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Teachers' Resources

Teach your pupils how to build a giant nest, create a butterfly garden or make their own family tree!

The resources provided here have been submitted by Heritage Experts, teachers or prepared by other educational organisations. The resources are both fun and educational and are designed to inspire and develop an appreciation and curiosity about Ireland’s wonderful natural and cultural heritage.

Resources can be searched for under the following categories:

Search Results: insects

Insects of Ireland: A Field Guide

Natural environments (Geography), Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Over 11,000 species of insects occur in Ireland but most are very small and escape notice. Identifying them accurately can be difficult or impossible. This comprehensive compact guide to over 120 of Ireland’s most popular insects includes all Irish species of butterflies, bumblebees, dragonflies, ladybirds, grasshoppers and shield bugs. All are illustrated in colour with clear descriptions enabling accurate identification.

Robins (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Let’s start off the story of the robin in winter. This is the time when the robin visits the bird table. So, during the winter months, it is very important to put out food such as nuts and seeds, rasher rinds, bits of bread, cakes of fat even, if you are up to it, and most especially water. Come spring, however, with its lengthening days, robins leave the bird table and start to hold territories and attract a mate. They do this by singing. Only the males sing and other males know to stay away as robins are very territorial and can kill other males if they wander into their territory.

A female however is tolerated and after a while they set up home together. The male collects nest material from which the female constructs a nest and fashions it to her body shape. Robins can have a clutch of up to six eggs which hatch out after two weeks and are fed by both parents with the creepy-crawly content of the garden — spiders, woodlice, small caterpillars and the like. In a good year, the performance can be repeated twice and even three times over, with the same missus of course.

Baby robins are all brown — they do not develop red feathers until they are fully grown. Once they leave the nest on their first flight, two weeks after they hatch out, they never return to it. They are fed by their parents in the garden for a few days until they learn to fend for themselves. So by the end of the summer, your robins could have had at least ten babies, which together with the original parents come to twelve — a six-fold increase in the robin population. But things don’t get to this stage. Most robins don’t survive babyhood. They are almost all caught by predators in the inexperienced early days of flying. They are food for the next level in the food chain. It has to be or they would all die of starvation.

By autumn the pairs have broken up and robins no longer hold territory. They will spend the winter in the garden surviving on whatever food they can find. Robins are omnivores, which means that they can digest food of both animal and plant origin. So they can survive the winter in Ireland and do not need to migrate to Africa like the swallow who can only feed on insects. But we can help them by putting out food.

Things to do
1.    Make a Christmas card with a robin on it.

Birch (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

The silver birch is a tall, elegant tree, renowned for its beauty and known as “the lady of the wood”. It is a native Irish tree, being here since after the Ice Age. In fact as forests came back into Ireland after the ice had cleared, the first coloniser was the birch. It is able to grow in open ground and can grow high up on mountains, right up to the tree line.

It has a very pale cream-coloured bark from which it gets its name — silver birch. The leaves are small, toothed and triangular in shape. They open on the tree towards the end of April. Its flowers are catkins — male and female catkins are separate and these emerge with the leaves. The female catkins are pollinated by the wind which blows the pollen from the male catkins to them.

The seeds are very small and are blown by the wind to re-seed and colonise elsewhere. The bark of the silver birch peels. It can thus renew itself and get rid of any pollution that may have attached itself to it. Because of this and because it is a pioneer tree that can withstand harsh conditions, it is commonly planted on the streets of towns and villages where its beauty enhances the whole area. It is also commonly seen on the margins of bogs, lakes and rivers and it can grow on poorer soil than other native species can.

It is the first to colonise an open area. The leaves which fall from it in autumn decompose and nourish the soil making it suitable for other forest trees such as oak which will replace it over time if left undisturbed. A common tree — its Irish name beith is found in quite a few place names such as Ballybay in Monaghan and Glenbeigh in Co. Kerry.

Things to do
1.    Birches are native deciduous trees and there are 229 insect species that are associated with them. Sixth Class should find a silver birch near to the school or preferably in the school grounds and over a year from September to June conduct a weekly survey to find out what insects are there. They need an upturned umbrella to shake the tree into and pooters to lift out the insects for examination. A magnifying glass or a bug box will magnify the captured creature and the pupils should create a class list for the year, of insects or indeed general creepy-crawlies including spiders that fall into their umbrella.

Blackbirds (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

The blackbird is one of the most common birds found in gardens, both in cities and towns and in rural areas. There are nearly two million breeding pairs in Ireland and the song of the male is very familiar - particularly as he is generally the very first to lead off the dawn chorus each morning in early summer. Only males sing - this is true for all birds - and the blackbird is singing to attract a mate and to hold territory. It is not long before he is successful, and himself and his newly acquired mate are building their cup-shaped nest out of plant material lined with a mixture of mud and dead grass

Three to five eggs are laid, which take fifteen days to incubate. Baby blackbirds are fed by both parents on a mixture of insects and earthworms. By fifteen further days they fledge and leave the nest. However, the baby birds are still dependent on their parents for a further three weeks to teach them how to find food for themselves and at this time baby blackbirds are vulnerable to attacks from cats, magpies and other enemies. Adult blackbirds will rear two and sometimes three broods in a single year.

