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.
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!