Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 21, Number 2

On the Need to Interpret Insects: An Always Small but Gargantuan Opportunity

Nathan J. Shipley
Robert D. Bixler
Clemson University
Clemson, SC


This position paper makes explicit what can be gained by increasing interpretive naturalists’ focus on interpreting insects and their close relatives, particularly in local and regional settings. Insects are widely loathed because a few species are highly irritating. Helping people become aware and observant of the overwhelming percentage of insects that stay hidden and are not bothersome, yet exhibit a wide range of intriguing shapes, adaptations, and behaviors can increase people’s comfort in the outdoors. Environmental benefits include increased informal monitoring for invasive species and reduced irrational pesticide use. Understanding of how people are socialized into an interest in nature and natural history suggests a need for frequent and recurring experiences with nature over many years. Engaging with insects costs little and their ever-presence makes seeking these frequent formative experiences with nature readily available. Because interpretive naturalists interpret nature in situ, they are ideally skilled to facilitate human-insect experiences.


interpretive naturalist, insects, bugs, invertebrates, affective experiences, fear, disgust

On the Need to Interpret Insects: An Always Small but Gargantuan Opportunity

Unlike exhibit-oriented facilities, where the resources that people come to experience are collected and presented in reliable and predictable locations, interpretive naturalists interpret nature where and if it is present. Mastering the natural history of an area is an immense challenge (Weilbacher, 1993). Even in biological deserts, where the number of perceived organisms is low, there exists a plethora of common, diverse, and little-seen creatures. While anyone can readily appreciate the perceptual novelty of snow-covered mountains or the allure of charismatic tigers, careful and intentional effort is often needed to appreciate the nuance of the insect world. Between camouflage, outlandish appearance, and novel behavior, insects are a resource that are an ideal challenge for the skill sets of interpretive naturalists.

The only insects that regularly seek people out are the few species seeking to bite us, defensively sting us, eat our food, or invade our personal space. While phenomenally diverse in number of species (Black, Shepard, & Allen, 2001) insects are also the most disliked (Byrne, Carpenter, Thoms, & Cotty, 1984; Kellert 1993). The tiny percentage of insect species that persistently annoy us reduce our desire to even consider experiencing the vast majority of insects that stay hidden. This silent unseen majority can provide people with involvement with varied hobbies, opportunities for observation, intrigue, exploration, and abilities to address several natural resource issues. This paper provides an explicit rationale for why interpretive naturalists benefit parks and surrounding communities by focusing more attention on providing people with direct experiences with insects.

To the general public “bug” means small, creepy and disgusting which is reflected in how people tend to use the words “insect” and “bug”: Spiders are insects (Kellert, 1993) and butterflies are not Schnabel (2004). Common folk taxonomies include spiders, millipedes, centipedes, slugs, snails, and/or worms into a “bugs” classification (Hunn, 2003; Shepardson, 2002). In this paper we use “bugs” in this informal manner to include any small invertebrates with more than four legs or no legs at all.

Valued Outcomes from Increased Human Interest in Bugs
The general public has little interest in bugs or more accurately is hostile towards them. Regardless, there are a variety of strategic reasons to integrate bugs into interpretive experiences, particularly in local and regional parks and special places:

More people comfortable in wild places
Mosquitoes and other bugs that hang around us because we are their food source are a constraint to participating in outdoor and wildland recreation activities (Bixler, Carlisle, Hammitt, & Floyd, 1994; Bixler & Floyd, 1997). Some people avoid wildland areas because of bugs just on principle, even when pest insects are not common. A glaring example of this comes from a study by Bixler and Floyd (1997) who found that high school students chose manicured areas to visit over weedier areas when deciding where to go to make an insect collection. With a generational decline occurring in interest in natural history and just being outdoors (Bixler et al, 2011), developing comfort with insects seems a sensible goal.

More people aware and attentive to invasive pests
The geographic expansion of invasive and pest species of insects is an immediate threat. The United States is currently combatting dozens of introduced insect pests. Invasive crop pests accrue over $14.4 billion dollars in total losses and control costs annually (Pimentel, Lacj, Zungia, & Morrison, 2000). Other species of insects are amassing at southern latitudes waiting for a warmer climate. Increasing the number of people who are informally observant of bugs should increase the informal monitoring for these threats.

Experiences with native insects provides for immediacy
Immediacy is the quality of being able to translate new experiences immediately to a person’s home environment. While there is much prestige in going to the Antarctic, well-heeled ecotourists are unlikely to start a penguin rookery in their backyard. Learning about local fauna and flora instills involvement and ownership in a person’s local community and is a rationale for place-based education (Sobel, 2005). Additionally, when local fauna become known and valued, conservation everywhere or re-wilding initiatives follow in the form of replacing “the Great American Lawn” with a butterfly garden or other pro-insect projects (PIP) (Marris, 2013; Rainer & West, 2015). Interpretive naturalists can provide a wide array of programs and workshops about local insects that can be translated into activities implemented at participants’ homes.

Socialization through frequent and direct experiences with nature
Related to immediacy, the need for frequent and recurring experiences with nature is the fundamental vehicle for socializing lifelong interests in natural resources. A single experience with nature, no matter how dramatic, is insufficient (Bixler, James, & Vadala, 2011; Chawla, 1998). Unfortunately, most people’s experiences with insects come through media with children knowing more about exotic species than local ones (Genovart, Tavecchia, Enseñat, & Laiolo, 2012). Tragically, people who learn about nature exclusively from media are often scared or bored in real nature (Bixler et al. 1994; Bixler et al. 2011). The outcome is a population oblivious of their own backyards, but vaguely concerned about distant exotic places. Insect activities can be participated in repeatedly year round, at almost no cost and in almost any location.

Decreased irrational pesticide use
Of the million species of insects, a few have been sources of disease, starvation, and death. (Gottfried, 2010). While there are valid reasons to target destructive pests, the irrational application of pesticides is dangerous. Baldwin et al. (2008) found a majority of homeowners acknowledging that just the visual presence of any insects was motivation to apply pesticides. Application of modern organophosphate-based insecticides have been linked to a significant increase in cancer (Bailey et al., 2011), Parkinson’s disease (Narayan et al. 2013), respiratory disease (Eskenazi, Bradman, & Castorina, 1999), and central nervous system complications (Rosenstock et al., 1991). Since people are treating their fear and/or disgust of bugs through pesticide applications, any opportunities for people to become more comfortable around bugs should reduce negative health outcomes related to pesticides.

Bugs are everywhere even when nothing else is stirring
Their ever-presence makes bugs invaluable to interpretive (park) naturalists. With their wild colors, camouflage, mimicry, and behaviors, insects provide readily available novel experiences. Anyone can afford to go on an “Insect Safari.” Insects occupy all terrestrial ecological habitats and our homes (Bertone et al., 2016; Turnbull, 1973). An interpretive naturalist leading a program in a park can always find insects when vertebrates are nowhere to be seen.

Rationalizations or Intrinsic Interest?

With an insect-hostile public, there is a temptation to interpret, not the intrinsic qualities of insects, but rationalize the functional and economic benefits of a few species (Waldbauer & Waldbauer, 2003). For instance, production of many fruits and vegetables would halt without pollination. Bugs have provided for advances in medicine (Bowman, Gottlieb, Suchyna, Murphy, & Sachs 2007; Ratcliffe, Azambuja, & Mello, 2013), engineering, and robotics (Lambrecht, 2005; Lewinger, 2005; Srinivasan, Zhang, Chahl, Stange, & Garratt 2004). The threat of colony collapse disorder in honey bees is a common message discussed by interpretive naturalists. This approach is the standard “through understanding comes appreciation” rationale that is the mainstay of traditional resource interpretation (Ham, 2007).

