A Bug’s Life: Your Young Scientist’s Next Fair Project

Finding the perfect science fair project for your children can be quite the challenge. Whether your kids attend public school or private school, which make up 25% of all schools in the United States, they will need a project that impresses their teachers and peers while being feasible to complete.

Are There Bugs Under Your Feet?

In this project, the experimenter will essentially gather a sample of soil from their area and then examine it to observe the lifeforms that live within it. According to Julie Peterson, professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, there is an estimated 10 quintillion insects on the planet. This project is the perfect opportunity to let your children realize the massive presence of insects all around them.

  1. The first step of this project is to make a Berlese funnel. Cut off the top of a two-liter soda bottle at about one-third of the way down.
  2. Pour rubbing alcohol into an empty jar until it reaches a depth of one to two centimeters. Place the filled jar in the bottom part of the cut bottle.
  3. Turn the top part of the bottle upside down and cut a piece of hardware cloth so that it fits snugly just above the funnel section of the bottle.
  4. Collect handfuls of soil from around your home. These samples should contain plenty of organic material and still be slightly damp. Good collection spots are under evergreen bushes and trees. Put each sample in a resealable plastic bag labeled with the area from which you collected it. You’ll use the funnel many times to examine each sample, or you can create separate funnels for each sample.
  5. Place your soil sample, leaves included, on top of the cloth in the funnel. Shake it gently above a trash can so that the loose dirt and debris fall out.
  6. Put the funnel in the bottom part of the bottle so that the mouth sits just above the jar filled with rubbing alcohol. Make sure the funnel sits tightly and doesn’t tip over. The tip of the top shouldn’t touch the jar, but should be very close to it.
  7. Leave the setup in a warm and quiet place where it won’t be disturbed.
  8. Place a lamp with a 13 W compact fluorescent bulb over the funnel. It should be high enough so that it won’t overheat and catch on fire.
  9. Let your Burlese funnel and lamp sit for at least 24 hours before you examine your sample. It will take time for the soil to heat up and organisms to move down the funnel.
  10. Once the soil is dry, remove the top part of the funnel and look at your sample in the jar. Use a magnifying device to look at it closely. As the first microscopes were used to study insects in the 16th century, they make ideal devices for this experiment.
  11. Record the macro-invertebrates, micro-arthropods, and other fauna you can see in each sample. Compare the samples and draw your conclusions about how different areas are populated.

The Earth is filled with a seemingly impossible number of organisms. With about 90% of all insects spending at least some part of their lives in the soil beneath us, this experiment is sure to yield some telling results for your young scientist.

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