Adult male blackbirds are jet black with a bright orange bill and orange eye ring. Female blackbirds are dark brown in colour and lack the bright orange beak of the male. Juvenile blackbirds are black with brown speckles. Blackbirds are omnivores, which means they eat high-protein food such as worms and insects when available and indeed feed this to their young - but in winter when such food is not available, they can eat and digest fruit and berries which they swallow whole.

Things to do
1.    It is very important to feed birds during spells of bad weather in winter so the class could set a bird table within view of the classroom window and put out food such as bread, seedcake, seeds and fruit. Half-apples on the ground are particularly popular with them too. It is important to put out fresh water for birds to drink and to bathe in.

Bluebells (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Bluebells are woodland flowers that appear in late spring and early summer. A woodland just coming into leaf with a carpet of dark blue bluebells is one of the most beautiful sights of nature. They grow from bulbs that overwinter from year to year in the ground. The long, narrow leaves appear first in April and by May the flowers have opened. Each stalk carries a one-sided line of flowers that droop at the tip. The fruit of the plant is a capsule which splits into three revealing the little seeds inside. These are left on the stalk long after the flowers have gone — right up to July.

The stalk carries seven or eight flowers that open from the bottom up. Each flower has six petals that are fused together at the bottom forming a crown as it were. There are six stamens surrounding the pear-shaped ovary topped by a style. The flowers are pollinated by insects and the ovary swells to become a three-sided capsule containing the seeds.

By late July the whole plant has died back and is not seen again until the following spring. Plants that grow on the floor of woodlands get their flowers early in the year before the leaves open fully on the trees and the canopy closes. They do this to avail of the light that is available in April before the leaves fully open on trees such as the oak, birch and finally the ash by the end of April and the middle of May. This is called adaptation and it is how these plants can live in a habitat that is too shady at ground level later on in the year for anything but ivy and ferns.

Bluebells have a gummy sap in the bulbs underground which was used in the old days as a substitute for starch or as a glue for book binding. Its Latin name is hyacinth and it is related to the hyacinth flower considered by ancient Greeks to be a flower of grief and mourning. The classical myth is that Hyacinthus was a youth that was loved both by the sun god Apollo and the god of the west wind Zephyrus. However, Hyacinthus preferred Apollo and one day when he was playing a game called quoits with Apollo, the jealous Zephyrus blew one of the quoits off its course and it struck Hyacinthus and killed him. Apollo caused a purple flower to rise up from Hyacinthus’ blood which is Bulb known to this day as a hyacinth.

Things to do

1.    Plant bluebells in a shady part of the school grounds. Buy the bulbs in a garden centre in autumn and plant them in October.

Bumblebees (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Bees are insects that belong to two main groups — social bees which live in communities with a queen, i.e. honey bees and bumble bees, and solitary bees who lay their own eggs and rear their own young as individuals, for example miner bees. Bumble bees are native to Ireland and their queens hibernate for the winter. Honey bees originated in warmer climes and do not hibernate in the winter in Ireland. They cluster around their queen and feed on the stores of honey gathered by them during the summer for the winter months. Therefore, it was the honey bee that was domesticated in the olden times as they were the ones who produced honey in sufficient quantity for humans to harvest.

Honey bees live in a hive with their queen. All the eggs are laid by the queen and for most of the year these are all female. The babies are fed by their older sisters — the worker bees — who gather pollen in special baskets on their back legs especially for this job. Adult bees however do not eat pollen — they eat honey, so this has to be manufactured in the hive from nectar brought back by other bees in their nectar sacs. Worker bees do not do both jobs simultaneously.

They spend three weeks gathering pollen, three weeks collecting nectar for honey and then they die of exhaustion. The queen lays eggs in great numbers during late April and early May and the hive can become overcrowded. When the workers sense this they build bigger and different shaped cells for the queen to lay in and the resulting eggs are nourished for longer to become queens, and some males are also produced at this time. The first young queen to hatch out goes around and stings all the other younger queens to death. She then leaves the hive on her marriage flight. When she is gone the old queen with a large group of her supporters leaves the nest as a swarm and looks for somewhere else to live. The new mated queen returns to the hive and takes over where the old queen left off. Thus honey bees nests can last for many years and build up enormous supplies of honey if left undisturbed. Bumble bees’ nests are annual affairs. The queen bumble bee comes out of hibernation and builds a nest in an abandoned mouse-hole in a hedge or field. She lays and feeds the first group of young and then they take over the duties of feeding the next batch laid by the queen. They gather pollen and nectar too like the honey bees and also have stings to defend their nest and queen. But numbers never get huge. The new queen mates when it emerges in late summer and then goes off to hibernate. The old queen and the workers die away with the onset of winter and the whole procedure must start again next spring.

