-Their life cycle is short (a few weeks), so you can observe the changes in the insects while you are studying life cycles in class.
-They are much more durable to handle than the painted ladies (which are definitely a “hands off” insect) — kids can take the mealworms out during all stages and use hand lenses and observation boxes to study them more closely.
-They do not require special food: old-fashioned oatmeal, plus an occasional potato or apple core for moisture.
-They demonstrate complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult).
-They are not sensitive to the temperature and moisture levels of the typical classroom or home.
-They are “ickier” for some kids (and adults!) than butterflies, which are cute and pretty.
-Their food can attract other critters that you don’t want (e.g., mice), so you must make sure their bin is securely covered.
-Occasionally, the oats also draw a tiny mite that looks like white dust — not a danger, but they crawl out of the bin and are a little messy (the University of Kentucky link, below, gives tips on treating this harmless issue).
-You will want to plan what to do with the mealworms you raise, as you will need to remove some regularly (see the “Bonus” section, below, for some ideas).
If your school or home has an aquarium, you can regularly cull out some of the mealworms (at any stage) for a clean, no-cost food supplement. Tropical fish love live food, and raising food for the fish can give an additional purpose to raising the mealworms. I had a pet parakeet once who also enjoyed an occasional mealworm snack — he would get very excited! If you happen to have reptiles somewhere in the school, they, too, eat mealworms. Failing these “consumers,” consider selling the mealworms as a class project, to a local bait shop, pet store or to families with tropical fish.
Basic supplies needed
– an initial supply of mealworms (purchase about 100, at a local pet shop or bait shop — try to get a variety of stages, not just fully grown “worms,” so you will not have them all turn to adults at the same time).
– a 5-10 gal. plastic container with a lid (not clear — grain pests prefer dark places). Drill lots of air holes in the lid.
– bedding material (I used old-fashioned oats. Other sources suggest sawdust, leaf litter, etc. However, oats are cleaner, especially if you are then using the mealworms for fish food. Do not use sand — the insects don’t like it).
– occasional potato piece or apple core, for moisture. Replace often, to prevent mold.
The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has a web page with some more specifics on constructing a mealworm bin.
-They make a sound that is appealing to little ears.
– Being close relatives of cockroaches and grasshoppers, they require no special foods (rolled oats and an occasional piece of fruit are clean options for their feeding).
– They are not fussy over temperature and moisture levels (although you will want to control moisture so that their bedding doesn’t mold).
– In your house, there are few things so annoying as a chirping cricket that finds its way into your home while you’re trying to sleep. So you will want to put the critter somewhere where it won’t annoy sleepers, and make sure it doesn’t escape.
– Crickets are content as herbivores (veggie eaters) in captivity, but are omnivores in the wild. If they are unhappy with what you feed them, they will eat each other. I never had this problem, as my kids contributed snack waste (apple cores and the like) to the cause.
As with mealworms, crickets are often raised as food for other pets. So if you have more than one cricket, and you end up with a bunch, you can feed them to tropical fish, reptiles, tarantulas and other school pets. Pet stores often dust mealworms and crickets with an nutrient enrichment powder, or feed them special food, to make them more nutritious to the critters that eat them (a process called “gut-loading”).
Basic supplies needed
-an old aquarium (I used a 5-gal tank that had developed a leak — didn’t matter for a cricket terrarium); cover it with a tight-fitting screen (the tank lid may not be sufficient, as the crickets can escape through the lighting cuts);
-bedding materials (wood chips, a layer of sand, anything clean);
-a small, shallow dish with cotton balls that you can soak for water source — a MUST if you want to encourage breeding;
-a food source (rolled oats, an occasional piece of fruit or vegetable;
-hiding places (an inverted egg carton or a paper towel tube will suffice).
I didn’t include a lamp, although some do. I found that my crickets chirped on very overcast days, which was a treat when we were stuck inside on a rainy day.
