appears in the proceedings of the 1997 Invertebrates in Captivity Conference


Ronald W. Lyons
Curator of Entomology, Chula Vista Nature Center,
1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910


The Chula Vista Nature Center, located on the upland portion of the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, a salt water marsh on San Diego Bay approximately 11 km south of downtown San Diego, celebrated its 10th anniversary this past July 4th. The Center, fully accredited by the American Association of Museums, provides opportunities to learn about the natural history and ecology of California’s salt water estuaries.

Since 1990, the Center has run a series of regularly scheduled "Bug Walks" as part of its environmental education program. Bug Walks are participatory, hands-on, explorations of local natural areas emphasizing local arthropods, mainly insects and spiders. Depending on the commitments of the participants and the availability of species, walks last from 2 to 3 hours (includes introductory presentation). The exploratory nature of the walks limits the total distance covered to between 400 and 800 m, so they are not strenuous outings. Participants have a wide variety of backgrounds, including PhDs in entomology. At first, the walks were carried out around the Nature Center and on some adjacent abandoned land. As other Center programs expanded into San Diego county, the Bug Walks also expanded and now cover about 5 natural areas between Imperial Beach and Encinitas (a distance of about 56 km).

The following text discusses the operation of the walks, the benefits for the participants, and some of the problems encountered.


Before any walk begins, the route is checked for general activity, common arthropods, and good sites that might otherwise be passed by. This takes place in the hour or so before the walk and allows special finds to be noted. Areas seldom used for walks are examined on the preceding day, preferably during the same time period that the walk will be held. It is a great help if the leader knows some spots that will prove fruitful, and some of the bugs that should be encountered.

The actual walk is preceded by a short lecture. A wide range of books and pamphlets, with some emphasis on those of local interest, are displayed on the ground and discussed briefly. This helps participants decide on which, if any, materials would be useful for their needs, since few stores carry a large range of arthropod books, especially field guides. Related organizations and activities are also indicated.

The general life history of insects is outlined. Participants handle some local insects (mostly road kills or other finds), exuviae and a failed chrysalis. This outline focuses their attention on the subject of the walk, while familiarizing them with what they should look for.

Each participant receives a small "bug box" in which to catch insects and spiders. These boxes, about 2.5 cm x 2.5 cm x 2 cm, consist of two parts, one of which is a 4x magnifier. These boxes and the slightly larger ones (3.8 cm cube, 3x magnifier) are good for the many small insects that will be found and easier to manipulate in dense shrubbery than larger containers. The magnifiers are quite good. The boxes are relatively inexpensive should someone lose part of one or forget to return it. Sometimes the tops and bottoms get mismatched resulting in a loose fit. Being plastic, however, the boxes do get damaged (particularly the fitting lip of the magnifier section) and scratched with use. We remind people to be careful with their boxes as a lost magnifier is a fire hazard.

The participants do the work, finding and catching the insects and spiders in the bug boxes. The bugs are generally handled in the boxes, reducing trauma to bugs and handlers. The leader provides specific information when the bug is identifiable, and more general information at other times. Participants are encouraged to pass their catches around so that every one gets to see what has been found. The bugs are released back into the environment, on or near plants on which they were found. Participants are encouraged to poke around the vegetation and look closely at the environment. Since the walks are usually conducted in parks and nature areas, we usually concentrate on species which inhabit or visit the vegetation. We do not use traps or nets. Children are discouraged from cramming large bugs into the boxes (we carry some larger containers). Spiders sitting calmly on their webs are not fair targets, but the box's magnifier portion can be used for closer examination. Sometimes the group has a hard time finding the spider, even though it is sitting smack in the middle of its web. Spiders are important elements on any bug walk, and become more evident as the fall approaches.

Information gathered on the pre-walks is often used to direct the group's attention to certain locations. It can also be used ensure that the group sees the species common at that season.


The participatory, hands-on nature of the bug walks allows members of the general public to observe and learn about local insects and other arthropods in all stages of their development and in their natural environment. (People are surprised to learn that the mealybug-like insects they sometimes find are ladybird beetle larvae searching out aphids.) The chance to poke around and scrutinize with a purpose is important for many adults who otherwise would feel too self-conscious. Adults are forced to slow down to appreciate this unfamiliar world around them. They can ask questions of a real person, face to face, in a non-intimidating setting. They are also free to share their experiences with other interested people.