Things to do
1.    Go out and observe a flower bed and see if the class can tell the difference between the honey bees and the bumble bees that are visiting the flowers. Make sure they do not stand in the flight path of the bee and encourage them to observe quietly instead of screaming and panicking. Flowers to encourage bees and butterflies such as lavender, mint, wild thyme, flowering currant and broom can be planted in the school grounds.

Buttercups (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Latin name: Ranunculus repens
Irish name: Fearbán and also Cam an Ime

Buttercups are wild flowers that grow in grassy fields that are not mowed. Unlike daisies and dandelions which grow from rosettes and can survive mowing, buttercups will not grow and flower on a continually mowed lawn. So look for them beside the hedge if this is the case in your school - or indeed arrange for a small unmown patch to be left for the buttercups.

Buttercups start to flower by the end of April and continue in flower all summer long right up to September. The flower has five bright yellow petals. There are five sepals on the outside of the petals and a great number of male stamens inside the petals. They contain nectar deep within the flowers to attract insects and are visited particularly by butterflies in summer months.

They are called buttercups in English because it was thought that a pasture full of buttercups eaten by cattle would give a golden colour to the milk and even more so to the butter made from the milk. This is not actually true - buttercups are generally avoided by cattle. They have an acrid taste and one of the Irish names for buttercups, fearbán, reflects this.

Children play the game of holding a buttercup under another child’s chin to see if they like butter. Butter must have been more popular long ago among children than it is now, as there is invariably a golden glow on the child’s skin which of course means 'they like butter', which may not actually be the case. Scientifically, any bright yellow object held under the chin of any child of any skin colour - particularly on a bright, sunny day - will give a golden reflection!

Things to do with Senior Infants
1.    Bring them out to look for buttercups. Get them to count the petals and see the sepals behind the petals. Get them to check if their companion 'likes butter'. Then get them to repeat this using a dandelion. What can they conclude from this exercise?

Cow Parsley (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

This flower turns the roadside verges white during May and early June. It is a member of the Umbelliferae family, which means that the flowers are carried on flower heads that resemble small umbrellas. Each individual flower is very small. It has five tiny petals — the whole flower is only 2 mm across. They are carried in clusters 6 cm across at the ends of the large umbrella-shaped rays of the plant which itself can be up to a metre tall. The stems are furrowed and hollow. The leaves are finely divided and appear before the flowers. At this early stage it is quite possible to mistake them for ferns but of course they have no spores on the backs of the leaves as ferns do

They are called cow parsley because of their finely divided leaves, but in Co. Tipperary they are known by the old name of “Queen Anne’s lace” because of the exquisiteness of the flower heads. The plant emits a spicy odour when crushed. It is attractive to insects as it contains nectar and if the flower heads are examined, flies can be seen sipping the nectar. The flowers die back in July but the long withered hollow stalks can remain all winter.

If examined and opened at this time you may find that they are providing hibernation quarters for earwigs or other insect larvae. They contribute greatly to the wildlife biodiversity of the hedge verge. Unbellifers — the family group to which cow parsley belongs — are a large group which contain poisonous members such as hemlock (which is fatal if eaten). The cow parsley was confused with this fatal plant or perhaps it was considered wise to give all such shaped plants a wide berth, because it was said that picking cow parsley and bringing it into the house would cause the death of one’s mother. That would discourage such a practice right enough.

Things to do
1.    Make sure that the class is brought out on a fieldtrip to a hedge during May and early June when this plant is in flower. Pupils should become familiar with its flowers and leaves so that they do not mix it up with other flowers of the same family. The flower heads should be examined for insects and pooters used to collect any that might be sitting on them.

Elder (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

The elder is a very common native tree. It grows naturally in hedges and in neglected city gardens. It is a small tree, not exceeding 15 metres in stature. A deciduous tree, it gets its new leaves early in the year, usually at the start of April. These are compound leaves. Each leaf has between five and nine oval leaflets in opposite pairs with one terminal one. The lovely creamy bunches of elderflowers open in June and attract myriads of insects. In their efforts to collect nectar these insects pollinate the flowers.

The bunches of purple elderberries are formed in September. These are feasted upon by many species of birds — in particular, the woodpigeon. They void the hard seeds in their droppings and these quickly germinate into new fast-growing elder trees again. The timber of the elder tree is very soft — the centre of the twigs and branches is composed of pith, so that it does not have much value as timber. Because of its hollow twigs it is called the boo-tree or boretree in the Ulster Scots dialect and the word is used commonly in Co. Monaghan for elder trees.

