By Marcia Anderson
To a young child, there’s no such thing as an ant, a bee or a ladybug. They’re all bugs and worth a closer look. Lift a small rock. Often worms, tiny beetles, salamanders, or other critters can be uncovered, to the shear amazement of a child. Colonies of ants found under stones are fascinating to watch as they go about their business marching in rows to and from their anthills.
Most ants found in the northeast are not a serious threat to human health. Ants and other insects are usually found where they can obtain food and water to take back to their nests. Ants provide an ecological cleansing and fertilization service of considerable importance. They aerate the soil outdoors and recycle dead animals and vegetable material, and kill many other pest insects including: fly larvae, fleas, caterpillars and termites.
In spring, wasps are important predators of caterpillars, while others are scavengers, helping to control pests and recycle organic material. They turn more aggressive in late summer and fall when their food preference turns to sweets.
Bugs may be small and easily taken for granted, but they are often a child’s first intimate encounter with a wild animal. How they are taught to deal with these small creatures sets the tone for their relationships with larger wildlife such as reptiles, birds and amphibians. Unfortunately, in their zeal to teach children to be wary of dangerous bugs, many adults do not discern between those which are dangerous and those which aren’t. By showing their disdain for all bugs and killing any that cross their paths, many adults inadvertently teach children that all are to be feared and destroyed at every opportunity.
A gentleness and reverence for all creatures should be taught at an early age. It’s important to remember that the younger child learns by modeling, rather than by verbal instruction. A child who’s shown how to put overturned stones back in place to leave insects undisturbed is more likely to take that much more care than a child who’s simply told to do so.
Here are a few safety tips to help young children observe the tiny creatures in the great outdoors:
- Avoid areas with food left outdoors, such as picnic scraps, uncovered garbage containers or uncovered compost piles. Bees and wasps imprint on these food sources and keep returning to them.
- Avoid sweet smelling soaps, lotions, or shampoos on both your child and yourself and do not dress up in bright colors. You do not want stinging insects to think that you are a flower or other food source.
- In warm weather, use an insect repellent according to the label directions to protect from ticks and mosquitoes. Other alternatives are the mechanical repellent devices that clip onto pockets or belts and they give off repellents that deter mosquitoes or other insects.
- Upon returning home, always inspect your child and yourself for ticks or other hitchhikers.
Every park in New York City, large or small, will have some wildlife encounters but be prepared to go down to your child’s level to see them. Just grab a small jar for temporary collecting and a magnifying glass, then get on the subway or bus and explore New York City. Happy Summer!
To find out more about nature in New York City go to: http://www.nycgovparks.org/greening/nature-preserves.
The Forever Wild Program is an initiative of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to protect and preserve the most ecologically valuable lands within the five boroughs. These parks encompass 51 Forever Wild Nature Preserves and include over 8,700 acres of forests, wetlands, and meadows. These open spaces are home to thousands of critters, including squirrels, frogs, red-tailed hawks, wild turkeys, fish, bald eagles, and countless plants.
About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.