PUBLISHED IN THE RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL
When we teach insect identification classes to green industry professionals and Master Gardener Volunteers, reactions vary. Just as many of our workshop participants are disgusted by insects as are fascinated by them. In contrast to this fifty-fifty split in adults, most young children are interested in creepy crawlies instead of repelled by them. Their ideas about insects have not yet been fully formed, and this is a good thing. An interest in insects can get children involved in the world of nature around them and the world of science.
There are over one million types of insects, and greater than 95% of them are beneficial or neutral. Less than 5% are harmful. Beneficial insects perform many essential tasks. They prey on pest insects, pollinate our fruits and vegetables and break down our waste and trash.
Ladybird beetles, praying mantises and lacewings are good examples of beneficial predator insects. Bees and butterflies are well-known pollinators. Examples of insects that help us recycle and decompose our waste and trash include termites, flies and beetles. Thrips, cutworms and aphids are some of the common pest insects that plague gardeners. Look for these beneficial and pest insects wherever you go, and point them out to children.
Each sighting is an educational opportunity. Grab a magnifying glass and look. Did you find an insect? Pretend to be an entomologist, or an insect scientist, and count to find out. See if you have three distinct body regions (head, thorax and abdomen), six legs, one pair of antennae and up to two pairs of wings. If the numbers do not add up, you could have another type of arthropod like a spider, scorpion, millipede or centipede and not an insect.
Explore Texas AgriLIFE Extension’s “Good Bugs & Bad Bugs Student Booklet,” available online at insects.tamu.edu/youth/4h/Junior/Good_Bugs.pdf . Try to make an identification using the www.manageNVpests.info website. Then, verify your diagnosis with a field trip to the Reno Cooperative Extension office at 4955 Energy Way. Our Master Gardener Volunteers can show you and your little ones what your bugs look like under intense magnification on our big screen monitor on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Master Gardeners are also available via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once you have identified your critter, you and your budding entomologist can decide together what to do about it. Is it a beneficial or neutral insect? Release it. Beneficial insects in the home and garden keep pest insects in check.
Is it a pest insect? Before you apply an insecticide, remember beneficial insects need to eat, and they too can be harmed by insecticides. Decide if the pest insect is causing an acceptable level of harm. If it is not, the balance of beneficial and pest insects in your yard has been disrupted. Restore balance by keeping your plants vigorous and healthy and attracting beneficial insects with flowers, fresh water (like a bird bath) or a chemical lure scent.
Ashley Andrews is the Horticulture Assistant with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. To learn about vegetable gardening, attend free Gardening in Nevada classes held 6-8 p.m. on Tuesdays through March at Bartley Ranch Regional Park in Reno. For questions about your plants, contact a Master Gardener at 775-336-0265 or email@example.com, or visit www.growyourownnevada.com.