There is a huge amount of superstition associated with this tree. It was considered to be the tree on which Judas hanged himself and so has been cursed by God. This is why the leaves smell so horribly rank (try them) and the timber lacks strength (so no one would ever hang themselves from this tree again). It would be exceedingly unlucky to use the timber when making a cradle or a boat as very bad luck would befall the occupants. It was also believed that if a child was struck with an elder stick, they wouldn’t grow any more. This bad luck did not extend to the blossoms from which beautiful sparkling white wine can be made, or to the berries which can be made into red wine. The tree itself is full of insect life all summer long and these can be easily dislodged and examined.

Things to do
1.    Bring them out to find an elder tree and study it with them through the four seasons — leaf burst, leaf smell, leaf shape, blossoms, berries, bark rubbings, examination of foliage for insect life.
2.    Look for associated fungi at the base of elder trees — a jelly-like rubbery one known as Jew’s Ear is quite common.

Hawthorn (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

The hawthorn is also known as the whitethorn or the May bush. It is a native Irish tree and is found commonly in hedges all over Ireland. Leaves come on the hawthorn tree in the month of April. This is followed by bunches of creamy white, musky smelling flowers in May — the May blossom. These lovely flowers attract copious numbers of insects. The bees gather pollen and nectar from them and in doing so fertilise the flowers. By late summer the berries are beginning to form.

The berries are called haws and are bright red when ripe. Each berry contains a hard stone which is the seed. Hawthorns rely on birds to eat their berries in order that new hawthorn trees can grow. Birds, who have no teeth, must swallow the berries whole. They can digest the soft berry food surrounding the stone but the stone itself is too hard to be digested. They excrete the stone in their droppings and it then can germinate and a new hawthorn tree can grow. Hawthorns are small trees, which rarely grow taller than 15 metres high. Because they have thorny branches and adapt well to being trimmed and lopped, they are very frequently planted as hedge boundaries along the edges of fields. When kept trimmed and bushy they are good stock boundaries so many of our Irish fields are bounded with hawthorn hedges, and May blossom is a glorious sight at that time of year.

Hawthorn will also grow as lone trees too and there is a great deal of superstition attached to such trees. It is said that such trees were beloved of the fairies and that very bad luck would befall anyone who chopped one down. People believe this to this very day and are very reluctant to remove lone hawthorns. This bad luck also attaches itself to the flowers — it is believed that death will follow if they are brought indoors.

The smell of the blossoms indoors is associated with the smell of dead tissue because actually the same chemical is present in both cases — so maybe the old wives’ tale had something going for it! Hawthorn trees are also associated with holy wells. Offerings are often left on the trees and the water in the well taken for cures. Such customs go right back to pagan times two millennia ago. Being native trees, hawthorns contain a great variety of insect life. In particular, the hawthorn shield bug is a common inhabitant and can easily be dislodged by shaking the tree into an upturned umbrella.

Things to do
1.    Read the book Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna.
2.    Bring in the class out to find hawthorn trees in the local hedge. Study the tree throughout the year — noting when the leaves open, when the blossoms are out and what the haws are like. Gather haws and plant the stones to germinate new trees.

Ladybirds (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Ladybirds are very common and recognisable insects. They belong to the beetle group and have the smooth curved shiny back that is typical of beetles. This curved back is made of two hardened wing covers which open to reveal two transparent wings with which the ladybird can fly.

There are eighteen different species of ladybird in Ireland. Some of them are red with black spots such as the seven spot and the much smaller two spot. But we also have yellow ladybirds with black spots, red ladybirds with cream spots and even a pink ladybird with black and yellow-ringed spots.

They are all brightly coloured and all are poisonous — to birds that is. All ladybirds are brightly coloured to warn birds not to eat them. They contain formic acid so that if an inexperienced bird were to eat one its tongue would be burnt and it would never eat another one. So the bright colour acts as a warning. In fact, if you catch one and let it walk on your hand it might secrete some of this orange-coloured liquid which — if you were a bird — would burn your tongue and you would spit it out. This is another defence stratagem. Ladybirds themselves are carnivores and they eat greenflies.

They visit gardens where there are roses, in order to feast on the greenflies that are sucking the juices out of the tender rose leaves. In the winter, when there are no greenfly to eat, ladybirds will hibernate. You could make a “hotel” for them in the school garden by tying together a bundle of hollow bamboo sticks and leaving them on their side on a shelf or something above the ground. The ladybirds could climb in here and have a safe place over winter.

