Setting up bird feeders, going on bug hunts, and following animal tracks are all great ways to get kids interacting with nature. But if you really want to pique their interest and introduce them to the complexity of the natural world, they are going to need a closer look ⏤ and raising a pet insect at home is a simple, cheap, and temporary way to do just that. There’s nothing quite like watching a spider snare a fly in its web, holding a millipede as it bumbles around your hand, or waiting in anticipation as a monarch caterpillar transforms into a butterfly to capture a kid’s imagination.
Not only is the process of catching bugs a fun outdoor adventure unto itself, but interacting with insects helps dispel fears and allows kids to get more comfortable with creatures. Better still, taking care of their new insect friends ⏤ if even for just a few days ⏤ introduces kids to some of the responsibilities they’ll have when caring for a dog, cat, or other pet down the road.
That said, not all insects are made for captivity (even a brief stint), and some are easier to catch/raise than others. Here are three of the easiest to find, catch, and keep alive.
Monarch caterpillars are found across much of the country. They feed exclusively on milkweed plants — which contain toxins that make them distasteful to predators — and several generations are produced each year, which means catching them throughout the summer is pretty easy in most areas.
Where to Catch: Since many parks, gardens, and other public green spaces plant milkweed with Monarchs in mind, finding them is relatively simple. Before you do any collecting, though, make sure it’s allowed; also keep in mind, that if you plant milkweed yourself, you’re making your yard/garden a Monarch hotspot. Finally, if there are no Monarchs in your area, you can order mass-bred specimens online — just be careful as they could introduce pathogens to the wild.
How to House: Your caterpillar will need a butterfly habitat. There are many available online (or you can build your own), but the most popular are mesh structures with enough room for both stores of milkweed and the larvae to move around. For hydration, provide a moist, crumpled paper towel; caterpillars, like many other insects, can drown when exposed to open water.
What They Eat: Again, Monarch caterpillars exclusively eat milkweed. That’s where the females lay the eggs, and where the larvae develop. The brightly colored caterpillars are eating machines (you’ve read the Hungry Caterpillar, right?), and they go through a number of growth phases (called instars) where they essentially outgrow their skin. After five instars, they begin to pupate or exit the larval stage. This means that you only need to have enough milkweed to feed the caterpillar until it does. And happily, if you’ve found a plump Monarch caterpillar, chances are it’s fairly well along — it may only need a molt (maybe two) before it’s ready to transform.
The easiest way to ensure you have enough milkweed is to plant a stand of milkweed in your yard in advance (so you can harvest the fresh leaves); milkweed seeds are cheap but plants are more expensive. Either way, you can acquire both from sources like Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Market.
Safety Note: Milkweed produces a milky latex sap that some people may be allergic to it; always wear gloves when handling it, and don’t let it touch your eyes.
What to Expect: Monarch caterpillars grow incredibly fast. Ours, which my children dubbed “Steve,” gobbled up milkweed and then almost immediately began pupating. This process was something of a miracle: the caterpillar climbs to the top of its enclosure, affixes itself with silk, and hangs down, forming a chrysalis. It takes around a week-and-a-half to two weeks for the caterpillar to transition into an adult. The pupa turns dark before becoming somewhat transparent, with the adult butterfly visible within. Assuming it survives (sometimes they don’t) the butterfly emerges. It won’t do much for several hours, perhaps flap its wings a few times, as it takes a little while to become flightworthy. After that, you can let it go outside.
Millipedes, like centipedes, are famous for their many legs. But while some centipedes actually live up to their name and have 100 legs, millipedes don’t actually have a thousand — that would be crazy. Neither of them are technically insects; instead, they are arthropods, a larger group that includes insects, spiders, crustaceans, centipedes, and millipedes. Nonetheless, they’re fun to raise even if many adults and kids run in fear at the mere sight.
