The Desert Is Bugged

Enjoying the Activity Known as "Bug Lighting"

By Sandy Shaw

It's night. It's warm. There is no television in the campground and the kids are bored. Several moths flutter around the Coleman lamp. An owl hoots, a coyote sings and the kids whine. It is too early to put them to bed but they have nothing to do. Or so you think! Just bug 'em!

There is an amazing world of wildlife at your fingertips here in the warm desert night of summer. It is the world of insects! Those annoying little pests that we swat, step on and hit with the windshield are absolutely fascinating to look at up close if we take the time.

Infinite variations of design and splendor make these six-legged creatures the perfect introduction to nature's wonders for children and adults alike. They are easily accessible wherever you happen to be. Unlike most faunas, insects do not need a pristine environment away from humans to be plentiful and available for viewing. Even if you are staying in a motel in the city or just sitting in the backyard of your own home, there are many species of insects that can be readily and easily spotted.

Hence, we have one of the most enjoyable of summer desert activities: BUG LIGHTING!

Bug Lighting is easy, relaxing and is something that the entire family can enjoy. Whether you are four years old or 84, this is something that can be done together and is never the same twice. Each location, even if it is merely 100 yards from the last, will produce different insects.

Bug Lighting is exactly what the name implies. With the aid of a fluorescent black light, a wide range of mysterious, beautiful and fascinating creatures will come to you for your study and inspection. Until you experience it for yourself, you will not realize how addicting this sport, can be. Once you are hooked, you will not only take your black light with you on all of your outings, but you might just find yourself Bug Lighting on your own patio at home.

What You Need To Bug Light

1. A small fluorescent tube black light with an adapter that can be plugged into your cigarette lighter or car battery terminal. This tube light does not use much juice, about the same as your car radio or less, and the light can be kept on for long periods of time without draining your battery. This special light can be purchased at a store called BIOQUIP, in Los Angeles (
2. One or 2 old white bed sheets
3. Clothesline or thin rope
4. Clothespins
5. Insect field guides
6. Flashlight
7. Chairs
8. Camera with flash (optional)
9. Magnifying glass (optional)
10. Munchies (not optional)


How to Bug Light

This is one of the easiest activities there is to do in the desert. The wildlife comes to you, so those members of the family unable to take hikes and strenuous walks can be included in this delightful activity.

1. To set up your Bug Lighting Station, pick a spot in or near your campsite or parking spot where you can hang a short clothesline.

2. Drape the sheet over the clothesline or rope, attaching it with the clothespins. Be sure the sheet drapes down to and over the ground a bit, or merely lay a second sheet on the ground below the hanging sheet. This creates a good area for the insects to land and walk around and will allow you an easy viewing area.

3. Plug your back light into the cigarette lighter or battery terminal of your car, or other portable battery packs if you carry one. Drape the cord of the light over the top of the clothesline and hang the light halfway or 3/4 of the way down the sheet and turn the light on.

4. Grab your insect field guide, some snacks, set up your camp chairs, have your flashlight ready, then sit back and relax. It will only be a minute or two before your guests, start to arrive!

bug sheet


It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with your field guide before it gets dark, and read a bit on insects and how to identify them. The Eyewitness series of children's books are excellent introductions to the world of insects. Wonderful, clear photographs and graphics on insect anatomy and lifecycles. These books are available in any bookstore that carries children's books. The Audubon Field Guide series as well as the Peterson Field Guide series also have excellent insect volumes. The Audubon versions have photographs while the Peterson guides have drawings. Both are excellent and actually compliment one another nicely. Another series of field guides are the Golden Nature Guide series. These are very inexpensive filled with lots of information and colorful drawings and great for your child's pocket.

Black light attracts insects much the same way that any fluorescent street lamp or even incandescent lighting does, but black light (which is ultraviolet) is very attractive to insects and draws them like flies, (no pun intended). Everyone is familiar with the moth in the lamp, but how many have taken the time to actually look at the intricate and beautiful design on that moth, or have looked it up in a field guide and identified and read about it?

With Bug Lighting, though, not only will you see plenty of unusual moths, but you will see beetles of endless varieties, walking sticks and other insects never before imagined! As the bugs, start arriving, the fun begins as everyone rushes to identify what has just flown in. You can even set up your light and go away for a while. Upon returning, there are usually scores of insects all over the hanging sheet as well as the one on the ground. Upon inspection, these creatures will remind you of alien life forms in a science fiction movie!

When choosing a location for Bug Lighting, remember that insects are everywhere and no matter where you set up your light, something will show up. But of course some places are more interesting than others. Canyons make good places to Bug Light, where there is good airflow. Also, meadows are excellent. Places with trees are great as well.

What you are likely to see will depend on the habitat, the altitude, the weather, the temperature that night, the time of year, and of course the luck of the draw. You might just be lucky enough to get something as exciting as a rhinoceros beetle! But nearly always there will be something new and different that you have never seen before.

Other Wildlife

One of the fun things about Bug Lighting is that it sometimes draws other forms of wildlife. You might catch sight of a toad or a frog out looking for dinner. Bats, skunks and other insect-eating mammals may be spotted. If a skunk wanders by, just sit quietly and enjoy the opportunity of seeing it while not making any quick moves to frighten it. The skunk already knows you are there and is not threatened by your presence unless you do something to make it feel so.



There is always the chance, especially in the desert, that something unfriendly can wander into your camp at night, the primary concerns being things like rattlesnakes and scorpions. These animals are always on the desert floor and may have nothing to do with your Bug Lighting, but because of this, make sure that everyone has proper footwear. It is not a good idea to walk around barefoot at night or even wearing just sandals. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. All things considered, though, Bug Lighting is a very safe, fun and thrilling nature experience! And you might just see something rare and exotic that is a once in a lifetime experience!


Insect collecting is a hobby that many people enjoy. There are numerous books available on how to set up your insect collection, how to get started, how to mount specimens, etc. However, if you are staying in a city, county or state park, check ahead of time on the legality of collecting insects. They may seem like just little bugs to us, but many insects are rare, and all forms of wildlife are protected in our national parks and in most state parks as well.

Do not collect anything unless you know it is legal to do so. County areas are usually much less restrictive, and of course, you can collect whatever you want in your own back yard. But find out ahead of time if you plan on adding to your collection. If you cannot collect, you can take your camera and use the flash.

When you plan on Bug Lighting in our beautiful desert parks, be sure to visit the local visitor center or museum beforehand and find out what interesting and unusual insects live in the area. Read up on what you might expect to see. A little knowledge ahead of time will greatly enhance the experience.

What If I Don't Have A Black Light?

If you don,t have a black light you can still Bug Light! Even if you are staying in a motel or are at a roadside stop you can Bug Light! Anywhere there is a fluorescent street lamp or light on the side of a building, there will be insects. While driving, keep your eyes open for well-lit places! Not only are well-lit places safer for stopping, but they will have a plethora of insect life!

Enjoying the desert during the summer months just takes a little bit of creativity and a shifting of focus. Here we have shifted our focus from day to night, from vigorous hikes and treks to the comfort of a camp chair, and from using binoculars to using a magnifying glass. Bug Lighting is easy, safe and thoroughly fun. And the kids won,t be bored! Guaranteed!

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