Environment | Flora and Fauna

For the Love of Bugs: Educators Make Insects Their Cause

EarthFix | Nov. 21, 2011 11 p.m. | Updated: Jan. 20, 2015 1:22 p.m.

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PORTLAND — Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker are two entomologists on a mission.

They want people to think differently about bugs.

Give them 15 minutes and they can change squeals of disgust into “oohs” and “ahhs” of wonder.

“We provide an environment where it’s okay to geek out about bugs,” Reddick said.

Reddick and Honaker have master’s degrees in entomology from Texas A&M University and have traveled the world studying insects and arthropods. Honaker’s research has focused on aphids and the economic impact on pecan trees; Reddick studies biodiversity and the distribution of camel spiders in Kenya, Africa.

But a few years ago they turned their energy toward environmental science education. Under the moniker, The Bug Chicks, Reddick and Honaker take their menagerie of bugs to classrooms throughout the Northwest. They have produced a series of web videos teaching students of all ages about the world of insects and other arthropods.

Why change from researchers to educators?

“What happens with research,” Reddick said, “is that it goes into journals that scientists read. And that’s great and important. But we need to translate that science into a language that everyone can understand.”

Insects and spiders are often overlooked when it comes conservation, according to study published this month by researchers at the Smithsonian Institute. In fact, these researchers found that vertebrates are much more likely than invertebrates to be included on threatened or endangered species lists, even though invertebrates are just as vulnerable when it comes to environmental degradation. And they play equally critical roles in the biodiversity of an ecosystem.

One reason for the disparity, researchers say, is a lack of understanding for the ecological services invertebrates provide.

And from what Honaker and Reddick have seen, another reason is that there’s widespread prejudice against bugs.

“People think that bugs are dirty, that bugs are gross, and that if you have bugs in your house it means that your house is dirty and you are gross and that’s not true,” Reddick said. “Bugs are really clean, actually.”

As Reddick held a giant hissing cockroach up for a classroom of students at the Tucker-Maxon Oral School in Portland, the cockroach began to methodically grab its antennae and chew on it.

“Look!” one boy said. “Is he cleaning himself?”

“Yes, most insects like to keep their bodies clean because they live outside,” Reddick said.

“Their antennae are sensory organs. They use them to see and hear, so it’s important to keep them clean,” Honaker added.

“So if a bug has an antennae they like to stay clean?” the boy asked.

“That’s right,” Reddick said.

Minutes later, the boy who had squirmed at the mention of cockroaches, was gingerly cradling the cockroach in his hands, studying it closely with his jaw gaping.

Mission accomplished.

Getting children to open their minds about bugs, Reddick said, helps them learn how to conquer their fears and keep their minds open about other tough subjects.

And developing respect for bugs, helps children develop a love and respect the environment, Honaker said, “We all live on the same planet, and if it’s healthy, we’re healthy.”

“And if you love a place, you’re not going to mess it up,” Reddick added.

After their bug workshop, Honaker said, “Some of these kids will be the next generation of scientists. And they will do the research and then translate that for the next generation of scientists.”

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