of Kentucky Department of Entomology - KENTUCKY BUG CONNECTION
Youth Entomology Resources | MIDDLE - HIGH SCHOOL
- ELEMENTARY >4H RESOURCES
Insects in the Classroom
Stephanie Bailey. Adapted from "Six-Legged Science: Insects
in the Classroom," by G.A. Dunn.
10/04 by Blake Newton, Extension Specialist
are an excellent resource for science education. Many insects
are easily maintained in the classroom and can happily thrive despite
being handled and kept in captivity. The remarkable diversity
in form and function of commonly found insects promotes interest
and enthusiasm in observing the natural world. Insects can
also be used to model a variety of scientific principles.
The objectives of this
page are to give educators basic information about insects and ideas
on how to use insects in the classroom.
There are two types
of insect nets: sweep nets (used for tall grass and shrubs) and
aerial nets (for flying insects); the latter are sometimes called
"butterfly nets." These can be purchased from mail-order
companies or made at home very cheaply. Materials needed are
an old broom handle or large dowel, wire coat hanger (unwound, then
shaped into a"hoop"), duct tape, and either a pillowcase
(for a sweep net) or netting remnant. Many crawling insects
can be captured without a net by using a small jar.
Once caught, insects
need to be placed in a killing jar or an observing container. In
either case, a clean, large mason jar or peanut-butter jar works
well. If you want to kill the insects and make a collection,
use nail polish remover or rubbing alcohol to wet down cotton balls,
and put them and some tissues into the jar. The tissues give
insects places to "hide," so they don't damage their wings
when trying to escape.
Insects can also be killed by placing them in a freezer for
24 hours. Collected
and killed insects need to be pinned through their thorax, a little
to the right of the midline. High grade insect pins can be
purchased from mail order companies or hobby stores. Insects
should then be placed in a sealed box, such as a cigar box or tight-fitting
shoe box. Serious enthusiasts may want to purchase professional
boxes - either glass cases or a Schmidt box from a hobby store or
mail order catalog. Moth balls will protect specimens from
If you want to rear,
maintain, or observe live insects, read our page on Classroom
Aquatic insect tanks
are also easy to make and fun to observe. Use a strainer or
colander to collect aquatic insects. Insects you might catch
include: dragonfly immatures, mayfly immatures, whirlygig beetles,
water striders, giant water bugs, diving beetles, water boatmen,
and caddisfly immatures. Many of these are predaceous, so
supply some small feeder guppies or fairy shrimp, or else the tank
will turn into a REAL test of survival of the fittest! For
more details on maintaining an aquatic insect habitat, read our
page on Pet Bugs: Aquatic
The best place to start
catching insects is the school yard. Insects are found around
trees and shrubs, leaf litter, grass, and flowers. You can
also look under rocks and logs. Some insects (flies and wasps
especially) can be attracted with sugary or fruity liquids that
are left outside in the sunshine. Butterflies will form "puddle
clubs" when tempted with small pools of sugary or salty water.
If you bury a bucket to the rim and fill it with gravel, then
pour sweet and salty liquids over the gravel, you can have a permanent
puddle for butterflies to use. The foundation along the perimeter
of the building, as well as bathrooms and supply rooms are suitable
habitats for crickets, spiders, ants, and possibly cockroaches.
Field trips to a lake, forest, or park will offer even more
opportunities for collecting insects.
and Tell" with Insects. Have each student capture,
identify, and look up information about an insect. The students
may want to develop an insect zoo and invite neighboring classes
Diversity and Success
There are well over 1
million species of insects. They outnumber all other animals
combined by more than 4 to 1. There are more species of beetles
than species of flowers. Insects range in size from larger
than the smallest mammals to small enough to crawl through the eye
of a needle. They have been around since before dinosaurs.
Secrets for insect
insects can exploit many more niches (places in food webs) in a
given area compared to larger animals
Short life cycle:
insects can develop in temporary habitats such as water puddles
and decaying organic matter, and adapt to changing conditions much
more rapidly than other animals.
High reproductive capacity: as an example, an aphid
has 50 offspring within its three week lifespan.
Complete metamorphosis: insects with complete metamorphosis,
such as beetles and butterflies, can exploit two separate niches
in one lifetime.
Exoskeleton: an exoskeleton protects insects from
dehydration and damage.
Flight: wings allow rapid movement to new habitats
and food sources, and to escape from predation.
