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Kids learn all about creepy-crawlies at Carlsbad zoo camp

CARLSBAD, N.M. - What are ways an insect can hide itself from predators? How do butterflies taste their food? What is the process a bollworm goes through when it transforms into a moth?

Photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/bughunt_artesia.jpg CUTLINE: Jane Breen Pierce, an entomologist at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia, talks to youngsters about all things bugs during the New Mexico State Park Living Desert Zoo and Gardens Zoo Camp. (Photo by Khushroo Ghadilai for NMSU)

These and many other questions were answered recently during a zoo camp at the New Mexico State Park Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Carlsbad. This year's theme for the annual event? Arthropods.

Experts from New Mexico State University helped children from preschool through fourth grade learn all about the creepy-crawlies during the two-week camp July 20-31.

"It's nice because children, even young children, know more about insects than they realize," said Jane Breen Pierce, an entomologist at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia. "Books for young children are full of stories on insects so even preschoolers can identify a ladybug or grasshopper."

And identify bugs, they did.

As part of the camp, the children fed butterflies in a butterfly house, identified insects using dichotomous keys and went on a hunt for bugs - of the plastic variety - in a grassy courtyard.

Woods Houghton, the director of county programs with the Eddy County Cooperative Extension Service, said it was a lot of fun to be able to educate the children and to start to introduce them to a little bit of science.

Houghton talked with the children about what makes an insect an insect and also talked about what kinds of bugs are dangerous and should be avoided, such as brown recluse spiders and Africanized bees.

Using what they learned about the parts of an insect body, the kids created bugs using pipe cleaners and Styrofoam molds.

Pierce talked to the participants about how an insect uses its senses to see, feel, taste and smell, and how they communicate with each other, before setting them loose in teams to go on a bug hunt. They then had to sort the bugs they found into different groups based on the identifying factors they learned.

Participants got up-close and personal with monarch butterflies in a butterfly house set up at the zoo, and learned that butterflies do not taste food with their mouths but rather with their feet.

Kara Twitchell, a freshman at NMSU majoring in agricultural biology, and Patricia Monk, a senior research assistant at the science center, talked with the children about the process of metamorphosis and had cotton bollworms, larvae, pupae and moths on hand to show participants how the insect goes from being an egg to a moth.

They also taught the camp-goers about how an insect hides itself from predators through the use of camouflage by either blending into the environment around them or mimicking another insect that could be toxic to other creatures.

The children learned firsthand how easily insects can blend into their surroundings during their bug hunt. Pierce said they found only half of the green bugs that were hidden in the grass.

Common, and not-so-common bugs were also at the camp, courtesy of the Arthropod Museum in the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science on the Las Cruces campus.

In the end, Pierce said, she just wanted the kids to have a good time.

"I like them to have fun," she said. "It needs to be fun and there's no reason they can't have fun. Science is a subject they are interested in at that age and I like to give them a little taste of that while they are interested in it."

Houghton said it was great working with the staff at the zoo and said the camp was a good way to get kids to start thinking "outside the box."

"This camp gives us a chance to teach them about nature and the ecosystem and how everything works together," he said. "The children learn that what we do affects other things, too."

The camp was put together and run by staff at the New Mexico State Park Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.