Activities for Summer: Biting Bugs
Summer is here and we’re all enjoying the warmth of the sun, longer days, and perhaps a vacation to somewhere exciting or relaxing. We are also swatting at biting flies, scratching those mosquito bites, and hopefully taking precautions to avoid ticks. My recollections of my own childhood include legs covered in red bumps and little scabs because I could not control the urge to scratch. The mosquitoes liked me, meaning that running around was as much about enjoying that Capture the Flag game as merely trying to outrun the bugs.
But why not turn these summer time lemons into some lemonade. Surely you and your child can find something interesting about those bugs, scratching the brain, so to speak, versus those bites. Creating knowledge may also boost preventative measures. That is, with some understanding your child may be more likely to use repellent or take other safety measures to avoid being bitten, as well as becoming sick.
The following sections focus on flying and biting insects (mosquitoes and flies). I will save bees, ticks and spiders, or other biting/stinging pests (scorpions!) for another post. For the record bees are insects, but ticks, spiders, scorpions and some other common “buggy-type” pests that bite or sting aren’t technically insects per se, but belong to other classes of arthropods. However, these commonly are all informally called insects or bugs.
Be sure to visit the pages on this blog entitled “What is Guiding Curiosity” to learn how to use the following suggesitons.
You may all be too busy scratching, but if you can, start asking to get the conversation started.
What bugs bite?
Where do mosquitos/biting flies come from?
Why do mosquito and fly bites cause a bump that is itchy?
How long do these insects live?
What do they eat?
Do mosquitoes/flies bite other animals?
Why are there more of them certain times of day?
How can I keep from being bitten?
Much of science is descriptive. To find the best words, however, you need to look, touch, smell, listen, and taste. Tasting may not be an option in this case, but perhaps you can imagine what these biting bugs are tasting.
Mosquitoes and flies can be observed outdoors, captured in a jar, or after they have been killed, but not so squashed so that their body parts are no longer distinguishable.
Watch how mosquitoes or flies fly and land. Are their wings moving? Do they fly in straight lines or in circles?
Check out their bodies with a hand lens. How many parts are there? Mosquitoes and flies have a head, thorax, abdomen, one pair of wings, and six legs. Try to find all of these parts. Are their wings transparent? Most insects have four wings, but flies and mosquitoes only have two (one pair). This characteristic puts then in the Order “Diptera” (from the Greek words di=two and ptera=wings.)
There are many different kinds of flies such as horse flies, deer flies, black flies, sand flies, and biting midges (gnats, no-see-ums, punkies). There are also different kinds of mosquitoes. Even within these broad categories there are different species. In Maine, for example, there are as many as 40 species of black flies. So, as your child looks at these insects, he may be noticing differences that are an indication of a different species.
Flies and mosquitoes have compound eyes. Can you see these with a hand lens?
What do mosquitos and flies sound like when flying? (Male mosquitoes locate the females by the frequency of the beats of their wings).
Can you see hairs on their legs?
Another characteristic of Diptera is that they have a life cycle similar to a butterfly in that there are four distinct stages: egg, larvae (think caterpillar), pupae (think cocoon) and adult. Can you find places where mosquitoes could lay their eggs? Mosquitoes are called aquatic because their eggs are laid and mature in water. The adult mosquitoes do not live in water, only the young larvae do. Find places in your yard where mosquitoes could lay their eggs. Look for toys, buckets, flower pots or other items that could collect standing water. Observe the water for any larvae. Mosquito larvae spend about 10 days in water before they go into their “cocoon-stage”.
Observe how a pet responds to mosquitos or flies. Do they try to swipe or bite the bugs?
Collect and observe eggs or larvae. How do they move? Eggs may be hard to find, but look around in places of standing water where you can see “wigglers”. Collect some of this dirty water in a glass jar and cover it with a fine net like a piece of nylon stocking. Watch the wigglers. Eventually they will pupate and then finally emerge as adult mosquitos.
Compare and Categorize
Here are some interesting facts about mosquitoes and black flies that perhaps you can discuss for comparisons.
- Only the female mosquitos and flies bite as they need the extra protein (blood) to produce eggs.
- Humans are not their first choice for biting. Other mammals and birds are. Flies and mosquitoes bite, but they are also likely to be consumed by birds, bats, fish and dragonflies. Unfortunately, however, the birds and bats that eat mosquitos do not eat very many of them
- Both male and female mosquitos/flies feed on nectar.