Diversification: although insects all have the
same basic structure, each insect species has adapted to its own
Insects have diversified
in two ways:
1) Insects are present
in every type of habitat except the middle of the ocean. They
are found on the tops of mountains and underground caves. They
thrive in deserts, rivers, fields and forests. They have even
been in space: Biosatellite II orbited the earth with fungus gnats,
roaches, and wasps. Insects are probably crawling through
your house right now. Some of the more highly specialized
insects even build homes for themselves. Caddisflies, as larvae,
make cases in which they live. A few species of wasps, aphids,
midges, and psyllids can make galls (special swellings of plants
due to feeding by the insect), which they feed on and receive protection
from. Many wasps, bees, and ants (order Hymenoptera) create
nests, burrows, or social colonies. Termites, which belong
to a different order (Isoptera), also build large colonies and live
socially. Parasitoids live inside another insect until becoming
adults. Other insects live in or on the leaves, stems, or
roots of plants.
2) Although they each
have the same general body plan, different species of insects have
developed changes in appearance and function of their body parts
to adapt and survive in different niches.
Camouflage allows some
insects to blend into surroundings. Certain butterflies, treehoppers,
and caterpillars blend with their surroundings to hide from predators.
However, some predators, like assassin bugs and praying mantids
use camouflage for surprise attacks.
Materials needed: several colors of construction paper or pipe cleaners,
at least 1 of which blends with grass (if outside) or with posterboard
(inside). Cut these into small pieces. Spread the pieces
randomly inside a marked area, either on grass or a sheet of posterboard,
then have students pick up as many as possible within 10 seconds.
See how many and which colors are picked up.
used for protection include:
Hairs and spines:
Many caterpillars have hairs and spines. Some are "urticating"
hairs, which sting, others prevent parasitoids from laying eggs
in the caterpillars.
Stingers: Wasps can sting repeatedly while honeybees
only sting once. Some wasps use their stingers to paralyze
prey, then lay eggs and let their larva feed on the prey.
Poison: Some insects feed on poisonous plants and
accumulate the plant's poison (e. g. monarch gets its poison from
milkweed). Other insects have a mechanism to produce their
own poisons (e. g. ladybug).
Mimicry: Some unrelated poisonous insects share
color patterns. For instance, milkweed beetles and ladybugs
are both red and black. Both of these insects produce poison.
It is believed that a predator will learn to avoid all red-and-black
insects if it feeds on one that makes it sick. Sometimes,
non-poisonous insects will mimic these color patterns as well, even
though they are not poisonous. An example: the non-poisonous
Viceroy butterfly which mimics the poisonous Monarch butterfly.
The defenses that insects employ can be compared to those of more
familiar animals: hairy caterpillars are like porcupines, bombardier
beetles have a spraying mechanism similar to a skunk.
Form, Function, and Development
The integument or body
wall of an insect is used for muscle attachment and protection from
damage and desiccation. The integument is made up of two layers:
the epidermis, which consists of living cells. These cells
secrete the outer layer, the cuticle, which is composed of protein
and chitin. Caterpillars and soft-bodied insects have cuticles
that are mostly endocuticle, which remains flexible. Hard-bodied
insects have a harder exocuticle, with the endocuticle underneath.
An insect's body is made
of three main body parts: a head, thorax, and abdomen.
is the center of coordination and feeding, with antennae, eyes,
Form and Function
of Insect Mouthparts - Different insects possess different
types of mouthparts. These mouthpart types can be compared
with the functions of common objects:
(grasshoppers) - scissors
sucking mouthparts (stinkbugs) - turkey baster
stabbing mouthparts (deer fly, mosquito) - boxed drink
coiled mouthparts (butterfly) - party favor
sponging mouthparts (housefly) - dishwashing wand-sponge
Some insects with stabbing
mouthparts can transfer diseases. This can be shown by first
uptaking colored water with a turkey baster, let it out, then uptake
clear water with the baster. The clear water will become slightly
is the center of locomotion, containing legs (1 pair per segment)
and wings, if present (on the last two thoracic segments). Front
wings may be modified to very hard (beetles) or leathery (grasshoppers),
and function as armor. True flies (order Diptera) have a special
adaptation to their second pair of wings, which have evolved into
knob-like structures called halteres, which are used for balance.