Things to do
1.   You could make a “hotel” for them in the school garden by tying together a bundle of hollow bamboo sticks and leaving them on their side on a shelf or something above the ground. The ladybirds could climb in here and have a safe place over winter.
2.   Learn the rhyme:
Ladybird, ladybird fly away home
Your house is on fire, your children are gone
All except one and that’s little Anne
And she crept under the frying pan.
3.   Bring the children out to look for ladybirds at the end of May, in June and in September. Places such as rose beds, hedges, low shrubs are all good places to look. You could also shake the branches of a tree into an upturned umbrella and see if any fall down into it.

Nettles (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Latin name: Urtica dioica
Irish name: Neantóg

The nettle is a familiar plant to everyone - sometimes alas from the experience of getting stung by it! However, it is a plant that has been highly valued in this country for hundreds of years. It first appears in early spring when the fresh green shoots are seen to emerge in ditches, hedges and waste places. It grows where the soil is rich in phosphate as it needs lots of this nutrient for growth.

It can grow up to 100cm high and can occur in dense clumps. The leaves are opposite each other on a square stem and are covered with stinging hairs. The flowers are small and green and they hang down from the leaf axils in long spikes from June to September. There are separate male and female flowers and they are borne on different plants.

There are no petals to attract insects nor indeed is there nectar to lure them in. The plant is pollinated by the wind which shakes the flowers and blows the pollen to other flowers. Seeds are formed singly and are shaken from the plants to germinate nearby, thus making the clump larger. They are unpopular among the unwary because of their sting. This happens when they are touched lightly. The tip of the hair breaks off leaving a sharp spike that penetrates the skin and injects an irritating mixture of histamine and formic acid. It is widely believed that a dock leaf will cure the sting. Dock leaves usually grow nearby as they like soil rich in phosphate too but the relief they offer is because a large cool leaf is being applied to the stung area - a large damp tissue would give the same ease.

If you grasp a nettle firmly however the hair is completely flattened and cannot sting. However, it was believed that nettle stings were good for rheumatism and inflamed joints. They are edible early in the year and were traditionally gathered (while wearing gloves!) to make a soup full of vitamins at a time of year when native vegetables were scarce. The stings disappear entirely in the cooking.

The stalks contain strong fibre which used to be gathered, extracted and woven into cloth in Ireland since Bronze Age times. In the Hans Anderson fairy tale 'The Wild Swans', the princess had to weave shirts from nettle fibre to restore her brothers from swans to humans. They are wonderful food for insects as well. The caterpillars of small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies love them as do lots of types of aphids.

Things To do with Third Class
1.    Read them the fairy tale 'The Wild Swans’.
2.    Make Nettle Soup! Collect nettles and make nettle soup early in May. It is made exactly as spinach soup except well-washed, finely chopped, young nettles are used instead.
3.    Go out and look for nettles in June or September. Sweep a net on a long pole through them to sweep off whatever creatures are feeding on them. In June, there should be lots of caterpillars, in September hordes of greenflies.

Spiders (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Spiders are not insects but belong to a group called arachnids. All spiders have two parts - a head and a body. All spiders have eight legs - all of which are attached to the head. All spiders have two palyps at the top of the head (which they use for smell).

Male spiders have longer palyps than females. All spiders have eight eyes and two fangs - which are sharp hollow teeth through which they inject venom into their prey to kill them. All spiders have fangs and venom but in Ireland our spiders are too small to be able to penetrate our skin with their fangs. In South America, the biggest spiders — tarantulas — are found and their fangs can kill birds and mammals such as mice. They can give humans nasty bites too.

In Ireland, we have hunting spiders and web-spinning spiders. The hunting spiders come out at night and run after their prey. They can come into our houses if we leave windows open and can fall into the bath if it is the bathroom window they climb in. They are so big and the bath is so shiny that they cannot climb out again — which is why it is always a huge spider that is in the bath — the small ones can climb up and escape.

Web-spinning spiders make webs from silk produced by spinnerets at the end of their bodies. These sticky traps are positioned to catch unwary flying insects which blunder into them and become enmeshed in the sticky threads. The spider, who is waiting at the centre of the web, rushes in and kills the prey with a bite of its fangs. The spider doesn’t get trapped in the sticky web because it has oily feet that do not stick to the web. Having killed the trapped insect, the spider then sucks out all the soft insides as food, leaving hard bits such as wings and legs behind.

Any surplus flies are killed and wrapped up in silk and stored to be eaten later - or indeed to be presented to the female spider when the male goes looking for a mate. Spiders are not only carnivores, they are cannibals and the female will eat the male if given half a chance. So the male presents the female with a well-wrapped fly and mates with her while she is distracted unwrapping it and eating it. In other countries, the males are not so lucky - how do you think the Black Widow of North America got its name? Eggs are then laid in a web of silk and the young are left to their own devices. When they hatch and begin to move towards each other in an effort to eat each other the movement breaks the web nest and the spiderlings are scattered in the wind.