- Mosquitoes larvae are laid and hatch in still or stagnant water, Black fly larvae hatch in running water such as streams.
- Both black flies and mosquitos are attracted by the carbon dioxide we breathe out. They find the moisture in our breath attractive as well. That is why they fly around our heads and often bite along the hairline or on our necks. Other areas of exposed skin, however, will also be attractive for biting.
- Black flies are attracted by darker colors. Movement, warmth and perspiration are also attractive to flies.
- Unlike mosquitoes, black flies are unlikely to be a nuisance in your home or car as they do not seem to like those enclosed spaces. Mosquitoes will follow you anywhere.
Just like there are many different types of mosquitos there are many different types of flies. Some bite some don’t. For example nobody worries about getting bitten by a common house fly, but bites from a black fly, deer fly or horse fly can really hurt. Why? Go fly hunting and try to gently swat different types of flies so they aren’t just “mush” and you can still examine them with a hand lens. Look closely at their mouth parts. Some are built for “sponging” up their food, while other are built for tearing or biting, then licking up the food. Which one would hurt more?
Consider the types of differences between mosquitos and flies and now ask how these insects are alike or different from other flying insects such as butterflies or moths?
How about as compared to insects in general, such as ants or crickets?
Count your mosquito or fly bites.
Count how many days a bite is pink or itchy.
If you are out of doors and there are mosquitoes out, count how many you see in a period of time, such as a minute. You may also be able to count how many are sitting on or buzzing by a screen.
You may be able to get a measure of how long a fly is from head to toe. Try to measure a mosquito, but because they are small, this could be a challenge.
Mosquito mouth parts (and some flies) are designed for piercing skin just like a hypodermic needle and then sucking up food like a using soda-straw. When a female mosquito or fly decides to bite, it lands on its victim and inserts her proboscis (mouth) into the skin. You may want to clarify that while they bite, it is not with teeth! She then injects an anticoagulant-containing saliva that helps to keep the blood from clotting so that it can flow as she drinks. It is that saliva that causes the itch because for the most part we are allergic to it. Yet, people’s reactions are variable. Take a poll of friends and neighbors asking if their mosquito bites are super itchy, itchy, or not very itchy at all. Keep track and create a bar or pie chart of the results.
Over a period of several days, make note of: 1) the time of day when you see or experience mosquitoes and flies, 2) the temperature, and 3) the wind conditions. Some thinking is that black flies only start moving when it warms about 50 degrees. If it is a breezy day, you may be in luck in terms of a few or no bugs. Finally, mosquitoes feed at dawn and dusk and for a period into the night.
So you have taken a closer look, compared and measured. What is the next logical step? What don’t you know and will an experiment help to find an answer?
What keeps mosquitoes away? I like a fan that just blows on me and produces a strong enough current so that the mosquitos cannot fly close by. Compare with using citronella candles or a little repellent.
As noted above, black flies are attracted by darker colors. Wear a white shirt one day and a dark shirt the next. Did you experience a difference in the number of flies you were bothered by?
Biting flies and mosquitoes transmit a variety of diseases to millions of people worldwide. For older children, understanding these transmission processes could be interesting and lead to a better understanding of the need to take precautions and use repellents, but introducing the notion of disease from biting insects to younger children who can not completely avoid getting bitten may not be a good idea. You will have to decide on whether your child can process that information without inducing too much fear.
Look up information on the life cycle of mosquitoes or flies. That cycle includes the four different stages of egg, larvae, pupae, and adults. Some other insect types like butterflies, moths or beetles may pass through these same four stages in growing to adulthood. This life cycle is an interesting concept particularly in relation to our own development. Many other animals like some frogs or salamanders also have different stages to their life cycles like eggs, tadpoles and adults, but the pupal or “cocoon-stage” where complete metamorphosis occurs is special.
Mosquito is Spanish for “little fly.” There are approximately 3,500 species of mosquitos world-wide with 175 of them found in the United States.
Mosquitoes have existed for the last 80 to 100 million years, meaning that they have been pests for a very long time! Find photos of mosquito fossils or entombed in amber.
Alexander the Great is believed to have died from malaria which is a disease passed on in the mosquito saliva.
For as little as $10 your child could purchase a mosquito net for a child in the tropics potentially helping to save a life! http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/02/us/02malaria.html?_r=0