Laughter blends with learning as Jason Thomas teaches about insects, spiders and pests
Story and photos by Dianna Troyer
Friendly tarantulas and a board game about pest management await visitors at entomologist Jason Thomas’ office at Minidoka County Fairgrounds.
People either cringe or crave having a chance to cradle Houdini, his calm 4-year-old pink-toed tarantula.
“Holding him in your hands feels like the tips of an artist’s soft paintbrush touching your skin,” says Jason, a University of Idaho extension educator who specializes in irrigated crops and pest management. “This variety is a tree dweller.”
While Houdini’s feet are soft, another tarantula, Pandora, has tiny yet gentle barbs on her feet.
“The curly hair tarantula is a ground-dwelling species and needs traction, so you feel her slight grip on your skin from her hooks,” Jason says. “It’s not painful.”
Jason takes Houdini and others from his spider and insect collection, including prickly stick insects and giant African millipedes, on tours as ambassadors of their species. He not only entertains with them but also teaches that most creepy crawlers can be beneficial. Some insects, such as ladybugs or lacewings, eat destructive pests.
Since starting his job in Rupert in 2018, Jason and his entomological entourage have met more than 12,000 people at schools, fairs, community events and 4-H functions.
He also loans out members of his menagerie to
“When someone holds Houdini, pretty soon they can’t stop grinning,” he says. “Then they start laughing.”
Jason’s self-appointed mission to teach about
insects is multifaceted. Besides the road show, he and colleagues launched a website, Idaho Insect Identification. He also hosts a YouTube channel called Insect Hunter.
Jason’s latest project is launching a board game called Pest Friends, a tool to teach farmers how to grow profitable crops despite pressure from pests.
“I love my job, relying on research to make learning about entomology fun for people of all ages,” he says. “During childhood, I wanted to be a zoologist because I love animals and nature. In college, a mentor asked me what a zoologist with a job is called. He told me, ‘It’s an entomologist,’ so that’s what I became.”
Jason began creating Pest Friends during the isolation of COVID-19, collaborating with colleague Grant Loomis, an extension educator in Blaine County.
“We wanted to teach about pest management in a more engaging, interactive way rather than a PowerPoint presentation,” he says.
A fan of board games, Jason began brainstorming. He designed graphics, tiles and cards with fictional crops such as lunar wheat, pests named bog beetles and fan bugs, and pesticides called Buzzkill and Xtermin8.
He ran spread sheet simulations, factoring in pest prediction rates and pesticide application variables. A player’s goal is to produce a profitable crop despite pests.
Each round deals with questions affecting crop health as seasons change.
Should pesticides be applied at all? When and how much pesticide should be applied? What are unintended consequences? Will beneficial insects be killed accidentally? Should you cut your crop loss, not harvest and let cattle graze it?
With design complete, Jason began researching board game publishers and picked The Game Crafter. A $400 grant from Idaho Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, awarded during the spring of 2020, enabled the duo to have a prototype printed.
As game facilitator, Jason began hosting playing sessions. In surveys, 90% of players said they learned more with the game than a PowerPoint presentation, and 64% indicated they planned to implement changes to their pest-management practices.
Documenting positive feedback, the duo was awarded $100,000 from Western SARE to print 350 sets and update the artwork.
Jason searched the internet for a professional board game artist.
“It’s exciting that a world-renowned French artist, Vincent Dutrait, agreed to do our final graphics,” Jason says. “He was interested in our project because he had never done anything like it before and understood its importance.”
To fine-tune the game, more than 500 people have played and provided ideas.
“We’re in the sixth revision and just received 350 copies of the final product,” Jason says.
Pest Friends has been incorporated into agriculture curricula at College of Southern Idaho, Texas A&M University, charter schools and high school agriculture programs. Those who play can earn 2 pesticide applicator credits from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.
To teach facilitators to lead a game, Jason scheduled training sessions with extension agents and other educators in Alaska and Hawaii this fall. He is also talking with a potential donor about taking the game to train agricultural professionals in Switzerland.
At a recent playing session, farmers and county officials Wayne Schenk and Tonya Page and local resident Carl Austin reacted to scenarios as Jason guided them.
Carl picked lunar wheat for a crop.
“If a predator comes through, will it cause minimal damage?” he asked.
Reacting to another scenario, Wayne said, “I’ve had that happen.”
Wayne grew sugar beets, grain, hay and dry beans before leasing his farmland to serve as Minidoka County commissioner.
“You have to assess the damage and decide when to treat before it gets out of control,” he said.
Tonya, the county clerk, wanted to know what predators eat which pests to plan her strategy. She and her husband, Brad, raised alfalfa.
Jason says after he is satisfied with the final version of Pest Friends, he has another project in mind.
“Why not do a modified version for fruit trees, shrubs and livestock?” he asks. “I can’t wait to start.”