Things to do with Senior Infants
1.    Teach them Incy wincy spider and Little Miss Moffat. Read them Charlotte’s Web by E B White.
2.    Go outdoors on a damp, misty morning in late September to look for spiders’ webs all outlined with dewdrops. Railings or gorse bushes are good places to look.

Swallows (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Swallows are Irish birds because they are born here in Ireland in summer. The nests are built from mud which both parents scoop up in flight as they fly over muddy ground in rural areas. They are lined with feathers which the swallows pluck from themselves. The cup-shaped nests are always built indoors in sheds and barns. (Mud nests fixed to the outsides of houses and on gables are built by a different bird — the house martin, swallows’ nests are always indoors.)

The female lays three to six white eggs with red-brown speckles and they hatch after fifteen days. The nestlings are fed by both parents and are able to fly after 20 more days. They then fledge, leave the nest and don’t return to it again. Swallows are carnivores. They feed on aerial insects which they catch in their large gaping mouths. They cannot eat anything else so as the days shorten after the equinox in September, they gather in colonies on telegraph wires and suddenly all fly south to Africa to spend the winter. Irish swallows spend the winter in South Africa where it is warm enough to have sufficient aerial insects to feed them.

Long ago, people didn’t know that they migrated to Africa in winter. When they couldn’t see them flying around they were sure that they hibernated in the mud at the bottom of ponds. This of course doesn’t happen. When the days lengthen in March they set out once more for Ireland as the longer days in Ireland in summer means that they have up to eighteen hours of daylight to catch insects to feed their young — something that couldn’t happen in Africa as summer days there are much shorter. Their arrival in Ireland depends on weather and prevailing winds — in 2009 the first swallows were recorded here on 16 March.

But one swallow doesn’t make a summer and usually the main group do not arrive until April. There is a lot of folklore associated with swallows. Long ago there was a belief that ailments could be cured by treating them with something that resembled the ailment. Thus, because swallows twittered (rather than sang) they could be used as a treatment for stuttering and for epilepsy. This involved eating the flesh of the swallow, something we wouldn’t dream of doing now as swallows are a protected species. Swallows are seen as birds of good luck. It will bring good fortune if they nest on your property. Or it is a sign of good weather if they are flying high in the sky. They are also considered specially favoured by God so it is really unlucky to kill one.

Things to do
1.   Record the date when the first swallow is seen. Over the years this will give an indication of whether they are arriving earlier each year because of climate change. Go out in May to look for swallows flying in the sky. Ask the pupils to look inside sheds and barns to see if there are swallows nesting.

Oak (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

The oak tree is described as the king of the woods. It was greatly valued in olden times in Ireland and was considered to be one of the “nobles of the wood”. It is the canopy tree in our native oak woodlands that have been here since the end of the last Ice Age ten thousand years ago. Oak trees are one of the last trees in Ireland to get their leaves each year — it is usually the end of April before they emerge from their brown buds.

Oak leaves are particularly prized by all sorts of insects who feed on them. The caterpillars of the purple hairstreak butterfly depend on them, as do many species of greenflies, shield bugs, moths etc. It fact it has been estimated that some 286 species of insects and other invertebrates feed on the leaves of the oak. All this eating of fresh oak leaves in May and June leaves the tree somewhat depleted. But the tree fights back, producing a new growth of leaves with lots of unpalatable tannin in them and quite browny-purple in colour at the end of July. These are called “Lammas Growth “, Lammas being the time of year between July and August.

Catkin-like flowers are produced by the tree in early April before the leaves are formed. This is because they are wind pollinated and the presence of leaves would get in the way of the blowing pollen. Acorns are formed from the fertilised flowers and ripen in autumn. These are prized as a source of food by birds such as jays and rooks, squirrels and by mice. Grey squirrels are able to eat unripe acorns, red squirrels must wait until they are fully ripe, by which time if there are grey squirrels in the area the acorns may be all gone, leaving the red squirrel short of food and unable to compete with the grey.

New oak trees will emerge from acorns which may have been buried and not retrieved by their owner later in the winter. There are two native oak species — the pedunculate oak whose acorns are borne on stalks and the sessile oak whose acorns have no stalks. Both are very long-living trees and can survive for well over five hundred years in ideal circumstances. The Irish name is dair and many places in Ireland reflect this. Counties Kildare and Derry are called after the oak as are all the place names beginning with Derry such as Derrynaflan and Derrynane.

Oak trees produce tannins so oak bark was much in demand by the leather tanning industry. Its timber was excellent for shipbuilding and for use as charcoal. So it was no wonder at the time of the plantations — particularly the Cromwellian plantation in the 1650s when soldiers were paid in land rather than money — that the first thing the planter did was strip the land of its timber in case their tenure there didn’t last very long.