The Amateur Entomological Society has a fact sheet on care of crickets as pets, with links to a book on rearing crickets in the classroom.
3. Apple Snails
-They are adapted to variable environmental conditions;
-They are easily fed (on occasional piece of spinach or romaine lettuce, plus the algae on the tank glass).
-Lighting needs are strictly for viewing purposes — the snails don’t care.
-They will lay eggs (just above the water line) and multiply in a typical aquarium.
-You cannot include live plants as tank decor, unless you are ok with replacing them regularly, as the snails will eat them. Otherwise, use plastic plants.
-You cannot include any other tank mates with snails. Snails are good fish food: even the smallest fish will snack on your snails. You may end up with empty shells and fat fish.
-As with any other aquatic pet, even a goldfish, periodic water changes are important to keep your snails happy and to keep your classroom smelling fresh.
Apple snails have become an exotic pest in many states. They were once brought to the United States as potential food snails for the escargot industry, and pet snails also have been released into ponds, lakes and streams by hobbyists in past decades. Their size (some species can grow to 6″ in diameter in the wild) and their lack of natural predators makes them a danger to the ecosystem in which they are released. Do not ever release your snails into the natural world! If you decide to get rid of them, give them to a pet store.
Basic supplies needed
-A small (10-gal) aquarium, with hood, lights, gravel, filtration and a small heater;
-Occasional feedings of romaine lettuce or spinach.
-Start with 5-10 snails for a 10-gal tank.
See The Apple Snail Website for more info.
Unusual Class Pets
And now for something completely different!
Gargantuan beetles with menacing pincers (but that are actually vegetarians). Keep them singly, as the males will fight. I have found them commonly in the lawn, mid-summer. I usually keep them only a short time. Keeping Adult Stag Beetles gives information on the care and feeding of stag beetle pets.
Remember that scene outside Jabba the Hut’s palace, where Star Wars characters kept tumbling into the big pits of those sand creatures? Well, ant lions are like miniature versions of those beasts. They are much more common than you think, and you’ve probably passed them by many a time, unawares. The ant lion lives underground in sandy soil (I have found them in cracks in pavement or driveways, at the edges of paved roads and the sandy sides of parking lots). They dig a pit in the sand (see the link for photos), and wait for hapless ants to crawl down in, then their humongous jaws spring up and snatch the creature into its mouth. I kept about ten of them in an old 10-gallon aquarium, in a bed of sand. My 3rd graders used to bring insects in from recess and feed the ant lions before we settled in for read-aloud. Fun, in kind of a macabre way. The Ant Lion Den has lots of great information for your kids to use for research on this very cool class pet.
Critter Catchers and Bug Houses
Other Observation Activities
And what NOT to keep as pets…
Painted lady butterflies. There. I said it. Don’t raise painted ladies in your classroom. Why? Not because they aren’t pretty (they are). Not because butterflies don’t teach kids important scientific ideas (they do). But simply because they are ALWAYS RAISED IN CLASSROOMS! I am worrying that kids in the city think they are the only kind of butterfly that God created. I HAVE raised caterpillars with kids for many years — we find them outdoors, and find the food that they were eating. We identify them, then we watch them through their life cycle. For fun, find one of the giant silk moth caterpillars: Io moths, Luna moths, Cecropias, etc. These caterpillars are huge, and you must keep the cocoons in the refrigerator over the winter, until they emerge in June.
Birds, rabbits, and other large pets. I have had all of these, and they are delightful. But I also had to pack them up on the weekends when it was hot, on holidays, and over summer vacation. They became my household pets when they weren’t in the classroom. OR you have to entrust them to kids and their families for vacations. PLUS if you have an allergic or asthmatic child one year, you will need to get rid of your class pets (which happened to me one year — it was sad). If you really want them, go for it, but there are simpler ways to teach pet ownership to kids.
Click here for more ideas to practice the science process skill of observation.
For ideas on how nature study and observation can fit into a complete curriculum unit, see How to Teach Everything: Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.