A bug walk is a good activity for families. When children are on a walk, more bugs are usually found - children have sharper eyes and much of the activity is usually closer to their eye level. Walks allow children to experience nature with their parents and other adults, and provide an opportunity for the children to bring the adults into their world. At the same time, adults can instill a respect and appreciation for nature and wild areas in the children.

People gain an appreciation of the number and variety of insects and other creatures that live around them, most of which are small and usually pass unnoticed. Many of the species are quite common. Participants carry away skills and knowledge that can be used to augment their outdoor and indoor activities. In some cases, walks introduce people to wildlife areas they had never visited or did not know about.


Our walks are limited to 15 people and reservations are encouraged. (Before reservations were requested, one walk drew about 30 people.) There is one leader. The walks are free - some people forget (we no longer book people far in advance, we overbook to about 20 and have turned away people at the reservation stage), and sometimes others show up (we do not turn away people who show up). Since the walks are run in different areas, requiring reservations ensures that people have any appropriate directions. The last couple of years we have maintained a guest log. Most of our participants are local, but we do get people on vacation from other parts of the country, Canada and Europe. Walks for defined groups, like the Girl Scouts, are handled outside of the public program and run in accordance with the group's needs.

There are lots of different bugs, and leaders will obviously not be familiar with all of them. In their book "California Insects", Powell and Hogue deal with about 600 of the estimated (by some) 28,000+ species in California. Leaders need to draw on other information to help their audience appreciate the roles or adaptations of unfamiliar species. Eventually frequently encountered bugs become familiar, and stories or information from previous occasions can be presented for unidentified species.

Some losses need to be expected. Occasionally caterpillars or other soft bodied insects, like larvae, get trapped between the parts of the box. Most of our losses occur when, in the process of capturing ladybird beetles, the aphids on which they are feeding go unnoticed.

The nature of these walks does create one major management problem - the group tends to spread out, sometimes quite far. While the small group size does help, leaders may need to make special efforts so that everyone sees the same species. Occasionally it may be necessary to call the group back together. There may be other problems that involve group dynamics, especially with the children. Normally these sort themselves out, sometimes with parental intervention. Certainly there is room for everyone, and enough bugs to go around.

As we all know, when we are focused on a task like looking for bugs in general or one bug in particular, it is easy to lose track of other aspects of our environment. Be sure to warn your group of any significant hazards they might encounter. These might include black widows, ticks, poison ivy, poison oak, rattlesnakes, or poor footing. In some areas, broken glass or thistles might be important, especially for small children. Leaders need to watch for these also.


As leaders operate more and more walks in an area, they come to appreciate its rhythms, the seasonal changes, the way it is evolving and the ties with surrounding areas and activities. They can also anticipate seasonal changes in the arthropod fauna and use this information in their walks.

After a while, it is sometimes easy to downplay common species in favor of the new or unfamiliar. The leader must remember that even the most common species will be unfamiliar, and may even seem exotic, to many in the group. Leaders must also remember to let the group find things rather than pointing them out right away, thereby removing the joy of discovery. This is, after all, a hands-on activity, and, to a certain extent, the leader's job is to provide opportunity and location.

Expanding the walks into different areas reinvigorates a leader who needs new challenges. The leader's knowledge and the information presented are enriched as similarities and differences between the areas are recognized. Opportunities, such as insect fairs or computer web sites, may be available for those with the inclination. By supporting expanded activities, the sponsoring organization gains exposure, sometimes among people that would not normally have been reached.


Perhaps because of the amount of material appearing on arthropods, particularly insects and spiders, and the efforts of zoos and museums to present these fascinating creatures, there is considerable interest among the general public. However, efforts that focus on local arthropods seem to be rather limited. Operating bug walks in local natural areas (includes abused urban areas) is an inexpensive way to educate the general public about their local arthropods, particularly from the life history angle. No need to allocate large amounts of space or equipment. No need for permits. (You may, however, need permission from some authority for the catch-and-release program discussed here.) You need a leader who has a certain amount of basic knowledge. This person must be able to say "I don't know". Perhaps most importantly, this person must have enough confidence to lead a walk where they don't have a lot of control over what will be found or what they might need to talk about. Depending on your location, opportunities for walks of this type may be seasonal, but from an environmental education standpoint they are very important.

"I have seen pictures of aphids in the books, but I never realized they were so small!"

- Chula Vista Bug Walk participant

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Please direct any comments, questions, criticisms or corrections to:

Ron Lyons
(volunteer 1990-1999)
Chula Vista Nature Center, 1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910-1201

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