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Unique setting attracts insect campers to MSU
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE – Mississippi State University’s 4-H Entomology and Horticulture Camp is one of the few of its kind to offer overnight stay for nocturnal collecting, which attracts participants to the event just like moths to light.
“We introduce campers to the technique of attracting night insects using black lighting, which opens up a new world for them,” said retired MSU Extension Service entomologist Mike Williams. “You could jokingly say we end activities with a last call for the appropriate type of alcohol.”
The substance to which Williams refers is isopropyl alcohol, which is often used to preserve non-scaly insects for collections.
Williams began the camp in 1994 as a way to expose young people to science and provide hands-on learning that makes what they read in books come alive. Since that time, the camp has grown in stature and pulls in nature enthusiasts of all ages from all corners of Mississippi and from as far away as Vermont, Michigan, Texas and the West Coast. The camp is a partnership between the state 4-H program, the MSU Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, and the MSU Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
“A couple of California high school students decided to attend our camp for their senior trip,” Williams said. “After bug camp, they ended up collecting insects all through the West on their way back home using the techniques we taught.”
Young people are not the only enthusiasts heading to MSU’s camp each June.
“Bug camp is intergenerational, so parents and teachers are welcome,” said camp director John Guyton, MSU Extension wildlife and fisheries specialist. “Teachers earn continuing education units. We have parents, whose children have left for college, still coming to camp with us.”
Several years ago, sixth-grade science teacher Dan Kennell of Gallup, N.M., contacted Clarence Collison, his former mentor at Pennsylvania State University. During the conversation, Collison, who heads the MSU Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, encouraged Kennell to join the camp.
Kennell has served as an instructor at the camp for six years. He also has collected many unique species of insects to take back home since the dry New Mexico weather does not allow for as much diversity and quantity of insects as found in the South.
“Mississippi State has a unique group of faculty, Extension agents and volunteers who are excited about helping children learn, even though there is much work involved in putting on one of these camps,” Kennell said. “The state is ahead of the game in offering interactive learning through these camps and serves as a great model for such a camp.”
Discovery and exploration are the foundation upon which MSU’s camp rests. Campers who attend find that organizers believe in challenging boys and girls, particularly newbies, to overcome their fears and squeamish reactions so they can enjoy the full adventure in the woods.
“Water is an important part of the life cycle for dragonflies and other types of insects,” said Leslie Burger, who coordinates 4-H projects for the MSU Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “These insects often provide protein and food sources for animals and fish, so this is a chance for campers to investigate how ecological systems work and thus need to be managed wisely for the benefit of all life found there.”
While attracting insects with black lighting at night offers campers the opportunity to collect unique specimens, daytime sessions have their own allure with forays into the water and forest. Veteran insect camper D.J. Failla, 15, of Picayune, has his techniques for collecting aquatic insects down to a science. He has advice on how to effectively use a special net, which has a long handle and a porous material shaped like the letter D attached at one end.
“It’s better to slowly move, or chug, the net across the water, rather than just plop it under or make a splash,” Failla said. “You can squish or sieve out the water and retrieve insects at the bottom of the net without losing any of them.”
Gathering pine bark beetles is just as entertaining for many of these campers. Peter Drackett, 11, of Long Beach, happily used a machete to peel the bark of a dead pine tree. He soon found what he was looking for and added this specimen to his growing collection.
“I was at camp last year and learned then how to correctly pin my specimen,” Drackett said. “I really like collecting insects, and I will probably become an entomologist when I grow up.”
Guyton said that Failla and Drackett have been serving as resident youth entomologists at MSU Crosby Arboretum’s BugFest in Picayune.
“Each summer they take new activities back to use on attendees at BugFest,” Guyton said.
Perhaps the two may one day lead MSU’s bug camp, too.