U of I program with live insects, spiders helps participants overcome fears
By John O’Connell
University of Idaho
With his live, exotic insect and arachnid collection, University of Idaho Extension educator Jason Thomas has taught thousands of Idaho children that there’s nothing necessarily creepy about a cockroach, terrifying about a tarantula or repulsive about a roly-poly.
Fewer than 3% of insects and spiders are considered pests, though most people lump them all together in the creepy-crawly category.
Thomas, of Minidoka County, reasons that improving perceptions about these misunderstood arthropods is the best path toward preventing the needless spraying of creatures that appear menacing but are harmless, or even beneficial.
He's developed a hands-on program that’s brought upwards of 80 different insect and spider species to 4-H group functions, community events and classrooms, enabling the public to handle live specimens and overcome fears.
“It’s a very rewarding experience because we will have some people who are scared to death of spiders and by the end of them getting to hold all of these different things they are fascinated and interested, and they keep asking to hold the spiders again,” Thomas said.
Thomas has also provided training and specimens to Extension educators who have launched smaller satellite programs in Jefferson, Clark, Caribou, Bear Lake, Teton and Blaine counties.
Heading forward, Thomas will prioritize training teachers and leaders of organizations within his community who would like to borrow and showcase these organisms to learners.
“You want things that are big, exotic and different-looking,” Thomas said.
Thomas has been providing opportunities for people – especially youth – to handle and interact with bugs since he first joined UI Extension in January 2018.
His early hands-on lessons featured hissing cockroaches and giant prickly stick insects, which he obtained through U of I’s William F. Barr Entomological Museum.
“Initially, I was working with 4-H youth in the county. We’d always take bugs to the county fair and have a booth,” Thomas said, adding that younger children are most receptive to handling insects and spiders. “And then I started getting calls from public schools in Minidoka County. Then I was getting calls from homeschool groups.”
In September 2021, Thomas received an American Rescue Plan Act grant to support his 4-H efforts, which he combined with county funding to significantly grow the program.
With the funding, he significantly expanded his collection by reaching out to arthropod breeders who sell online and visiting exotic pet stores.
Giant prickly stick insects, giant African millipedes, blue feigning death beetles, pink-toe tarantulas, giant vinegaroons, wide-horn hissing roaches and dairy cow isopods have been among his greatest attractions.
The exoskeletons of the ironclad beetles in his collection are structural marvels, capable of withstanding being run over by a small car.
The grant enabled Thomas to hire high school students and others to assist in caring for the creatures and taking them out to classrooms. Cleaning cages and feeding and watering the insects and spiders required a time investment of up to eight hours per week at the height of the collection.
Thomas has also taken specimens from his collection to events and classrooms in surrounding counties, including a Bug Day event in Boise attended by more than 3,000 participants.
He hosted in-service trainings for Extension educators starting their own smaller collections.
Joseph Sagers, a UI Extension educator in Jefferson County, takes the insect and spider collection Thomas helped him start to area schools and 4-H day camps.
“A lot of times you can do presentations to some kids and it just goes over their head, but most kids remember that day a tarantula walked over their hand,” Sagers said.
Thomas breeds thousands of mealworms and cockroaches to feed his numerous predatory insects and spiders.
Under his supervision or the supervision of a trained helper, Thomas allows participants to handle the more docile creatures. He also has some insects and spiders that aren’t safe to handle, such as black widows and burgundy Goliath birdeater tarantulas, which are kept inside of cages while participants view them.
“Another purpose is to get kids excited about science and STEM, and it’s a great thing to study,” Thomas said.
From September 2021 to August 2022, his program reached 8,107 youth about insects and spiders. He also educated 1,977 adults about insects during that year.
During the recent Idaho Potato Conference in Pocatello, Thomas shared his insect collection with adult farmworkers attending sessions offered in Spanish.
He hopes the experience will lead them to make more informed decisions about when to apply pesticides.
Now that the grant has ended, Thomas no longer has access to program staff. He’s scaled back his collection to where it takes him no more than an hour per week to care for all of his insects and spiders.
“We’re continuing it, just not at the pace we were before,” Thomas said.
Those interested in learning more about using insects, spiders or other arthropods for education can reach out to Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
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