Alaska Botanical Garden summer camp teaches kids about insects

A stink bug crawls up a girl's arm
Camper Ceceila Ross winces at the stink bug crawling up her arm at the Insect Safari camp at the Alaska Botanical Garden on June 21, 2023. (Maria Koop/Alaska Public Media)

Lunchtime just finished, and elementary-aged summer campers at the Alaska Botanical Garden are busy. Some use microscopes to get a closer look at insects while others are coloring. Stacey Shriner leads the education department at the botanical garden. She said parents want to send their kids somewhere they can stay unplugged in the woods all afternoon. 

“If they are learning to love to be outside, to respect it, to be curious about it, to wonder, then that’s what I want them to walk away with,” Shriner said.

Parents in Anchorage have dozens of camps to choose from. The Alaska Botanical Garden has been sponsoring summer day camps for about 20 years. They have a variety of outdoor camp offerings for kids from ages five to 15 that run through the first week of August.

The insect safari camp is a new option on the schedule this year. Shriner said that after last summer, parents asked for a week of camp centered around insects. Eight-year-old Harbour Johnson said she learned how worms can turn soil into compost. She also rattled off some facts about one of Alaska’s most common insects.

“So we learned about mosquitos and they have like a saw on their nose and they cut into your skin and they spit on your skin and it’s so it doesn’t, you don’t feel it when they’re biting you,” Johnson said.

Counselors — or fairies, as the campers are told — hide plastic bugs throughout the botanical garden that kids find each morning, but some of the bugs are very real. 

A girl holds a worm in her hand
A worm wriggles around in Lilly Anderson’s hand at the Insect Safari camp at the Anchorage Botanical Garden on the morning of Wednesday, June 21, 2023 (Maria Koop/Alaska Public Media)

“There’s a big spider right there,” Johnson said. 

Some of the plastic bugs will begin a game that campers play, and others are just to help campers lose their fear of insects. 

Terra Neff and her family moved to Alaska from Texas two years ago. Neff said she hears all about what her daughter Vivian learned about each day when she comes home from camp. 

“They learned about bad bugs. They learned about termites and they drew wanted posters,” Neff said. “We made copies for all of our friends so they can pass them out. She was very excited.”

Cecelia Ross is 6 years old and made a wanted poster for a stink bug as part of their lesson about helpful and harmful insects.

“When they’re scared they make a stinky smell,” Ross said. “I found one on the table and I picked it up.”

Patrick Ryan has been helping lead the camps since he began working with the botanical garden nearly 20 years ago. He corrects Cecelia, and teaches her that she is actually holding a Birch Shield Bug — technically not a part of the stink bug family Pentatomidae — but they still release an odor when they are squished. Ryan said the camps at the Botanical Garden help kids gain a naturalist intelligence about the forest around them.

“There’s just kind of a spirit and a good feeling here, you’re walking into a forest,” Ryan said. “Plus, we have our cultivated gardens, but it’s just a beautiful, kind of relaxing place to be.”

The summer camps and other programs put on by the Botanical Garden go toward keeping the space available for Alaskans year-round.

a portrait of a man outside

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him attrockey@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8487. Read more about Timhere

Previous articleThe Hōkūle’a canoe has a special connection to Hydaburg, its last Alaska stop
Next articleBehind the scenes of plastic lumber production on the Kenai Peninsula