Minibeast marvels

Sally-Ann Spence has set up her own business taking her insect roadshows around the country and introducing children to her passion for bugs.

Sally-Ann Spence has an unusual kitchen. It's not that it is an odd shape or colour. It's just what it is in that is a little out of the norm. In winter her kitchen is crammed with exotic insects of all kinds.

All of them are in containers where they build their own ecosystem and very clean and they go into an big bug house in the summer. They include beetles and cockroaches of all kinds, such as the tiger hissing cockroach. Some stink of rotting flesh if they get upset.

Several require totally different habitats. For some from the rain forests, Sally-Ann has to be careful of fungus and mould. For those form arid areas, she has to be careful with how much water she gives them in case they drown.

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Sally-Ann runs a business called Minibeast Mayhem from her farmhouse in a rural area just outside of Swindon and has managed to grow it during the recession.

Her husband is an arable farmer and she herself is a farmer's daughter who keeps rare breeds of pigs, cows and sheep. However, Sally-Ann's passion has long been natural history and the study of insects. "I have spent my whole life in and out of museums," she says, "collecting things like fossils and skulls."

Setting up

Before she had her two children, aged 10 and 11, Sally-Ann was an education officer on an open farm and still does this on a part-time basis.

Her eldest son had health problems between the age of four and six and had to undergo nine operations. "He could barely go to school," says Sally-Ann.

So she started to homeschool him. "I didn't know much about it so I just took him to museums and historical re-enactments to try to teach him. It was brilliant fun and I loved learning with him. It was exciting," she says.

When he was back at school a friend of Sally-Ann's asked her to bring in some of the insects she had been keeping at her house because of her interest in entomology. She showed them to the children and in the staff room afterwards there was talk of hiring her for the following year. "It took off from there," she says. "I had my CRB check and was used to talking to groups. It gave me a real buzz and it was really great to go into schools." Those schools include urban ones with children who have very little experience of the countryside. "They are sometimes terrified of it and the schools cannot afford trips to the country so I go in and help them to experience ecology at first hand."

Sally-Ann decided on the name Minibeast Mayhem because on the primary curriculum there was a section on minibeasts covering insects and she wanted her sessions to fit with the school curriculum. She added mayhem so it would not sounds too boring.

She checked how much similar services charged and promoted her unique selling point – the fact that her sessions are very interactive, including handling of insects and farming role play plus natural history and she has a huge range of invertebrates which she adds to continually through her contacts with entomologist groups and experts. She also breeds insects and swaps them with other insect enthusiasts.

She then set up her own website after researching other sites. She opted for a simple navigation style and built it herself. She uses analytic tools so she can see how people are coming to her site.

Education

She targets all sorts of groups, including ecological organisations, schools and the homeschooling community. Sally-Ann is a member of various groups, including the Amateur Entomological Society and does free field trips for the Royal Entomological Society's Bug Club. She also cites "an amazing mentor" at Oxford University's Natural History Museum who allows her access to rare insects he brings to the museum.

Sally-Ann covers natural history, agriculture and insects and says she knows the subjects inside out and aims to inspire. Her website links what she does to a wide range of curriculum subjects, from art to geography and she works with a whole range of children, from gifted and talented children to those with special needs. Sally-Ann has had some odd requests over the last few years. For instance, one secondary school asked her to come in to help with an insect robotics project they were doing. She also attended a Viking Festival to talk about parasites. "It's a great way for children to learn and they will certainly remember it," she says.

Her idea was that the business would provide her with a good work life balance, but she says that she failed to factor in travel time to different venues. Sometimes she can be up at 4am to go to an event in London, for instance. Luckily she has a supportive husband who helps out with getting children to and from school.

Some events are held during the school holidays and she now takes her children along with her and they help out and get paid a small wage for doing so. They also help cleaning out the insects at home and her eldest son gives 10-minute lectures. "They feel proud of the business," she says. "That's great because I started it because of them."



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