Nature Archives - Page 2 of 21 - Eva Varga

August 5, 2014

With summer in full swing, family vacations may already be a treasured memory, or a much-anticipated pleasure. In Northern California, a family holiday often means a trip to a lake, creek, or river.

summer natureWhether your summer holiday is still fresh in your memory or an adventure you are all yet looking forward to, I thought I would pass along some resources for turning your outdoor nature experiences into art and writing opportunities.

Summer Nature Activities

If you have additional suggestions, please let us know. Leave a comment here or post your suggestion on my Facebook page. I hope you and your children have wonderful nature encounters.


April 7, 20148

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by insects. I have curated an insect collection of my own for years and I love sketching them in my nature journal.

Insects are all around us and their abundance makes them the perfect introduction to the world of zoology. Studying insects is a wonderful experience for upper grades to begin using the taxonomic binomial naming system for the first time.

ultimate guide insects

An Introduction to Insects or Basic Entomology

Insects belong to the phylum Arthropoda. As such, they have a hard exoskeleton which they molt several times as they grow, bilateral symmetry, and jointed appendages (legs and antennae).  The arthropod phylum is the largest in the animal kingdom – more arthropods than any other animal.

The phylum can be further divided into four classes:  Insects – 3 pairs of legs, Arachnids (spiders & mites) – 4 pairs of legs, Crustaceans (crabs & lobsters) – 5 pairs of legs, and Millipedes & Centipedes.

If you are looking for a fun, hands-on curriculum for upper elementary or middle school students, I have compiled a number of my favorite lesson plans in a unit study approach, Introductory Entomology. Through hands-on activities, real life simulations, and multi-media presentations this six-week unit incorporates more than 10 entomology lessons and suggested extension activities.

I have also gathered a number of great resources and lesson plan ideas from across the web to provide you with the ultimate guide to studying insects.  You’ll most assuredly find inspiration and activities galore – many of which include free notebooking printables. The following list should get you started on your insect studies:

  • Bug Collecting – A step-by-step guide to collecting bugs and insects
  • Adventures with Insects & Critters – All about collecting and keeping insects and other small critters
  • Conduct an Insect Survey – Collect data to calculate the diversity of insects; includes a free notebooking printable
  • Aquatic Science: Spring Pond Study – Get the kids outside equipped with a small wash tub, an ice-cube tray, and this free download to investigate aquatic critters
  • BugScope – Provides free interactive access to a scanning electron microscope so that students can explore the world of insects
  • Integrated Pest Management – One of the lessons in my Introductory Entomology unit engages kids in a cooperative learning, simulated experience
  • Keep a journal of your observations – See Cicada for a spectacular example
  • The Xerces Society – A nonprofit that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Find a wealth of insect resources on their website.

When teaching about insects in middle school, I feel it is important to introduce them to the use of a dichotomous key and to provide ample opportunity to practice classification skills. I put together a PowerPoint presentation to introduce kids to the differences between insect orders. You can download the presentation here:  Insect Classification.

damselflyIn addition to the broad resources I have shared above, I have also compiled a number of hands-on activities specific to insect orders.  You may wish to study insects one order at a time or perhaps you have a budding coleopterists (an entomologist who specializes in the study of beetles) in your family.  The links provided here are grouped according to the most common insect orders:






  •  Links coming soon


june beetle noseLiterature Connections & Lapbooks

There are numerous non-fiction books about insects.  One of my favorite books is a book of poems by Paul Fleishman, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Written to be read aloud by two voices – sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneous – this collection of 14 poems celebrates the insect world, from the short life of the mayfly to the love song of the book louse.

While I highly recommend the print version for the gorgeous illustrations by Eric Beddows, I also recommend the audio version – particularly if poems written for two voices is unfamiliar to you. Upon listening to this book, my kids delighted in creating insect poems of their own.

In my quest to share with you the best of the best, I came across a few wonderful posts that are perfect for younger siblings:

Citizen Science

There are numerous opportunities for people of all ages to explore insects and contribute to real, ongoing research.


Field Trips & Excursions

Many zoos and aquariums have special exhibits that feature insects.  I’ve highlighted a few here but be sure to contact natural history museums and zoos in your local area.  While smaller venues may not have a permanent exhibit, they may feature insect exhibits periodically in their rotation.

Career Opportunities

Students in upper grades may already have an idea that a career in biology or zoology is in their future.  Some may be interested in collecting insects and not realize that their hobby can actually be a possible career.  If you are interested in learning more about the possible career options in entomology, read my post Science Career Options: Entomology Careers.

March 20, 20143

The plight of the honey bee and other pollinators is of concern to me.  Insect hotels or habitat for insects is the perfect project for our Roots & Shoots group to show care and concern for animals.  It was also a great introduction  to service learning for my STEM Club kids.  I thereby invited both groups to join us for a day of insect revelry.

I began by introducing the kids to the Mason bee, the common name for a species of bees in the genus Osmia, of the family Megachilidae (Blue Orchard and Hornfaced the best known species). They are so named for their habit of making compartments of mud in their nests, which are made in hollow reeds or holes in wood made by wood-boring insects.

Unlike honey bees (Apis) or bumblebees, Osmia are solitary; every female is fertile and makes her own nest, and there are no worker bees for these species. The bees emerge from their cocoons in the spring, with males the first to come out. They remain near the nests waiting for the females. When the females emerge, they mate. The males die, and the females begin provisioning their nests.

Osmia females like to nest in narrow holes or tubes, typically naturally occurring tubular cavities. Most commonly this means hollow twigs, but sometimes abandoned nests of wood-boring beetles or carpenter bees, or even snail shells. They do not excavate their own nests. The material used for the cell can be clay or chewed plant tissue. One species (Osmia avosetta) in the palearctic ecozone is known for lining the nest burrows with flower petals.

Females then visit flowers to gather pollen and nectar. Once enough provisions have been gathered, she backs into the hole and lays an egg. Then she creates a partition of “mud”, which doubles as the back of the next cell. The process continues until she has filled the cavity. Female-destined eggs are laid in the back of the nest, and male eggs towards the front. Once a bee has finished with a nest, she plugs the entrance to the tube, and then may seek out another nest location.

By summer, the larva has consumed all of its provisions and begins spinning a cocoon around itself and enters the pupal stage. The adult matures either in the fall or winter, hibernating inside its protective cocoon. Most Osmia species are found in places where the temperature drops below 0°C for long durations, like Canada, and they are well adapted to cold winters.

insecthotelsBuild It & They Will Come

Maintaining Mason bee habitats or insect hotels can be a simple, yet powerful way for people of all ages to intimately connect with the awesomeness of nature. Mason bees don’t sting unless they’re squashed or squeezed so they’re kid and pet friendly and don’t require protective clothing or training to work with. Since they’re sociable but solitary, there’s no need to coax colonies into complex forms. A well-designed and well-built habitat with ample nearby pollen sources will naturally attract mason bees, can allow intimate year-round observation of their lifecycle, and especially for teachers, parents and community garden programs be a powerful real-world teaching tool.

Mason bees are increasingly cultivated to improve pollination for early spring flowers. They are used sometimes as an alternative, but more often alongside European honey bees. Most mason bees are readily attracted to nesting holes; reeds, paper tubes, or nesting trays. Drilled blocks of wood are an option, but do not allow one to harvest the bees, which is vital to control a build-up of pests.

I found the post, Housing Mason Bees at Bees, Birds, & Butterflies particularly useful as I researched the how-tos for building insect hotels.  You can also purchase pre-made insect hotels from a variety of sources.  For example, Esschert Design Bee House. The kids had a great time building their own and it allowed their creativity to show.  Most of the kids recycled materials (soup cans, two liter bottles, etc.) to create a cylinder to hold bamboo and paper tubes. Many of the kids stated they wanted to build a wooden frame around their tubes and planned to finish their projects at home.

Attract Pollinators with Native Plants

To help bees and other pollinating insects (butterflies) you should provide a range of plants that will offer a succession of flowers, pollen, and nectarthrough the whole growing season. Patches of foraging habitat can be created in many different locations, from backyards and school grounds to golf courses and city parks. Even a small area planted with the right flowers will be beneficial those with small yards shouldn’t hesitate to do their part.

  • Use local native plants.
  • Choose several colors of flowers; particularly attractive to bees are blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow.
  • Plant flowers in clumps.
  • Include flowers of different shapes. Bees are all different sizes, have different tongue lengths, and will thereby feed on different shaped flowers. 
  • Have a diversity of plants flowering all season.