Things to do
1.    Find an oak tree that the children can be brought to see. Collect leaves and acorns.
2.    Back in class get the pupils to draw outlines of the leaves so that they will learn their characteristic shape.
3.    The acorns can be sown in pots of compost and planted out the following summer when the seedlings have emerged.

Wasps (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

The wasp is a much-maligned insect. It actually does not spend its time going round looking for humans to sting! The life cycle of the wasp actually plays a very important role in our natural environment. Wasps are native social insects.

This means that there is a queen and a colony of workers that live together in a nest. The queen hibernates for winter and in March wakes up. She emerges, chooses a nest site and begins to build a paperlike nest from chewed up timber. This nest can be in a hedge, in an attic or roof space, or in a disused shed. She lays eight eggs and when the eggs grow into worker wasps they take over the running of the nest. The queen goes into egg production full time and the workers build six-sided cells for the eggs. The workers are all female and they feed the baby wasps with chewed up greenflies, aphids and other insect garden pests. The adult wasps, on the other hand, feed on a sweet-tasting substance excreted by the grubs in the nest.

So all summer long from April to August, wasps do a great deal of good, keeping down the numbers of harmful plant pests. By the end of August, the queen will have laid up to 40,000 eggs and is beginning to tire. The nest can be the size of a football by now. The workers build different shaped cells in which eggs are laid that go on to be queens, while different shaped cells again cause her to lay eggs that produce drones.

These all leave the nest when mature, mate with those from other nests and the newly fertilized queens go into hibernation at once and emerge to start the cycle all over again next March. The old queen back at the original nest lays a last round of eggs and dies by the end of August. This last round of worker wasps have no younger babies to feed with insects, nor indeed any grubs to lick sweettasting liquid from. It is these last wasps during the months of September and October, for the six weeks lifespan that they have, that have to hunt everywhere for sweet food. They can eat nectar from flowers, or suck the juices of fallen apples and blackberries. But many of them do come into our homes seeking sugar there.

Of course they will sting if assaulted by an angry or terrified human. But they don’t seek us out deliberately to sting us. By the end of October, they will all have died. The nest is empty and won’t be used by next year’s queen. The whole cycle will begin again the following March.

About their sting — the sting of a wasp is like a needle and can be withdrawn after it is used in order to sting again. The bee has a sting with a serrated edge which gets stuck in our thick skin and cannot be withdrawn so a bee is torn apart as it tries to withdraw it from a human and will later die.

Things to do
1.    Get hold of a disused, empty wasps’ nest. Spray it with hair spray to render it less brittle. Bring into school and let the class examine the nest in detail. It can be cut in half in due course so that the intricate cell structure can be appreciated.

Woodlice (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Woodlice are very common creatures found in gardens and school grounds. All you have to do is turn over a stone or a flower pot or look under dead leaves and a colony of woodlice will be uncovered. They are not insects — they are members of the group Crustaceae and are related to crabs and lobsters. Insects all have six legs but the woodlouse’s body is made up of seven segments with a pair of legs on each segment — giving it fourteen legs in all. Their bodies are different to those of insects too and will dry out if exposed to light for too long. So woodlice come out at night and hide away during the day to avoid drying out.

Woodlice feed on dead plant material such as dead leaves, rotten wood and dead plant roots. They play a very important role in the food chain as the nutrients locked in the plants are broken down and released by their activities. This is why they are so abundant in the leaf litter at the bottom of a hedge or in woodland. They in turn are part of the food chain, being eaten by spiders, pygmy shrews, hedgehogs and any bird sharp-eyed enough to see them. We have over 20 different species of woodlouse in Ireland — one called the pill bug is able to roll itself into a sphere when disturbed and this helps it to evade capture.

Things to do
1.    Do woodlice prefer light or darkness?
Get a shoebox. Have half the box covered with a lid. Put six of the woodlice into this box. Have a second similar shoebox with no lid as a control to show that you are doing a fair test, and put the other six in there. Come back later and observe where the woodlice are. They will all be in the shady side of the box.
2.    Do woodlice prefer damp or dry?
You can set up a similar experiment with the two boxes only this time no lids on either but a damp sponge in one section of one of the boxes and a dry sponge in a different section. Put two dry sponges in the second box. Put six woodlice in each and observe what happens. Are there more woodlice at the damp sponge than at the dry sponge?

Grow A Flower

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Not just a pretty face. Flowers can change the world, learn how plants reproduce, and many insects would die without this vital source of nutrients. A flower is the part of the plant that makes the seeds. The main parts of a flower are the carpals and stamens. These parts are often found in the centre of the flower. There are egg cells in the carpel and pollen cells in the stamen. All flowers have four basic parts: sepals, petals, carpals and stamen. Different flowers have different numbers and shapes of these parts.

