A Natural History of Undergraduate Entomology

Teaching Entomology to undergraduate students is a special experience at UC Riverside – this university is rooted in the study of insects! This fall, I taught discussion sections of the non-majors introductory “Natural History of Insects” with my colleagues Kelsey Schall and Dr. John Trumble. Kelsey and I crafted our course plans with the aim of inspiring our students to overcome their fears of insects and to develop an appreciation for insects in the world around them.

Goal 1: Challenge entomophobia

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A student’s leg with a visiting praying mantis!

A size-able proportion of the general population, including students enrolled in this course, are freaked out by insects. Accordingly, the first activity of the course was to present all students with the opportunity to touch and hold live insects. Praying mantids, stick insects, and desert stink beetles were passed around class, and nearly every student touched at least one insect! Success!

Goal 2: Awareness of local insect issues

We took students on a walk to the UCR Bio-control Orange Groves for a history lesson and hands-on participation in invasive species management! Before UCR was a university, the entire region was blanketed in citrus orchards as far as the eye could see. In support of this booming industry, California established the Citrus Experiment Station to conduct agricultural research – on new citrus varieties, fertilization, pests, diseases, pollinators, and pesticides. Eventually the Citrus Experiment Station gave rise to the University of California in Riverside, where the Entomology department continues the legacy of citrus research.

Today, one major research focus is the Asian Citrus Psyllid, Diaphorina citri, an invasive insect herbivore that attacks citrus trees. Asian Citrus Psyllid vectors a bacterial plant pathogen, which causes Huanglongbing, an incurable disease in citrus. At the UCR Bio-control Orange Groves, students inspected trees for insect pests and released an insect biocontrol agent, the parasitoid wasp Tamarixia radiata. The teeny tiny wasps lay eggs inside the Asian Citrus Psyllid – as the eggs develop, the psyllid dies and it’s carcass acts as a “mummy” shelter for the maturing wasps.

Goal 3: Bee-come an Insect

We ended the quarter with a buzz by taking students outside to practice their honeybee waggle dance. Honeybees use the waggle dance to tell one another about great food resources (flowers full of pollen and nectar!) nearby the hive. They waggle their abdomens side to side as they move forward in a straight line. The direction and angle of their dance relative to vertical is used to convey the direction of the food patch relative to the position of the sun. Students took turns dancing to communicate the location of various “flowers” with one another.

Bonus: Websites are my favorite assignment

Last summer, I discovered that assigning a website project is a GREAT IDEA. Naturally, I brought it back for this class – students found an insect, took selfies with it, and then created an informative website all about what they found! Reviewing nearly 160 websites was not only way better than grading papers, it was also entertaining to see my students demonstrate how much they had learned in such creative ways!

 

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