Contact your local extension agency to learn what plants are native to your area.  You may also find useful fact sheets provided by The Xerces Society.

Additional books & resources:

Homegrown Learners

February 22, 20143

It wasn’t long after our move to northern California that we learned of Liberty and Patriot, the two iconic bald eagles that had began nesting near the Sun Dial Bridge in Redding in 2004. The two eagles have touched the hearts of Shasta County residents and a live webcam was installed in a tree adjacent to their nest so that the community could peak in on them each year. Many in the community have also stood behind the pair when Turtle Bay expressed interest in building a motel on the property where their nest resides. 

Bald Eagles
Each year the birds return, Liberty lays her eggs, and the pair migrates in July after their eaglets have fledged. In 2013, however, their story took a dramatic and somewhat surprising twist, as Patriot disappeared in March and a third eagle entered the picture, killing two of the couple’s freshly hatched eaglets.

Patriot returned in April but died in May after fighting with another male, whom some believe is Liberty’s new mate, Spirit, who joined her in the fall.  Liberty laid her first egg with Spirit earlier this month. When we observed them on Friday, we were able to see Liberty move about in her nest with the aide of a spotting scope. However, we didn’t see Spirit during our stay.

bald eagle

Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are native only to North America. Our national symbol nearly became extinct in the 1970s, with only 419 known nesting paris in the lower 48 states. Thanks to legal protection and education, as of 2007 there were 13,000 nesting pairs. Shasta Lake, in northern California, is the most densely populated breeding spot with 22 pairs. In July 2007, bald eagles were removed from the Endangered Species List, but remain protected by other legislation.

  • Ninety percent of the bald eagle’s diet consists of fish, living or dead. They are at the top of the food chain. Humans are their only threat.
  • Bald eagles don’t get their distinctive white head and tail until they reach maturity between three and five years. Juveniles are solid brown and are often mistaken for golden eagles.
  • Nesting pairs mate for life and will continue to add on to the same nest year after year. The largest recorded nest is 30 years old and weighs over two tons.

Upon our return home, the kids illustrated an eagle in their nature journals as I read aloud some of the past news reports about the birds.  I also shared with them the facts above and they were encouraged to add these to their journal.

If you are interested in learning more about birds, read my post Bird Anatomy where you will find free printables and access to a PowerPoint Presentation.


Submitted to the Outdoor Hour Challenge at the Handbook of Nature Study.

January 23, 20145

Children are naturally inquisitive.  They are excited to learn about the world around them and to explore new things.  The media and advances in technology, however, threaten this natural curiosity.  Children today are more easily able to tell you more about the particulars of a Wii game than they can tell you about the plants or animals in the park near their home.

nature journaling in 5 exercisesI don’t ever want my children to lose their fascination with the natural world, to lose interest in a bird hopping along the sidewalk or squirrels chasing each other around a tree outside our window.  I want them to forever marvel at the water droplets glistening on branches after a heavy rainfall and to smile in delight when a dragonfly alights on their toes while floating down the river.

Rachel Carson said it well when she penned, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.”

With intentional teaching of how to use a nature journal, children can walk away with life-skills that encourage scientific and aesthetic observations, creative and technical writing, perception and analysis, questioning, synthesis, focus, self-expression, and reflection. Clare Walker Leslies’ books are a catalyst to do just that.  She inspires, encourages, and mentors, even the most reluctant.  She gives you the feeling that everyone can be a naturalist and find success in using a nature journal.

Keeping a Nature Journal

Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie is one of my favorite resources for nature journaling. Her encouragement to slow down, observe, reflect, and embrace my connection to the living, natural world compelled me to read the book from front to back in one sitting.  I couldn’t put it down.  Her words were so encouraging and invaluable to me.  She conveyed “that drawing is at once a way to see … and the door to a deeper sense of affiliation with the earth.” 

Kids love to explore so why not combine this natural affinity with the life skills of writing, drawing, and sharing.  Nature journaling is very flexible – students can write poems, diagram an animal, describe a scene in prose, or press a beautiful leaf or flower within the pages of their book.  They can share it with family and friends and find joy in discovering the natural world together.

