Nothing engages students more than live animals — and insects and their relatives are small, easy to rear, and useful for a variety of hands-on inquiry-driven projects.
Easiest Arthropods to Keep
- Isopods can be captured in your garden to start a colony, and will happily live and reproduce on salad leftovers. (Note that these are crustaceans, not insects.)
- Hissing roaches are easy to care for and low maintenance. These roaches retain their egg cases and give a form of live birth, which is exciting to watch. However, immature roaches are much more active than adults! A ring of vaseline around the top of the cage can help prevent escape.
- Mealworms and superworms will go through their entire lifecycle in a plastic shoebox. They thrive on wheat germ, potatoes, and other non-fruit leftovers.
- Tarantulas and other arachnids can be very low maintenance classroom pets, BUT you should choose the species carefully! Here’s a great reference.
Ethical and Legal Sourcing
You can buy nearly any insect or spider online, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal (or a good idea).
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) regulates non-native and pest species of arthropods in order to protect our environment and food supply. Most non-native, plant-eating species of insect have some regulation via USDA, since they might have the potential to become established as an invasive pest.
- Most predators (tarantulas) and species native to the United States are non-regulated. Hissing cockroaches and most other exotic roaches are no longer regulated as exotic species, even though they (originally) are species from outside the USA.
- Most major biological supply houses (Wards, Carolina Biological, etc.) have appropriate permits for sale of a wide variety of regulated and unregulated arthropod species. Random people on the internet… not so much. Look for reputable sources of arthropods.
- Look for captive-bred animals. That way you aren’t supporting destruction of wild populations through collecting.
- Don’t import animals from outside the United States; that involves US Fish and Wildlife, as well as USDA regulations.
- Most non-native spider species are not federally regulated, with the exception of species listed as endangered or threatened globally.
- National Science Teachers Association Position Statement on Live Animals in the Classroom
Euthanasia and Release
- Animals you capture wild in your schoolyard, keep for a while, and then release are considered low risk to wild populations.
- Please never release large numbers of captive-bred arthropods into the wild. This includes butterfly releases, which are known to spread pathogens to wild populations.
- If your arthropods need to be euthanized, putting them in the freezer for 72 hours makes sure they are dead. That also reduces the potential for pathogen spread to wild populations if they go to the landfill. The most humane method of euthanizing arthropods is using a CO2 gas chamber, but not everyone has that on hand.
- Xerces Joint Statement Regarding Captive Breeding and Releasing of Monarchs
- North American Butterfly Association Statement on Captive Release of Butterflies
Will Purdue Entomology Adopt My Pet Arthropods?
The answer is “it depends!”
- We may accept insects to be used as food for our captive animals IF they are securely contained and are a small number of individuals.
- We may accept tarantula and other arachnid species IF they have a secure cage, and are not species of medical concern.
- Arthropods that have been obtained illegally or that are CITES protected may be surrendered to Purdue Entomology. If we cannot keep them, we will send them to zoos where they can enter captive breeding programs.
- Please understand that you are surrendering your animals to a USDA Containment Facility. Once we accept them, they are no longer yours and cannot be returned for any reason.
Insects and 3-Dimensional Learning
Live insects are perfect for generating interest!
- Make Observations (I notice….)
- Ask Questions (I wonder…)
- Make Connections (It reminds me of….)
Insects also easily can be connected to NGSS disciplinary core ideas.