Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

I wrote this post for the ‘Crunchy on the outside’ blog from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It’s a Zooniverse citizen science project that might be of interest to anyone running a school science club from KS2 upwards.

Measure beautiful bees from around the world to help biologists understand why bee species are declining. The Big Bee Bonanza is a new citizen …

Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

Your questions answered: ‘Which is the most successful species of ant?’

All about ants! I wrote this for the Crunchy on the outside blog in response to a question we received that really made us think about ants and what ‘success’ means in terms of a species.

Noah contacted us recently with an intriguing question: ‘What is the most successful species of ant?’. It really got us thinking! Insects are a very …

Your questions answered: ‘Which is the most successful species of ant?’

Crunchy on the outside. A new blog for and by young entomologists.

Do you know a young person who is interested in the natural world and insects in particular? They might enjoy a new blog I edit from the Museum of Natural History of the University of Oxford.

Crunchy on the outside is aimed at young people who are fascinated by insects and who are perhaps getting too old for family activities. It’s part of the Museum’s HOPE for the future project.

The blog features four elements:

Nature is all about insects and the crucial part they play in the natural environment.

People focuses on entomologists including figures from the past and those working with insects today.

Museum gives an insight behind the scenes into life and work at the UK’s second largest entomological collection.

Make and Do features great makes and things to try out for yourself.

We’re really keen for young people to put their questions to entomologists at the museum, to make suggestions for blog posts, and even write guest posts.

Why not take a look and pass on the message to anyone you know who would be interested?

Working for HOPE

This post was originally published as a Series of tweets in a social media thread from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History as part of my ‘Twitter Takeover’ week in November 2020. It gives an insight into my work with schools in the learning team of the HOPE for the Future project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. You can also read more about this in my post Supporting Learning: HOPE for the future.

It’s time for another Twitter #takeover! This week, Learning Officer Rodger will be sharing about the work of the #HOPEForTheFuture Learning Team. Find out more about the HOPE project:

Together with the other HOPE Learning Officers, Kate and Susie, I visit local schools to provide insect Discovery Days, host school visits at the museum and create digital resources for children and young people to use at school or for home learning.

The HOPE Learning Officers

Thanks to generous support from the #HeritageLotteryFund, we can provide these visits and resources free of charge. We’ve worked with schools on using masks, social distancing, handwashing and sanitizing so everyone stays safe.

We don’t only teach children, though, we also learn from them. We love hearing about the ideas they have and questions they ask. Can you really age a ladybird by its spots? Do earwigs actually eat your brains? Find out this week!

During early autumn, spring and summer, we visit schools for Insect Discovery Days. Children learn about the vital role of insects in ecosystems, the importance of the HOPE collection, and investigate insects in their own school grounds.

As well as insects, we find a lot of other ‘minibeasts’ such as woodlice, spiders and centipedes when we visit schools. Specimens from the collection help children sort the insects from these other arthropods.

We often find that children use different words to describe the same animal, or the same word for two different ones. Which of these would you call a ‘Daddy long-legs’?

Which would you call a ‘Daddy Long-Legs’?

The Twitter poll that followed this image drew 123 votes, with the following results:

Left: 62%

Right: 7%

Neither: 30%

Both: 1%

Another aspect of my work I really enjoy is helping to connect children with researchers. I’m really looking forward to George McGavin’s upcoming talk ‘What have insects ever done for us?’

The talk I referred to was a live webinar, but you can watch a recording of George’s fascinating talk on YouTube here:

Another aspect of my job is teaching school visitors to the museum about insects. I’m hugely lucky to be able to draw on the vast Hope collection of over 3.5 million British insects and the expertise of the collections team.

Some of unique museum resources that we are able to use with schools include insect specimens collected by Charles Darwin. It was his observations of the natural world that led him to propose his theory of evolution.

Insect specimens collected by Charles Darwin

Another unique resource that we use is the collection of peppered moths, Biston betullaria, from Bernard Kettlewell’s study of natural selection. Many students who learn about this at school have never had the opportunity to see a peppered moth before.

Specimens from Kettlewell’s collection

We also teach how historical collections help us track present day changes in populations. Several insects became extinct in Britain in the last century and more are at risk, but there have also been successful reintroductions, such as the Large Blue Butterfly, Maculinea arion.

More now than ever, the learning team are producing digital resources which can be used at school, at home, or by community groups. You can explore these on the museum website (see the link above)

Wherever we are working, children always love finding ladybirds and learning about the different types of this beetle. At Thameside School in Abingdon for example, we found six different species in the school forest area.

A lot of folklore surrounds ladybirds. Many children tell us you can tell a ladybird’s age by counting its spots. This is a myth, but the markings can help us identify which species it is. We also learn about insect life cycles and what larvae look like. 

Everyone loves a ladybird!

Children often know rhymes about ladybirds, but the words can vary depending on where you live. What would you say is the next line to this rhyme? ‘Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home…’

This tweet prompted a range of comments, with the most common variation completing this rhyme with the line ‘… your house is on fire and your children are gone. I was also reminded by my colleague at the Bodleian, Rosie Sharkey, that it was this rhyme that originally prompted Iona and Peter Opie’s decades of research into children’s songs, rhymes, and games.

An insect that we always find when we visit schools is the earwig. Children are fascinated by these animals and sooner or later someone will always ask ‘Do they really go in your ears?’ or the even more worrying ‘…then burrow into your brain and lay eggs?!’

Do earwigs really go for our ears?

So can brain-burrowing earwigs really drive you insane? The short answer is no. We probably have Pliny the Elder to blame for this widespread misconception but thankfully there is no evidence that earwigs have an affinity for ears, nor that they do us any harm.

Earwigs are in the Order Dermaptera and have remarkable characteristics. They’re excellent at wiggling into small spaces, have a pair of forceps on their rear end and they can fly. They protect their delicate wings by some virtuoso origami folding when they aren’t in use.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s insight into the work of the Hope Learning Team. Do you know any interesting insect myths or folklore? We’d love to hear about them!

My Twitter week for the Museum May be over, but I,d love to hear your comments on anything mentioned here, or your own favourite insect myths and folklore. If you’re a teacher, you might like the practical application of entomology in my post Wasp in the classroom.

Wasp in the classroom

A recent twitter thread reminded me of the perennial issue of the wasp that blithely buzzes into the classroom, instantly derailing the best-planned of lessons. This annual threat seems to occupy the minds of teachers and students alike – I was once asked by the school council in an interview for a senior leadership post what I would do if a wasp flew into the room.

It occurred to me while reading the twitter comments that while teachers may be exercised by how to get rid of insects, in my current role I’m paid to do the exact opposite: visit schools to bring insects INTO the classroom! Let me assure you that after a brief look, we leave wasps, bees and anything else that might get aggravated by a trip indoors well alone and outside. However, this did get me thinking about how entomology can help us tackle that wasp which stumbles into the classroom.

Why MY classroom?

Don’t take it personally. If a wasp, bee or other insect flies into the room it’s either by accident or because it’s been attracted by something. This could be light or food. Many insects will fly towards light and both wasps and bees are attracted to sweet scents. In addition, wasps are also attracted by protein (bees get their protein from pollen). While you probably don’t have a permanent snack buffet in your classroom, food waste often attracts insects. Wasps are usually very purposeful when foraging but in late summer and autumn they can become a little wayward as the social structure of the hive begins to break down.

Preventing wasps coming in

One way of ensuring that wasps don’t come in is to keep the windows shut, but that’s impractical in hot weather and, at the moment, UK government guidance is that windows are kept open to ensure rooms are well ventilated. Even with open windows, we can make sure that our room isn’t actively attracting yellow-striped visitors by making sure any food debris is cleared away. Don’t just leave that banana skin or apple core in the bin, get rid of it entirely. Similarly, an aluminium can in the recycling box might have enough sugary drink left to attract wasps.

What if the wasp is already in?

Depending on the temperament of the class, the appearance of a single wasp might risk instant pandemonium, but there is a lot you can do to head this off.

  • Turn the lights off. On a dim day, your room may be brighter than outside. Switching the lights off reverses this and most insects will head back the way they came.
  • Open all the windows as wide as they can go. This gives the wasp more exit routes. Don’t worry about more coming in, it’s only within a few metres of a hive that there’s a risk other wasps will rally to a distressed sister.
  • Model a calm, collected response (even if that isn’t how you feel!) and encourage this in the children. The wasp won’t hurt anyone unless it feels threatened.
  • Move swiftly but efficiently. Flapping, waving arms or swatting will only aggravate the wasp and make it more likely to sting.
  • If the wasp isn’t leaving, or is repeatedly banging its head against the window, use a glass (or plastic) cup to trap it on a flat surface. Slide a piece of thin card (better than paper) underneath and remove it, safely sealed, outside. Keep these things ready near your desk, just in case.

What’s the point of wasps anyway?

Well, the point of a wasp is to make more wasps, rather than to be useful to us, but they are actually valuable in many ways. They make a significant contribution as pollinators and, as carnivores, they play a role in controlling many insects which are garden pests. So, don’t be tempted to kill a wasp that interrupts your lesson, it doesn’t mean you any harm and it’s doing a good job as part of an ecosystem.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in my earlier post ‘Does windy weather wind kids up?’

Image: Pixabay

Supporting Learning: HOPE for the future

My work at the Oxford Museum of Natural History is in the Learning Team of the NLHF-funded HOPE for the future project. Our aim was to commence visiting schools in Summer 2020 but this was put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, we altered our focus to providing resources online that teachers could either use in school or set as remote work for their students. We also thought that families at home might like to try the activities.

The suite of six resources is aimed at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3, although some were also trialled successfully with younger children. They form a sequence but can also be used as stand-alone items. We also produces some planning and recording templates for some activities.

You can see an overview of all the downloadable resources on the Hope Learning Resources webpage. Please feel free to download them for use with your classes.

How to spot an insect covers Insect anatomy and what makes insects distinct from other arthropods. There’s a multiple-choice quiz to help check understanding.

Insect ID introduces classification by looking at the ‘Big 5’ insect orders: beetles, true flies, true bugs, bees wasps & ants, and butterflies & moths. There’s also a quiz to check understanding.

Know your bees focuses on this group of insects with practical activities on observing, identifying and investigating British bees.

Three investigations then follow, the first on insects visiting different flowers. This structured activity takes children through the stages of an investigation using simple equipment.

Investigating Insect Pollination includes activities on observing pollinators visiting flowers, forming a research question based on these observations, then planning an investigation to answer this question.

Bee experiment: time of day covers a focussed investigation into the foraging behaviour of bees visiting a specific flower type.

If you use any of these resources, we’d love to hear what you think. Either comment here or use this feedback form.

We are currently planning the next part of the project which is a virtual summer school to run during the school summer holidays.


Thanks to PGCE students at Oxford University Department of Education and members of the OUMNH Youth Forum for commenting on drafts of these activities. Thank you too to teachers and pupils of Larkrise Primary School, St Gregory the Great Primary School, and Windmill Primary School for trialling the resources.

Study Skills

You can read about resources to teach and support the development of good study skills in this post on Study Skills Guides.