Insect Safari

By Jeff Cantrell, photographs by David Stonner | June 15, 2015
From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 2015

Looking for a summer adventure that will get the entire family outdoors without a lot of travel time or expense? Look no further than your own backyard. Insects are Missouri’s most numerous and diverse category of wildlife, and with hundreds of species crawling, flying, and hopping just outside your back door, your yard is like a jungle waiting to be explored.

The Backyard Expedition

During big-game safaris, hunters set out to pursue trophy animals like lions and leopards. You can approach your backyard expedition in much the same way. Keep a list of “trophy” insects and set out to find those. The insect world offers predators like dragonflies, tiger beetles, and robber flies that roam through your neighborhood, while herds of aphids and flocks of skippers migrate into the area as well.

You can also take a more leisurely approach to your hunt by simply exploring whatever you come across. Insects are so varied and fascinating that they offer a good excuse to slow down and observe. Keep a guide like the Department’s Show Me Bugs handy to aid in your exploration.

Safari Equipment

Safari expeditions of the backyard variety don’t require high-priced, specialized equipment. However, a few items — often found around the house — can aid the game-chaser’s pursuits. Small containers like jars and disposable storage containers with lids and air holes are perfect for capturing and securing prey. Larger enclosures, such as aquariums, are ideal if you plan on keeping your find a little longer for observation day of capture. This keeps the enclosure ready for the next subject and teaches the youngest members of your hunting party responsible outdoor ethics.

Some additional tools you might find helpful on your exploration include tweezers or other tongs-like instrument, magnifying glass, and net. Nets are handy during an insect safari and should be of quality material, as it’s the item most likely to take a beating.

I Like the Nightlife

If you think the safari stops at sundown, think again. There’s a flurry of insect activity that occurs on your flowers and shrubs at night. Take false indigo shrubs (Amorpha fruticosa) as an example. By day, they are an attractive, purple-spike flower, but by nightfall, they are aflutter with moth traffic. And don’t forget the star of the nighttime skies — the lightning bug. They come out and provide a crowd-pleasing light show for all ages.

The porch light is also a hotbed of activity for nighttime insect safari enthusiasts. Much as the waterholes of the Serengeti attract big game, porch lights attract a variety of insects. The critters are easy to observe, even if they scare easily. Those introverted insects tend to fly or crawl right back to the same spot.

Managing for a Backyard Safari

Imagine the Missouri outdoors without insects. All of the urban and rural landscapes we enjoy would collapse. Insects play a vital role in the food chain and are important to every gardener, sportsman, and naturalist. By recognizing and learning more about our smallest wildlife, we gain countless benefits. There are advantages to transforming your landscape to make it a premier insect destination. It starts with the three basics of survival — food, water, and shelter.

Some insects people love to attract are butterflies, dragonflies, and pollinators. They bring beauty to the landscape and many are beneficial for vegetable or flower gardens. Butterfly gardens are popular and they don’t have to be formal — just adding a few selected Missouri wildflowers can bring an abundance of nectar-seeking butterflies to the yard. Host plants for caterpillars is another option for the natural gardener.

Getting outdoors is easy and fun. Your own backyard can be as adventurous as a trip to a national park or forest, while your flowerbeds, shrubs, and vegetable gardens can hold untold mysteries. Studying insects can be a family affair and a great way to enjoy our natural history together. Happy hunting!

Make Your Backyard a Premier Insect Destination

Top 10 Butterfly Nectar Sources:

  1. Aromatic aster
  2. Butterfly milkweed
  3. Prairie coreopsis
  4. Garden phlox
  5. New England aster
  6. Pale purple coneflower
  7. Rose verbena
  8. Sky blue aster
  9. Wild sweet William
  10. Yellow coneflower

Top 10 Native Bee-Friendly/Sun-Loving Plants:

  1. Black-eyed Susan
  2. Foxglove beardtongue
  3. Golden Alexanders
  4. Gray-headed coneflower
  5. Lanceleaf coreopsis
  6. Lead plant
  7. Purple prairie clover
  8. Silphium sunflower
  9. Showy goldenrod
  10. Wild bergamot

Additional Resources

The Missouri Department of Conservation’s school curriculum, Discover Nature Schools, targets all grade levels and disciplines. Subjects like insects and habitats make learning fun. There are a variety of avenues for continued education with a foundation in insect studies, including science fairs, 4-H projects, nature photography, and journaling. For more information, visit

Show-Me Bugs introduces readers to some of Missouri’s most fascinating and ecologically important wildlife. Use it to get to know some of the little creatures that help keep the Show-Me state clean, green, and natural. This book is finely detailed with full-color illustrations. It is fun to read; perfect for kids, families, teachers, and gardeners; and a good backyard insect safari companion. It is available for $7.95 at the Department’s Nature Shop online at

Another source of endless information about insects and other Missouri wildlife is the Department’s online field guide at

Also In This Issue

Campfire Cooking
Department employees share their experiences with outdoor cooking and some tricks, tips, and recipes learned along the way.
Holding a Largemouth Bass
A little knowledge and basic gear can help you land a lot of tasty table fare.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler