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University of Kentucky Department of Entomology - KENTUCKY BUG CONNECTION
Youth Entomology Resources | MIDDLE - HIGH SCHOOL


By Stephanie Baily, Extension Specialist & Joe Collins, Nursery Inspector
Updated 4/04 by Blake Newton, Extension Specialist

An insect unit isn't complete without live insects and spiders in the classroom.   You can buy insects and spiders online and at pet stores, or you can bring Kentucky insects to the classroom from your own garden or backyard.  You can also encourage students to collect live arthropods.  

Some insects and spiders should only be observed for a few days, but some can be kept for years.  Whether you want to keep a tarantula for 30 years, or a caterpillar for a few days, this guide will help you keep these critters (and your students!) safe and healthy. 



Containers: Mason jars, crispers, and plastic food containers all make excellent home for terrestrial arthropods.  In fact, almost any container can be used, so long as it is escape-proof and large enough for the bug.  Any container should be at least twice the creature's width and five times its width, or larger if the bug is particularly active.  Make sure that containers are completely free of chemical residues.  It is usually best to keep only one critter in each container: often, insects and spiders will fight or eat one another, even if they are herbivores!  Lids for insect and spider habitats need to have more or less ventilation depending on the species.  A rule of thumb: if you find the insect or spider in a moist environment, such as under a log in the forest, the lid should have enough ventilation to allow gas exchange, but it should also trap humidity.  To create this kid of lid, you can take a plastic lid, cut a few holes in it, and make it escape-proof by hot-gluing pieces of fabric over the holes.  An insect that is found out in the open will probably not need a high humidity level, and can be kept in a cage with a screen lid.

Food: Insects are picky eaters.  Often, they will only eat one kind of food.  We cannot list all of the foods that every insect likes to eat, but we will give you hints and places to look for this information.  If you cannot find out what kind of food a critter eats, either on this page or in another reference, or if you cannot provide the food, it is best not to keep the animal in captivity for more than a few hours.  

Water: Every animal needs water.  Insects and spiders are not exceptions.  Many of these creatures get their water from their food, but many will need an additional water source.  When in doubt, provide the creature with a small dish of water and mist the container with water every day.

Long-Term or Short-Term?  Whenever you or a student brings an insect or spider into the classroom, you will have to decide how long to keep the creature in captivity.  Certain arthropods will thrive in captivity for years, others should only be kept for a few days or less.  Some dangerous species should not be brought into the classroom at all.  Below, you will find lists of the best bugs for long-term captivity and short-term observation.

SAFETY: The vast majority of insects and their relatives are safe to bring into the classroom.  However, stinging insects like bees and wasps should never be handled, and it is probably best if they are not collected at all by younger students or by students who are sensitive to stings.  Young students should also avoid handling ALL spiders and centipedes.  Black widow spider and brown recluse spiders should never be collected by students of any age.  Make sure that they know how to recognize these spiders.  The following ENTfacts have identification tips for these dangerous spiders:

   Brown Recluse Spider
   Common Urban Spiders

If your students are bringing insects and spiders into the classroom, make sure that they know how to collect them safely.  To safely collect a bee or wasp, position a container or an insect net over the bug while it is sitting motionless.  When the bee or wasp begins to fly, it will fly upwards into the container or net.  Then, the lid can be popped onto the container, or the net can be folded onto itself to trap the insect.  The best way to collect spiders or centipedes is to "herd" them into a container using a stick or a leaf. 



Every science classroom should have a tarantula, hissing cockroaches, an observation honey-bee hive, or other "classroom pets" for students to observe on a long-term basis.  

Best Long-Term Bugs for the Classroom: The best arthropods for long-term classroom observation are probably tarantulas and hissing cockroaches.  Tarantulas, especially the "rose-hair" and "red-knee" varieties, are particularly easy to care for and will live for decades.  Hissing cockroaches do not live as long (1-5 years), but are equally easy to care for.  

Unfortunately, native Kentucky insects, while fascinating to study, are more difficult to keep long term than some of the exotic creatures.  Large wolf spiders are probably the best for a classroom.  They will live for 2-3 years and are easy to care for.  Another good option is a freshwater aquarium stocked with aquatic insects.  An aquatic insect aquarium requires quite a bit of maintenance, but not more than any other type of freshwater aquarium.  

For a complete list of the best arthropods to keep for long-term observation, visit our Pet Bugs section.  It contains specific long-term care information for the following insects and their relatives:

     Kentucky Arthropods - Introduction
         Praying Mantids
         Assassin Bugs
         Honey Bees
         Aquatic Insects
         Wolf Spiders
         Kentucky Scorpions

     Exotic Arthropods - Introduction
         Madagascar Roaches
         Emperor Scorpions



During the spring and fall, there are many arthropods active outdoors that can be brought into the classroom for temporary observation.  In many cases, it is best to release these creatures the same day that they are caught.  Some insects can be kept for several weeks, though, if the right resources are provided.  Listed below are care hints for some of the best temporary insect visitors.

Of course, any of the "long-term" creatures listed above, such as mantids and wolf spiders, can also be kept as short-term visitors!