Things To do
1.    Download the Flower Parts worksheet below and name the parts of a flower.
2.    Grow a plant from seed (this will take about 2 - 3 weeks).

What you will need:
1.    A clean glass jar, paper napkins

What to do:
1.    Rinse the jar in cold water. Empty it out - but do not dry it.
2.    Fold a paper napkin in half, curl it into a circle and slip it inside the jar.
3.    Press the napkin against the side of the jar (let it soak up the remaining water residue).
4.    Peel back part of the napkin and push three seeds (broad bean seeds are good for this) evenly spaced around the inside of the glass jar.
5.    Wet the napkins with lots of water.
6.    Put the jar in a bright warm place (the windowsill is perfect!).
7.    Add water often to keep the napkins wet.
8.    The roots will start to grown first and then the shoots.

Little Monsters

Living things (Science) Science

Bugs! In all shapes and sizes, big ones, small ones, long one, tall ones, slow ones, quick ones, with over 1 million known species, it’s time we got to know our neighbours a little better.

Use this task to develop the children’s awareness of these little critters and the great job they do in keeping our ecosystem going: pollinating flowers and crops, aerating and nourishing the soil, providing food for other wildlife and generally maintaining the balance of nature. It also introduces the children to bugs and insects in a non-threatening manner.

Things To do
1.    Find little monsters! Download the Little Monsters worksheet below and bring the children out to the school grounds or local park and ask them to find (but not touch!) the insects and bugs on the sheet.

What’s In A Fish?

Natural environments (Geography), Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Fish are animals that are cold-blooded, have fins and a backbone. Most fish have scales and breathe with gills. They’re one of the oldest animal families to live on Earth. They were here long before the dinosaurs – about 500 million years ago — and they still thrive. There are over 25,000 known species of fish. There are probably many more that we haven’t discovered yet.

Fish are vertebrates. That means they have a backbone. But unlike mammals, fish don’t have lungs. They breathe by taking oxygen from the water in through their mouths, where it passes over the gills. The gills then absorb oxygen from the water and send the oxygen throughout the body. Some fish are carnivores. They eat other fish and small animals and insects. Other fish are omnivores, eating both plants and animals.

Pollinators: Actions to Help Pollinators

Natural environments (Geography), Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

You may have heard that our bees and other pollinating insects are in trouble. The good news is that you can help by making your garden pollinator friendly. Every garden, no matter its size, can be a haven for hungry pollinators.

Register your school garden on with the 'Actions for Pollinators'  mapping system to track the build-up of food and shelter for pollinators in your school garden.

Use the mapping system to check out what other gardens in Ireland are doing to help pollinators.

The actions that this website tracks align with a series of pollinator friendly guidelines. For example, the guideline document for Gardens suggests 20 possible actions suitable for any type of garden. You can download the Garden Guideline from the Pollinator Plan’s website:

Once you've identified the changes you'd like to make to your school garden register your garden on the mapping system. Instructions on registering and using the mapping system can be downloaded here http://www.biodiversityireland...

Primroses (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) Science

Primroses are a real harbinger of spring. They grow in hedges, ditches, on banks and along the edges of woodlands. Their pale yellow flowers are very familiar and they have a very cool fragrant perfume. They appear in south-facing banks to begin with (as early as March). The leaves emerge first — a rosette of green crinkly leaves which taper towards the base and are whitish on their undersides. The flowers then begin to appear, each on its own separate stalk. There are five pale petals, each one heart-shaped.

The flowers contain the male parts — five stamens which are small stalks topped with anthers containing pollen — and the female part which is the ovary topped by a single stalk called a style. Pollen from another flower must reach this style to fertilise the ovary and this pollen is carried by insects. To avoid the possibility of self-fertilisation, the stamens and the style are of different lengths. This is of course the case with most species of flowers and indeed the female style is generally longer than the stamens.

However, if you examine the flowers of primroses you will discover something unusual. In about half of the flowers the female style is longer than the stamens as is normal for flowers and you can see it when you look at the circular area at the centre of the petals. This is called a “pin” flower. In the other half, however, the stamens are longer than the style and when you look in you will see the tops of the five stamens rather than the single style. This is called a “thrum” flower.

Primroses were very important long ago to people who kept cows. Butter making from the cream of the milk began in May and on May eve they would rub the flowers of the primroses on the udders of the cattle to make sure that they had enough milk for the butter making. In other areas primroses were thrown on the roof of the house before dawn on May Day to protect the butter from the fairies.

Things to do
1.    Go out looking for primroses early in the year and note the date when the first primrose is seen. With climate change, primroses are flowering earlier each year so keeping a record of the first primrose is a way of monitoring this for your area.
2.    Pupils could count the number of petals and draw the flower and leaves in their workbooks on return from the trip. They could look for pin and thrum flowers.