Entomology Summer Camp Hands-On Experience

In July 2019, I was a volunteer assistant with the Entomology Summer Camp (ages 7-12) at Phil Hardberger Park in Bexar County, Texas. The camp lasted for 3 days and the group was led by Molly Keck, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service entomologist. Guided by her knowledge and understanding of the insect world, it was easy for everyone to learn from this special hands-on experience.

One of the interesting outdoor activities was called “Life in a Log.” As they reached into a plastic container filled with wood debris, the campers were encouraged to search for  beetles, centipedes, and millipedes.
No fear!

Each morning the campers went for a walk on a park trail with their nets, looking for more insects. On the second day, nature gave us an unexpected surprise when one of Ms. Keck’s interns found a Texas-sized female walking stick camouflaged by green leaves on a tree limb overhead. The intern reached up and gently brought the walking stick down for all to see.
Wow! What an incredible discovery—good eye!

The length of this walking stick was so amazing, it immediately inspired a chorus of ‘Oooohs and Aaaahs’ from the entire group. Because they are always much bigger than the males, Ms. Keck said this particular walking stick was definitely a female (about 7 inches long). In all my life, and I have been around for a while, I have never seen another insect quite like this one.

Everyone wanted to gently touch her, because you never know if you will ever encounter an insect as big and beautiful as this ever again. It certainly felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially for me!As the campers continued to swing their aerial/sweep nets through bushes and plants —grasshoppers, wasps, butterflies and a variety of other insects were soon discovered. A few spiders (which are actually classified as arachnids) were also found.

“I’ve got a BIG spider,” someone yelled out, “Come quick everyone and look!”

Yikes! For whatever reason, although insects generally don’t bother me, the sight of a spider always makes me cringe a little. It’s probably because I was bitten a few times when I was child and still remember how much that hurt. As a result, although fascinated by spiders and intricate webs, I usually try to keep my distance. Maybe if I had been part of an entomology summer camp when I was younger, I would have overcome my ‘spidery’ fears long ago.

I did to take a few photos of the big spider in the net. The overall appearance is quite stunning and, after looking through a website with photos of Texas Spiders, I think it is a yellow garden spider  (Argiope aurantia).

A little farther down on the walking trail, we came across a large field with numerous dragonflies hovering near the ground over the grass. To the young campers, it looked like it would be relative easy to capture a few of them in their nets. Wrong answer. Dragonflies are incredibly fast and can change direction in the blink of an eye. As soon as everyone came running towards them, the elusive dragonflies flew upwards and slightly out of their reach.  After about 10 minutes of running around in the sun, one young boy got so frustrated that he threw his net up into the air and yelled, “GET IN THERE!”  It was an interesting approach, rather like a fisherman casting his net out into the water hoping to catch a fish. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Nice try though! A few campers were lucky enough to catch a dragonfly that morning, but others walked away from this field with an empty net.

After the humbling experience of chasing dragonflies, we returned to the classroom for lunch and a special treat of cricket chips!  I tentatively tried one chip and was pleasantly surprised. Turns out that chips made with cricket flour have a great taste and are also very nutritious. As it states in an article by Chirps: “These aren’t just empty carbs, folks. Unlike plant proteins, cricket protein is a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids, more b12 than salmon, and more calcium than milk.”

Because of the summer heat, we spent the afternoons inside the classroom learning more about the life-cycle of insects and the important role of insects in the environment around us. During that time, we also worked on a number of insect-oriented crafts and projects, which including creating insect collections.

Note: Permission to survey and collect insects was provided by Phil Hardberger Park employees. The park does not encourage taking insects from the natural areas without permission.
At the end of the last day, Ms. Keck brought in her gentle pet tarantula—Coco. It doesn’t have the same markings as the ones here in Texas, because Coco is a Chaco tarantula from Guatemala. After demonstrating how to treat a tarantula with respect and kindness, Ms. Keck told everyone that they could hold Coco in their hands, if they promised not to frighten her or make her uncomfortable with rapid movements or loud screams.

Both boys and girls were equally excited about the chance to have this gorgeous tarantula in their hands, so they readily agreed to be as quiet and as calm as possible. It was definitely the grand finale of an unforgettable experience in entomology—what a thrill!

I watched enviously as the tarantula went around the room from one set of hands to another, until it finally came to me. I looked at the spider and said, “I have never held a tarantula.”
“Would you like to hold it?”
“Yes, but…(pause)…Maybe next time,” I replied. “Maybe next time.”

What was I thinking?  Life is meant for living! I really wanted to know what it would feel like to have a live tarantula in my hands for a few moments. Now I realize that I should have taken the opportunity when it was offered to me, because there is no way of knowing when or if ‘next time’ will ever come.  So many lessons learned!


About Mary Strong-Spaid

You can find me any time wandering around in my own mind gathering thoughts.
This entry was posted in Bexar County, Entomology, Insects, Texas and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Entomology Summer Camp Hands-On Experience

  1. Timothy Price says:

    Excellent post. I love that walking stick. Ours don’t get anywhere close to that size. I guess everything is bigger in Texas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yikes…but wait. I am just working on a draft, or so I thought. Did this get published? I am not finished.
      ****OK. Here it is a day later. I am basically finished now. Thank goodness! I still don’t know exactly how it got published without me knowing it. Maybe a cat walked across the keyboard or some kind of ‘bug’ crawled into the program! ***

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh and…I should say….I love that walking stick too! I saw a few when I lived in Virginia, but none of them came close to the size of this one. And it looks very well fed and healthy too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Barb says:

    You are so lucky to have met a walking stick and it was huge, that spider is so beautiful. I remember when you got bit by a brown recluse spider in VA, your hand swelled up and it looked so painful, no wonder you cringed. Thank you for taking me on the lightening bug or beatle trip years ago, I loved that river trip and I don’t think I ever told you how much I enjoyed that night. Every time I see them come out it reminds me that trip, thank you for this story and wonderful memories.
    Stay safe,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh. I conveniently forgot about the brown recluse bite! It was hiding in a piece of old rubber mat flooring used for the set of an opera (the set had been in storage for years). For 2 weeks, I had to sleep in a recliner because I couldn’t lay down–as that bite gave me something similar to bronchitis. Couldn’t stop coughing, lost my voice, and it was difficult to breathe.
      I remember that lightning bug canoe trip too (should have taken some photos). The Rappahannock River was running low at the time, so the water was not very deep in spots and we got stuck… Had to get out and move the canoe to deeper water several times. It really was quite an interesting trip and I enjoyed it. Good memories.


  3. sarasinart says:

    That was quite an adventure! The walking stick was sure interesting and I would have touched that or held it. The tarantula, uhh, no.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a Wonderful World!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it is a wonderful world.
      Mother Nature never ceases to amaze me.
      Now I pray that the Covid-19 virus goes away, so we can all go back out and enjoy the world together once again.
      Very sad this summer–so many activities have already being cancelled.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Jet Eliot says:

    I found this absolutely inspiring, Mary, thanks so much. Wonderful to see kids, boys AND girls, enjoying insects, learning about them, handling them instead of fussing and freaking. These are the kinds of learning experiences that we need more of, so that people don’t grow up killing every crawly thing that comes their way, because insects are so crucial to our life on this planet. I laughed out loud at the boy throwing up his net to catch a dragonfly. And I heard myself yell “Wow” at the giant walking stick. Fantastic post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I also said WOW when I saw the walking stick. People say everything in Texas is bigger….looks like that might be true! I still back away from spiders but, when I was a preschool teacher, I did my best to teach children to respect and understand spiders (and not squash them). That’s why I wrote a poem about the “Big Wet Spider” (back in the late 1980s). I am not an artist, so the spider I drew looks a lot like a tired M&M candy with legs. I tied the pages together with a piece of yarn, and it still sits on my bookshelf. Here is the link: https://storieswithnobooks.com/2012/05/18/big-wet-spider/

