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Meet the beetles: Union's ladybugs a learning lab for local students


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Sean Skoda, 11, is shown one of the beneficial insects that protect Union's landscape.Tom Heisinger, manager of Grounds, releases the ladybugs in a garden near Old Chapell.Joe Conti, College arborist, greets students before giving them a primer on trees.Thousands of ladybugs about to find a new home on campus.Students from a local elementary school make friends with Union's ladybugs.
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As one, then two, and then three ladybugs danced their way up Sean Skoda’s skinny arm, the 11-year-old broke into a wide grin.

“This is pretty fun,” the freckle-faced boy giggled as the Coccinellidae nearly disappeared into the sleeve of his T-shirt. “They are jumping all over me. It feels cool!”

Skoda was among a small group of third, fourth and fifth-graders from nearby Pinewood Elementary School who took a field trip to campus Thursday to get a first-hand look at how beneficial insects protect the College’s landscape.

Each year, Tom Heisinger, manager of Grounds, strategically releases tens of thousands of ladybugs across campus. The ladybugs get to work quickly devouring aphids and other destructive herbivorous pests. He also uses praying mantises and green lacewing to protect the lush holly, barberry and euonymus plants found on the 120-acre campus.

When Pinewood teacher Kerry Vumbaco saw a story in a local newspaper last year about Union’s use of the insects to limit the use of chemical pesticides and insecticides, she reached out to Heisinger to see if students in her Development Skills class could participate in this year’s insect release.

“This fits right into what we are doing in the classroom,” Vumbaco said. “The students are learning about the life cycles of plants and bugs. But kids learn best by looking, seeing and touching. This is very motivating for them.”

From the moment Vumbaco’s class stepped off the school bus, the students were abuzz with excitement.  While the ladybugs were the marquee event, Heisinger enlisted colleagues to help broaden the visit. Connie Schmitz, who tends the campus gardens, showed the students the College’s Octopus’s Garden, which grows food for the organic café and the local community.

Union’s arborist, Joe Conti, greeted students by rappelling down a silver maple before giving the group a fun, interactive primer on trees.

By then, students were antsy to see the ladybugs. Heisinger plopped a crate down inside a garden bed near Old Chapel and freed 70,000 of the insects, who quickly made friends with the students.

“Oh my God,” one screamed in glee as a family of ladybugs decorated his shirt.

“They are all over me,” yelled another.

“They feel ticklish,” said a third.

Vumbaco said she knew the trip to Union would resonate with the students.

“This is absolutely wonderful,” she said. “Today is our lucky day.”

To read an earlier story on Union’s news site about the use of insects, click here.

To read a story in University Business, click here.