The alternative to the rationalizing insects approach
Entomologists did not choose their profession because of concern about declines in broccoli pollination, so why interpret honey bee colony collapse disorder? Quoted in Berembaum (2000) are the results of a study by James Nitao of the childhood experiences of faculty and graduate students at the University of Illinois. These entomologists reported many childhood play behaviors with insects, including ant farms and experiments on bugs. E.O. Wilson, prominent Harvard entomologist, stated in his autobiography that “Every kid has a bug period… I never grew out of mine.” Wilson acknowledges that he developed a lifelong sense of appreciation for bugs, particularly ants through similar childhood experiences (Wilson, 1994). This feeling of connectedness with nature through childhood experiences is a uniting principle for many environmental educators and natural history professionals (Chawla, 2007). Despite the obvious implications of these studies, these same natural resource professionals turn to “rational actor” educational strategies, believing that the key to caring about nature is dispensing more information. Typically, a “through understanding comes appreciation” motto is adopted rather than “through appreciation a persistent desire for understanding is motivated.” This directionality is a critically important difference in establishing priorities for interpreting local natural history. Intellectual messages detached from direct experience are often impotent. Most public park lands outlaw just the types of childhood play activities that are just the experiences that provide an emotional and experiential foundation for later paying attention to and caring about bugs and nearby nature (Finch, 2008). Likewise, insect collecting is often criticized by environmentalists (see Pyle, 2009), reducing opportunities for children to search for and have direct contact with insects. With any object or stimulus, direct experiences are critical in reducing extreme novelty and motivating recurring exploration (Acredola, 1982; Berlyne, 1966). With an estimated 97 billion bugs being killed by bug zappers every year in North America (Berenbaum, 2009), it seems insane to worry about a child harming a bug in a park setting.

Childhood experiences, combining unstructured play and guided adult experiences with insects is a fascination before fear emerges (FBFE) strategy. Children who get to see, play with, catch, trap, manipulate, and observe a variety of insects, implicitly know not to join their friends and family on the “scary bug bandwagon.” A reading of a major text on creating appealing products for middle childhood leaves us wondering why insects are not more popular. Acuff and Reiher (2008) identify disgust evoking characteristics, catching/trapping/chasing, control/manipulation, using equipment/technology, and edginess as some of the characteristics of successful products for middle childhood. Pyle (2009) argues that the butterfly net is perhaps “the cheapest, simplest, and most effective environmental education tool ever invented.” These same children, later as adults, will be more motivated to pay attention to those public relation messages about colony collapse in honey bees. This is what we mean by “through appreciation a persistent desire for understanding is motivated.”

In Conclusion and a Call to Action

The ever presence of annoying bugs, combined with the negativity fostered in our culture through the media has alienated us from having experiences with the 98% of bugs that are not a bother. We have argued that interest in insects will not be developed through isolated “rational actor” interpretation, but from frequent, pleasurable play. and informal programming experiences with bugs starting in childhood. Interpretive naturalists, with a rich understanding of local nature and fostering experiences with people are well suited to orchestrating these experiences on an ongoing basis. Frequent, ongoing, and strongly affective/emotional experiences prepare our nervous system to attend to and value further information about insects. People with lots of bug experiences will pay attention to colony collapse syndrome when it is reported in the news, much the same way that adults who rabidly pay attention to sports grew up in youth sports programs.

The possibilities for getting children and youth involved with bugs is endless. Our one caveat is that insect experiences should be direct experiences with native bugs. Simulation games, the mainstay of environmental education, do not help people become more comfortable finding and being around insects. Along with insect collecting, there are numerous catching, trapping, and behavioral demonstrations that interpretive naturalists can deploy. Our initial discussions with field entomologists suggest that they use many field research methods that could be turned into activities and demonstrations. While this paper has focused on children, there are many opportunities for adult programming along the lines of gardening for insects and insect biology for nature photographers (Lemelin, 2009). Essential to this initiative is providing professional development opportunities for interpretive naturalists to increase their knowledge base about insects through workshops, classes, and field research. What is increasingly clear based on nature socialization research, is that a single experience with bugs is not enough. Interpretive naturalists have their crawling orders.

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