Before you go out bug hunting, it’s important to know the difference between centipedes and millipedes. Generally speaking, centipedes are relatively flat, have long antennae, and skitter along quickly. Their front legs are modified claws with which they deliver venom, usually to household pests, such as cockroaches, bedbugs, and the like. Millipedes, on the other hand, are slow, bumbling, rounded creatures. They can’t bite, instead feeding on decaying matter. When threatened, they coil up in a defensive posture, sometimes releasing a secretion that can irritate the eyes or skin. If you’re hunting for millipedes, read up on the potential dangerous critters (bugs or not) in your area. Make sure an adult is doing the hunting and wear a pair of thick leather gloves.
Where to Catch: Millipedes live under rocks and logs so if you’ve got any in the yard, there’s a good chance you’ll find a slew of creepy crawlies. Our backyard is decorated with tons of rocks fished out of northern Minnesota lakes, and my three-year-old cajoles me weekly into flipping them over in search of “miwwipedes.” Of course, we also find many small centipedes in our hunts, but they quickly skitter away. Once you identify a millipede, capturing it isn’t hard. Most species are relatively small (the long millipedes you see at pet stores are from overseas), and catching them is more of a matter of avoiding inadvertently squishing them than anything else.
How to House: A standard bug house is all you need to keep them. Any of the plastic models online, augmented with leaves and some dirt and grass will do. If you don’t want to buy one, they’re easy to make out of wood and mesh.
What They Eat: When you capture the millipede, be sure to scoop up some of the substrate/dirt where you found it. That likely contains what it feeds on; you can augment this with fish food, rotting fruit, and small pieces of wood. If the little bugs don’t seem to be eating, just release them ⏤ some species might be particular ⏤ and catch some new ones.
What to Expect: Since Millipedes feed on decaying matter (often underground or hidden), watching them eat can be a bit anti-climatic. But the joy of catching them, and watching them amble about (they really are adorable) is definitely worthwhile.
Yes, it’s true that spiders can bite, and a few species are potentially dangerous. But reality check: There are spiders in your house right now, and many are doing you a favor by eating mosquitoes and other household pests. No spiders actually want to bite a human. Capturing (and eventually releasing) a jumping spider for a pet is a great way to conquer your, or your child’s, fear of spiders.
As their name suggests, jumping spiders are spiders that hop about to ambush prey. Many of them are tiny; one of the species I spot most often — in my office at work — is a zebra spider and measures only 9 millimeters long. Even one of the largest species, the Regal Jumping Spider, is less than inch long and looks rather like an elderly British gentleman.
Where to Catch: Jumping spiders are relatively easy to find, often on house siding, brickwork, on window ledges (indoors and out). If you don’t have any luck walking around the house, check the walls in the garage. If you’re worried about getting bit, remember, they’re so small that it’s almost impossible for them to get you. Still, best let the adults do the hunting.
How to House: Catching them is simple, assuming you already have a cup-shaped bug house with a screw-on lid. Simply undo the housing, place it over them, and let them hop in, before securing it. Once captured, you augment their new home with leaves, grass, and a moist paper towel (for hydration). Keep them out of too much direct sunlight (they can cook otherwise).
What They Eat: Jumping spiders usually feed on insects; small flies (fruit flies or houseflies) or crickets are best. If your spider isn’t munching away on what you offer after a day or so, let it go, as it may have a more specialized diet.
What to Expect: These spiders, while often tiny, are absolutely hilarious to watch. And if you have a camera with a good macro lens, they’re fun to photograph close up. It’s best to keep them in a small, clear bug habitat, however. (Otherwise, they can be hard to spot.)
Obligatory Safety Note: Before you go on a spider hunt, you should know how to recognize (and avoid) the more dangerous spiders in your area (e.g. the Black Widows, Brown Recluses, etc.) and take precautions to make sure spider bites don’t happen. Use common sense: Wear gloves, have the adults do the hunting, and don’t reach where you can’t see.