Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

The Bug Lady

Maria Keating, who teaches North Shore elementary school children about bugs, poses with a stink bug.

By Justin Beddall North Shore Outlook

Jun 14 2007

Ew! Gross! That's the typical kindergarten class reaction when Maria Keating, affectionately known as the "Bug Lady," talks about the role "worm poo" plays in fertilizing plants.

Keating, a pig-tailed gardening dynamo, has been touring North Shore elementary schools to give a bug workshop, teaching kids about the seminal role insects play in the garden - and our lives.

"They're very excited about bugs," explains Keating, shortly after teaching a class at Ridgeway elementary last week. "You try to make it simple. It's a good introduction to bugs because they've seen them before."

Keating, an enviro science grad who works at the City Farmer compost demo garden and runs her own biological control consulting company, teaches kids about the important jobs bugs have; why we have them; and if they are good or bad bugs.

Her high-energy bug classes, which typically run from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, include interactive games, glossy flash cards, the always-popular bug song ("two antenna and six legs and don't forget the wings") and, of course, lots of live bugs!

Today's class was riveted when she introduced some red wiggler worms and worm "babies."

When she's talking to a kindergarten class she is, of course, sensitive about the language she uses. Instead of using a term like "mating" for instance, she will say something like "find a friend."

"It's very exciting to see the life cycles," she enthuses.

Usually, however, there's one or two students who fear bugs.

She tries to assuage their anxiety, assuring them that real-life bugs aren't nearly as big or nasty as ones in the movies.

"They're not going to eat you," she says.

Keating brings as many different bugs to classes as possible: stink bugs, spittle bugs, ladybugs, aphids, ground beetles, caterpillars - and any eggs or larvae she's got available. She also admits that she's got an ant collection she sometimes totes to the classroom.

"The green world is so exciting. You can see ladybugs eating aphids right in front of you. It's not like a video game. It's a new world that's fun and interesting."

She also asks the young students lots of questions, like, for example, "What colour are ladybug eggs?" Children are usually surprised to learn that they're not spotted red and black. They are, in fact, yellow.

She encourages the kids to learn more about bugs and Mother Nature by taking out books from the library.

She hopes they will bring the lessons home to their parents and into their own garden.

"Kids will teach their parents you need aphids to have ladybugs."

There's an important underlying message here:

"The general public doesn't need to use pesticides because there are so many beneficial insects at work. They just need to learn what's happening under the leaves.

"Kids love bugs. They can talk to their parents about it."

And Keating, who today is sporting a blue handbag emblazoned with mushrooms, is clearly enthused by the subject.

"I spend a lot of time talking to people about this stuff," she says. "That's why working with bugs is so cool. I see something new every day. That's why insects and bugs have always attracted me. It's fun (teaching), kids always get into it. They're very excited about bugs."

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August 19, 2007

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture