specimens. Placing an insect in the freezer for a few hours works nearly as well and is more appropriate for young children. The exception to this is butterflies and moths; unless you can get them straight to a freezer they tend to beat themselves up in the holding container. Frozen insects tend to be brittle, so be careful handling them.

Purdue University has a great online guide to making an insect collection:

How To Make An Awesome Insect Collection

A yellow light with two sticky strips.
A yellow light with two sticky strips. | Source

The Yellow Bug Light Project

Yellow light bulbs are marketed as bulbs that will not attract insects. The idea is that the yellow light produced by these bulbs falls outside the sensory range of most insects. Testing this idea is a fun and illuminating (I couldn’t help it!) project.

I first did this project for a graduate entomology class. It turned out to be more interesting than I had anticipated. Some species of insect were clearly attracted to the yellow light. It’s important to do this experiment in the late spring to late summer, when plenty of insects are out.

Materials

1. One yellow bug light bulb.

2. One regular white light bulb equal in wattage to the yellow bulb.

3. At least eight sticky insect strips, sometimes called fly strips.

4. A yardstick, or measuring tape.

Directions

1. Place the yellow bulb in an outside light receptacle, a porch receptacle will work.

2. Measure six inches from the bulb and hang a sticky strip then measure six inches on the other side of the bulb and place another sticky strip.

3. In another receptacle, set-up the white light bulb the same way. It is important that it be far enough away that insects attracted to one bulb aren’t getting trapped on the sticky strips next to the other bulb. This would ruin your results. If you have to, you can put one of the bulbs on the back porch and one on the front porch. It’s is important to try to eliminate any other light sources.

4. At dark, turn on both lights.

5. After two hours, remove the sticky strips from around each bulb. Count and record the number of insects caught for each bulb.

6. On the second night, perform the same procedure, but this time switch the position of the bulbs. By switching the position of the bulbs, you are trying to account for any effect that the position of the bulbs might have on the results.

7. Be sure to remove the sticky strips at the end of each night. You don’t want to contaminate your data by catching insects during the day.

After just two nights, you should have some good data. The more nights you run the project, the better your data will be. You want to make sure that each bulb is in each position the same number of times. This means that you would run the project for 2, 4, or 6 nights etc.

Several food items placed equidistant from the center of an ant hill.
Several food items placed equidistant from the center of an ant hill. | Source
Fire ants devouring a cricket.
Fire ants devouring a cricket. | Source

Ant Food Preferences Project

This is a very simple, but fun little project. The idea is to see whether ants show a preference for one type of food over another.

Materials

1. Small pieces of different types of food. You only need one piece for each type Try to have something sugary, something starchy, and a protein. I had a dead cricket, part of a strawberry, a cotton ball soaked in a 1:1 sugar solution, a cotton ball soaked in vegetable oil, a grape, and a piece of raw potato.

2. Paper towels cut into approximately 3 inch by 3 inch squares.

Directions

1. Find an ant hill and place the food items on the paper towel squares around the ant hill equidistant from its center. You don’t have to use the paper towel squares, but it does make it easier to see what the ants are doing around each food item.

2. Wait and observe which food item the ants visit the most. It can take them awhile to find the food, so at first it might not look like much is happening. I set this up in my yard and visited it periodically throughout the day.

3. If it seems that the ants have a clear preference for one of the food items, switch the positions around so that each food item is in a different location. You want to make sure that the ants are showing a true preference for a particular food item and that it wasn’t just the easiest one for them to find.

In my case, once the ants found it, it was easy to tell what they preferred. I did this over the course of several days, feeding fire ants, Solenopsis invicta, and occasionally changing the types of food offered. They clearly preferred crickets to anything else that I offered.

If you want to read about how a more rigorous study was done on ant feeding preferences, check out this paper: Food Preferences in Colonies of the Fire Ant Solenopsis Invicta.

Close observation is important to any science project.
Close observation is important to any science project. | Source

Cricket Temperature and Activity Project

This project demonstrates that ectothermic animals lower their activity level as the ambient temperature gets cooler.

Materials

1. Two or more crickets. You can catch them. I bought mine. Bait shops and pet stores usually have them.

2. A clear container to hold the crickets. I used a pint jar. Any container that allows you to easily observe the crickets will do.

Directions

1. Place the crickets inside of the clear container.

2. Make a general observation of the crickets activity level. Are they moving around? Do they respond when you tap the container, or move it?

3. Place the container with the crickets inside a refrigerator. Check them every five minutes, or so. They will become torpid. You might even think that they are dead. Mine took about 20 minutes to really slow down. I left them in the fridge until they basically were not moving. I have left them in there for up to an hour.

4. As soon as you notice that the crickets have become inactive, take them out of the refrigerator and put them in a warm spot. As they warm up, they will become active and responsive again. When I did this the ambient temperature outside was 80°F at which the crickets were quite active.

This is a good demonstration of how the ambient temperature affects the behavior of ectothermic animals. The difference in the activity level of the crickets when they are cold versus when they are warm can be quite dramatic.

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