Art, science, writing, math, social studies and other fields of study can be interwoven within the pages of a student’s journal.  Walker’s book is a welcomed resource in encouraging easy and fun ways for getting excited about nature journaling.  Her descriptions are clear and easy-to-follow and beckon learners of all ages to become connected with their own places and landscapes.

getting started in 5 exercisesHere are a few ideas for getting started . . .

  • Choose a place near your house or school.  Spend twenty minutes or so sitting and paying attention with all of your senses to everything that surrounds you.  What do you smell?  What do you hear?   What do you see?  When you are ready, begin recording as many details as you can in your journal (Don’t forget to record the place, date, time, and weather at the beginning of your entry).   Return to the same place some time later and do the same exercise.  Do this throughout the course of a few weeks, months, or years and keep track of how your special place changes.
  • Sit in a place where you can see the sky without trees or buildings blocking your view.  Look up and draw the clouds as they float over your head.  Clouds do not stay the same shape for long so you will have to draw quickly.  Label the cloud images you see . . . my daughter once saw a dragon breathing fire on a castle — all in a cloud!
  • Park yourself near a bird feeder and write about/draw the birds as they come to eat.  Try to describe the flying style of different birds.  Describe the sounds they make.
  • Listen to the wind.  The wind makes some great sounds as it blows through different trees, a person’s hair, a flag, a boat’s sail, your baggy pants, etc . . . Try to listen to the wind’s various sounds and record them in your journal.  Try to imagine what the wind is saying to you.
  • Pick up a leaf and try a blind contour drawing.  Don’t take your eyes off of the leaf or your pen off of the paper as you try to draw the leaf’s details as accurately as possible.  When you think you are finished look down at your paper.  You may get a chuckle as the lines may only loosely resemble the leaf you thought you were drawing.  However, with practice your blind contour drawings will improve because your hand will learn to follow your eyes more accurately.  This kind of drawing without looking works well with trees too.  Blind contours of birds and squirrels and other creatures who don’t like to sit still to have their portrait drawn are more difficult.

December 17, 20131

Upon observing a tremendously diverse number of fungi species last month, I asked the kiddos to select one to journal about.  It wasn’t surprising that Sweetie selected Amanita muscaria (Fly Agaric Fungi).  Whether of mutual  interest or simply thinking it would be easier, Buddy chose the same.

In children’s picture books and whimsy illustrations of fairies, the Amanita family of fungi is probably the most notorious.  Garden ornaments and even video games depicting gnomes and fairies often show Amanita muscaria used as seats or homes.

Fly Agaric Fungi

The beautiful Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) is unmistakable with its bright red cap covered with white scales (remnants of the membranous universal veil that once enveloped the entire stalk and umbrella-like cap). The family is comprised of only 2 genera, Amanita and the rare Limacella.  Most species grow on the ground in forests or woodlands and though they are stately and colorful, they can be deadly.

fly_agaric fungi

Native throughout the temperate and boreal regions of the Northern Hemisphere, Amanita muscaria has been unintentionally introduced to many countries in the southern hemisphere, generally as a symbiont with pine plantations, and is now a true cosmopolitan species. It associates with various deciduous (birch, live oak, & madrone) and coniferous trees (pine & spruce). Commonly referred to as a toadstool, it is a large white-gilled, white-spotted, usually red mushroom, one of the most recognizable.

fly agaric fungi

Amanita muscaria is probably humanity’s oldest entheogen, containing the toxic, psychoactive alkaloid muscimole. In Europe, it has been used as an insecticide (when mixed with milk), hence it’s common name, Fly Agaric.  Despite it’s toxicity, some do use it for food and medicinal purposes. The active constituents of this species are water soluble, and boiling and then discarding the cooking water at least partly detoxifies it. Drying may increase potency, as the process facilitates the conversion of ibotenic acid to the more potent muscimol.  According to some sources, once detoxified, the mushroom becomes edible.

Some authors in the 1700s have recorded the distortions of the size of perceived objects while intoxicated by the fungus. This observation is thought to have formed the basis of the effects of eating the mushroom in the 1865 popular story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Amanita mascara (Fly Agaric Fungi) is a fascinating example of how our observations on a nature walk can lead us in so many directions.  From ecology, chemistry, taxonomy, and even cultural / historical uses.


Submitted to the December Handbook of Nature Study Outdoor Hour Challenge.