HomeArticlesSari on Science: The bugs in your own backyard

Sari on Science: The bugs in your own backyard

Bug Out!

You may have heard the headlines: Cicadas are coming out to greet many states in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Billions of these red-eyed insects known as Brood X are digging their way out of the ground and flocking to trees after 17 years in the soil. We may not have many cicadas in Arizona this year, but there are plenty of arachnids, bugs and other insects waiting to be discovered.

Did you know?

We use the term “bug” to describe all different types of creatures that crawl or fly — from spiders to gnats, beetles to butterflies — but there are specific differences. All are arthropods, with their skeletons on the outside, called an exoskeleton, and segmented bodies. Insects have six legs, three body segments (head, thorax and abdomen), and sometimes wings, while arachnids have eight legs, two body segments and no wings. Bugs are actually what scientists call specific insects like aphids, cicadas and bed bugs, which have non-retractable mouth parts that can suck liquid.

Have you ever wondered how many different bugs live right in your backyard? Try this activity to witness just how much biodiversity you have right at home!


  • One large white bed sheet or piece of butcher paper
  • Two flashlights
  • Tape
  • Optional: magnifying glass, nature journal and drawing materials (colored pencils, crayons, etc.)


  • Find a large, open spot on a wall or tree.
  • Tape the bed sheet or butcher paper to the wall or tree so that it hangs down vertically.
  • Set up flashlights so they are pointing toward the sheet or paper.
  • Turn on flashlights and leave them on for at least 30 minutes (longer is better). This step is best done right at or after sunset.
  • Come back and look at the different bugs on your sheet or paper using the magnifying glass or just your eyes.
  • How many bugs did you find? How many different types of insects or arachnids did you find?
  • Try sketching all the different types of bugs you found, then look them up and identify them.

What’s happening?

Flashlights attract insects. There are a few different theories as to why some insects are attracted to artificial light. Some scientists believe it’s because many insects use natural light sources like the moon and stars to navigate. Some believe the light emits some ultraviolet light, signaling flowers or food. And some think a bright light just means a clear, unobstructed path to move or fly in, basically just confusing the bugs.

Whatever the reason behind it, this method should attract plenty of bugs. There are hundreds of species of insects and arachnids in Arizona, so have fun finding out what shows up in your backyard! Does anything change if you leave the light up longer? Would there be different bugs at a different time of day? Would there be different bugs in a different season? How do you think the location that you picked impacted the variety and number of bugs that you found?

Want to learn more?

Come check out the new exhibit The Art and Science of Arachnids at Arizona Science Center featuring spiders, scorpions and more! See 100 live arachnids — one of the largest collections in North America — and learn about everything from arachnids in film and literature to how they’re used in medicine and even food.

While there, check out POP! The Science of Bubbles in a hands-on play space featuring a massive bubble drop every 15-20 minutes. Learn the science behind what makes bubbles possible, exploring concepts of elasticity, surface tension, evaporation and geometry. General admission is $19.95; $14.95 for ages 3-17 and free for children under age 3. azscience.org

Sari Custer
Sari Custerhttp://azscience.org
Sari Custer is a lifelong science junkie, Chief Science and Curiosity Officer at Arizona Science Center, and mom to daughter Carson (6). Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SariOnScience and find Arizona Science Center at azscience.org



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