      Liked by 1 person

  6. daeja's view says:

    This is wonderful in so many ways!!!! Beautiful situation, great photos. I would have wished to have held the tarantula too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! Somehow, I wasn’t quite brave enough to hold that tarantula! Thought I might be able to get a second chance this year. But with the Covid-19 pandemic and so many things being canceled, I don’t know what is going to happen. Everything is uncertain and things seem to change day by day. So far this spring (now summer as of yesterday), I have spent most of my time in my own yard—-pulling weeds. You can always count on weeds. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. J.D. Riso says:

    What beautiful creatures. I used to be terrified of spiders, but I now love them. However, I’ve never had the opportunity to hold a tarantula. You may have made the best decision, because if you’re not totally comfortable, you could get easily spooked by it and end up accidentally hurting it. They are very fragile. And they can bite when they are scared. Those fangs are big.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely trusted myself not to make any rapid movements or scream.
      But then I thought, WHAT IF someone else in the room says something very loudly and WHAT IF that vibration travels through the air and scares the tarantula in my hands. Yep. It was all of those pesky “WHAT IFs” crawling around in my mind that talked me out of holding that beautiful tarantula. Sigh!
      Many years ago, I worked in a preschool and I saw a few spiders get squashed unnecessarily. I wanted to teach the young children to be more compassionate and understanding of the things around them, so I wrote a poem and made a little book (held together with yarn) about a “Big Wet Spider” that just wants to get out of the rain. I posted that story/poem on this website in 2012–here is the link: https://storieswithnobooks.com/2012/05/18/big-wet-spider/

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What a great exerience for the kiddos. In fact, forget the kiddos, I want to go to this camp. It sounds like so much fun! I don’t wanna touch the bugs though — I’d rather admire them from a distance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would love to be an assistant for that entomology summer camp again. Everyone was so enthusiastic!
      One boy said, “I knew I loved bugs, but I never knew that I loved them this much!”
      (and then he asked me for some more ‘Cricket Chips’).
      Unfortunately, I don’t know what is going to happen this summer…..due to the Covid-19 virus. Right now, the news is saying there is a large spike in cases and hospitalizations in this area. It seems that life has been turned upside down and inside out. Sigh. I should have held the tarantula last year, when I had the chance!


  9. So loved this post. So positive and full of the natural world. I held a tarantula at an exotic animal birthday party my granddaughter had. I only did it as my then 8 yr old granddaughter also held it. 😲 and I was pleased I did. I was always afraid as a child of spiders, but as I grew older and didn’t want to pass on any fear to my young children, I overcame my fear, catching house spiders in a glass to take outside. The party also encouraged you to hold snakes, lizards of different sorts. cockroaches, stick insect. And other more fluffy animals..😃.
    Loved reading Mary. 💚

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks Sue!
    One day I will have another chance to hold a tarantula.
    Don’t think I will ever pick up one that is wandering around outside in my yard though. Might be in a bad mood from the hot sun. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Anjali says:

    This is fantastic! I would love to go on a camp like that…
    I also have a blog please do check it out and don’t forget to like and follow…


  12. handling bugs no way! boy!


    • How are you doing Sharmishtha?
      Is India partially shutdown like the USA.
      This has been going on for months and is very depressing…


    • Most bugs are OK with me.
      BUT spiders are rather unnerving and I am not sure why.
      Maybe it is because I have walked into a few spider webs in the woods, and spiders have ended up in my hair or on my face.
      Or….Maybe it is because I have been bitten a few times in the past, and I haven’t forgotten the way that felt!


  13. cheriewhite says:

    Wow! You brought back memories of my 10th grade biology class. We did an insect board and it was lots of fun! I didn’t collect any spiders or insects that sting. LOL I played it safe. 😀


  14. dunelight says:

    Huge walking stick! Must be that summer climate.


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