Alex waded through the waist-high daisies, net at the ready. Slowly, he sneaked up on his prey, creeping closer until he was just a few inches from it.
Then he pounced, swooping his net down on the unsuspecting creature. There was a fierce buzzing as his captive struggled in the net. His prize won, Alex had sympathy.
"Daddy, let him go. Let him fly free," he said.
On a recent "bug safari" to Beaverbrook Reservation near Belmont, Mass., the children had good hunting. They captured ladybugs, butterflies, even some teenage beetles that hadn't grown their wings.
But Alex was the only one who bagged a bumblebee.
The leader of the safari was Gary Oines, an amateur entomologist (en-tuh-MAHL-uh-jist) - someone who studies bugs.
A four-inch-long Goliath
The quarry: insects, easily recognizable with their six legs, antennae, and three body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen).
Insects don't have any bones the way we do. Instead, they are protected by a hard outer shell called an exoskeleton (EKS-oh-skel-uh-tun).
So, if they want to get any bigger, Gary explains, they have to shed their shell and grow a new one - kind of the way a snake sheds its skin.
Gary likes to study insects because there are so many kinds, and each one has something different about it. "You can say almost anything, and it would be true of some insect," he says.
His favorites are beetles. The largest insect in the world is the Goliath beetle. It lives in Africa and can grow to be 4-1/3 inches long. (This newspaper page is 11 inches wide.) They're big, but so harmless that African children keep them as pets. The beetles live in rain forests and eat tree sap.
Kids are good bug hunters
Every year, Gary leads an insect expedition to help his son's school. "It's like a treasure hunt," he says, adding that children make very good hunters. "It's not so much that they're built low to the ground as that they look at the world through different eyes."
This year, five children came to learn about insects and catch a few to look at close up. Before everyone headed out to comb the long grass for bugs, Gary explained what to look for, and where to look.
If you're hunting bees or butterflies, for example, flowers are a good place to start.
Speed isn't as important as patience when you're hunting bugs. "Science can be very boring," Gary says, and laughs. "Much of the time, nothing happens."
Asa, Gary's son, is a veteran of several hunts. He sweeps his net like a hockey stick, scooping up every insect in his path. Most of the children let their insects go after they catch them, but Asa has a collection of insects he's caught that he likes to study. He's on the lookout for new and unusual creatures.
Alex is the big-game hunter. (In addition to the bee, he also caught a stink bug and an orange-and-white butterfly. "Stinky" was a nice-looking little brown bug with a yellow belly.)
But Michael took the prize for catching the most. In five minutes, he had dozens of young beetles in his net. (Gary knew they were young because they hadn't grown wings yet. Only adults can fly.)
The world in your backyard
Next time you head outside to play, stop and look closely at the grass and trees. Dozens of insects will probably be at work.
If flowers are nearby, look for bees gathering nectar to make honey. You'll probably see worker ants busily gathering food - anything from leaves to an unguarded picnic - to feed the ants in the colony.
Depending on how long the grass is or how big your yard is, you may find grasshoppers, crickets, even a butterfly or two.
Personally, I also have roly-polys in my basement. (They're also called pill bugs or sow bugs, but they're really wood lice.) Pill bugs aren't technically insects - and I'm not sure how they got in my basement - but they're fun to watch. If you study the insects you find for a little while, you'll see many have very busy lives.
There's a whole other world going on in your backyard. Butterfly nets are fun, but all you really need is a sharp pair of eyes and your curiosity.
Just remember, it's a jungle out there.
Tips for Hunting Bugs
So, you want to go on a bug safari? First you're going to need a few things:
A butterfly net
A home for your bugs (some toy and hobby shops sell 'bug houses.' Amateur entomologist Gary Oines uses biology sample cases, which look like clear film canisters.)
A field guide to insects, so you can figure out what you've caught. (Gary recommends 'Peterson First Guide to Insects of North America.')
An adult to help you trap the insects and make sure you don't get stung.
A pair of sharp eyes
A backyard or grassy area. (Long grass - over 4 inches tall - is a good place to look. If you can't get your parents to quit mowing the lawn for a couple of weeks, try a local park.)
Sweep your net back and forth through the grass a few times and then carefully look in your net. In just a few minutes of sweeping you can catch several different types of insect.
Slip your container into the net to catch the bug. If it's a flying insect, hold the container upside down over it. Insects tend to crawl upward, and this will keep it from escaping while you put the lid on.
Observe what the insects do and how they look. Use your field guide to see if you can identify the insect you've caught.