CaterpillarCaterpillars:  There are hundreds of caterpillar species that live in Kentucky.  Large caterpillars are often brought into the classroom and can be raised into adult butterflies or moths when given the right kind of food.  All butterfly and moth caterpillars feed on plant leaves, but they are often very particular about what species of plant that they will eat.  Take note of the plant on which the caterpillar is collected.  As the caterpillar grows, bring in more of the same leaves each day.  Be sure to get the exact same kind of plant: sometimes, a caterpillar will reject even the closest relatives of its favorite plant.  To find out what a caterpillar eats, you will first need to identify the species.  Many books can help with caterpillar identification.  Butterflies and Moths (by Mitchell and Zim) and Peterson's First Guide to Caterpillars (by Wright and Peterson) are two inexpensive guides that show pictures of most caterpillars and give host-plant information for many species.  If you want to rear a caterpillar to its adult form, make sure that the caterpillar has a suitable place to pupate: some will pupate under dry leaves, some will suspend their cocoon from a stick.  Many will need to go through a "cold" period before they are ready to emerge as adults, and can be placed in a small container outdoors for a few months during the winter.  Again - research your caterpillar species and find out what it needs to pupate.

ButterflyButterflies and Moths: If an adult butterfly or moth is brought into the classroom or is reared from a caterpillar, it is usually best to release it as soon as possible.  Butterflies and moths will quickly damage their wings when held in a container.  In the case of newly emerged moths and butterflies, do not release them until their wings have fully opened and dried.  

Lady BeetleLady Beetles:  Lady beetles are active during the spring, summer, and fall, and can be kept in captivity for a few weeks if food is provided.  Lady beetles will feed on aphids and other tiny, soft-bodied insects (they will need at least 10 aphids per day, per beetle).  Provide water in a moistened piece of cotton.  Many lady beetles can be held in a single container without injuring one another.  It is possible to rear lady beetles in the classroom, but it is a time consuming process.  The beetles will readily mate and lay eggs in captivity, but the eggs will be quickly eaten by other lady beetles if they are not isolated.  There are several tricks to isolating lady beetle eggs: after females mate, they can be placed in individual containers, and then moved out once they lay their eggs (yes - they will eat their own eggs if they are not removed!).  As the eggs hatch, the larvae must then be isolated, or they will eat one another.  Lady beetle larvae will feed on aphids, and they must eat several each day.  For more information about lady beetle biology and identification, plus pictures of eggs and larvae, visit our Lady Beetle Critter File.

Bess BeetleBess Beetles: Also called "patent leather beetles" and "bessbugs," these large beetles always fascinate students with their curious squeaking sounds.  Several bess beetles can be housed together with a layer of moist soil and several large pieces of rotting wood.  They will usually not live in captivity for very long, however, so it is best to release them after a few days.

Walking StickWalking Sticks: Walking sticks are often common in oak trees during late summer.  They can be kept for a few weeks if oak leaves are supplied.  A walking-stick habitat should be tall to place oak clippings (in a small water-filled jar or vase) inside.  The walking sticks will likely stay on the oak clippings, which should be misted with water each day.  Walking sticks will not harm one another if housed together. Contrary to a popular urban legend, walking sticks are not dangerous and they cannot sting.

Milkweed BugMilkweed Bugs:  These red-and-black insects are close relatives of stink bugs, and are often found on milkweed plants in the summer and fall.  They will feed on milkweed plants when it is available, and they can also be maintained on unsalted sunflower seeds during the winter.  A few dozen of these insects can be kept in the same container and will complete their life cycle in captivity, but their cage often gets very messy. 

CricketCrickets: House and Field crickets can be mass-reared and are easy to maintain, but can be messy and smelly in a classroom.  They are an excellent food source for predatory insects, spiders, and fish.  For the complete details about cricket rearing, visit our ENTFact: Rearing Crickets.


MealwormMealworms: Like crickets, mealworms can be mass-reared in a large container.  They also tend to be less messy than crickets.  Mealworms are actually a type of beetle: the worms feed, pupate, and emerge as adults all in the same container.  For this reason, a mealworm colony is a great way to show students the life cycle of an insect with complete metamorphosis.  For all the details about rearing mealworms, visit our ENTFact: Raising Mealworms.

Cockroaches: The cockroaches that live in Kentucky are not as popular to keep in captivity as hissing cockroaches, but they are very easy to maintain.  Cockroaches can be found in basements and barns, especially around water.  To care for them, simply follow the care instructions for hissing cockroaches.
Other Arthropods:  Other than the arthropods listed above, most others should not be kept for more than a day using the general care care information at the top of this page.  

    Using Insects in the Classroom: A Teachers Guide to Six-Legged Science
    Starting an Observation Honey-Bee Hive


Kentucky Bug ConnectionYouth Entomology Resources | PRESCHOOL - ELEMENTARY
For preschool and elementary educational materials, please visit our adjacent site, KATERPILLARS.

Photos courtesy B. Newton and R. Bessin, University of Kentucky Department of Entomology.
Except "american cockroach" and "mealworm," courtesy USDA.

Original document: 19 April 2004
Last updated: 21 July 2005

This page is maintained by Blake Newton, Department of Entomology, University of Kentucky.
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