The Movement of Wings in Flight. Materials: strobe
light and large butterfly, moth, or roach. Tether a large
insect by gluing a thick string to its thorax, then lift the insect
off the ground and allow it to flap its wings. Adjust the
strobe light until the movement can be easily seen and stopped.
Note the curve of the forward line of wings in downstroke
and upstroke. A note of caution: use of the strobe light with
this experiment may bring on epileptic seizures so check with students
or parents first!
contains reproductive structures, most of the spiracles (openings
for breathing, also present on the thorax), and cerci, which are
sensory structures, much like antennae. All
of these external structures can easily be shown with large grasshoppers.
Insects have open circulation.
The only artery is the dorsal aorta, which pumps blood from
the back of the insect up to the head.
Respiration is not through
the bloodstream. Oxygen enters insects through their spiracles
(holes on the side of the body) and branches out through a network
of tubes into every cell in the body.
Digestion proceeds from
the insect's mouth through the esophagus, and into the crop, which
is a storage site. A valve called the proventriculus separates
the crop from the midgut. In some chewing insects, the proventriculus
has hardened "teeth" which help to break up food stored
in the crop. In the midgut, an envelope called the peritrophic
membrane protects the walls of the midgut while allowing digestive
enzymes to enter and digested products to filter out and pass through
the midgut membrane into the hemolymph. The gastric caeca
are large pockets on the anterior side of the midgut that allow
adsorption of digested materials. Malphigian tubules, located
at the posterior end of the midgut, have a function similar to our
kidneys, namely filtering water and wastes out of the bloodstream.
Fingerlike projections absorb waste particles and excrete
them into the hindgut, which like our large intestines regulates
osmotic (water) pressure as waste passes from the insect.
The ventral nerve cord,
like our dorsal nerve cord, brings messages to and from the brain.
in insects include ovaries, bursa copulatrix and uterus in females,
testes, aedeagus in males. Interesting mating habits include
those of bedbugs (the male 'stabs' sperm into the female through
her body wall) and dragonflies (males transfer sperm to secondary
structures located on the second abdominal segment; to mate, males
hook their cerci behind the female's head, then the female must
curve her body underneath to collect sperm. This forms a "wheel").
Insects are cold-blooded.
Any activity depends on a certain amount of body heat. Often,
flying insects must "warm up" their bodies by flapping
their wings before being able to take off. In very hot temperatures,
insects must find shade so as not to overheat. Many insects,
including moths, butterflies, and bees can funnel heat produced
from flying into the abdomen, where abdominal spiracles and body
wall allow heat to escape. Dragonflies at rest modify their
posture depending on whether they're hot or cold. If hot,
they position themselves upright to make as little surface area
as possible exposed to direct sun. If they are seeking warmth,
they rest flat on a surface perpendicular to the sun's rays to get
Thermometers. Materials: Male tree cricket, thermometer,
ice in a bucket, hot or warm water in a bowl. Count chirps
per 15 seconds at several different temperatures (at least 3, preferably
5). Use the ice to cool, then hot water to increase temperature.
Determine the lowest temperature that crickets chirp, and
then graph chirps vs. temperature. Later on, without using
a thermometer, see what room temperature is by the number of chirps.
(The sum of tree cricket chirps in 15 seconds plus 40 approximates
the air temperature in degrees fahrenheit around the cricket.)
Insects grow by molting,
as opposed to gradual development of humans. Whenever an insect
grows slightly larger, it must shed its skin. Once insects
become adults, they are unable to molt any further, and will not
grow any larger.
Insects have either Simple or Complete Metamorphosis.
Development proceeds from an egg to nymphs (which usually look like
the adult, except for underdeveloped wings) to an adult. Examples
include grasshoppers and milkweed bugs. Also called "incomplete
Development proceeds from the egg to a larva, which is usually wormlike
and does not resemble the adult insect. When full-grown, the
larva transforms into a pupa, then finally the adult. The
pupal stage is needed to develop the wings and other appendages
such as antennae. Examples of this type of development are
butterflies and moths, beetles, wasps and flies.
Insect Development. Materials: Insects (milkweed
bugs or hissing cockroaches will show simple metamorphosis, butterfly
or moth caterpillars or mealworms will have complete metamorphosis),
food, water, container. Get eggs from a mail order catalog,
then 1) count the number of molts and/or days till they become adults,
or 2) measure head capsule and/or body length each day to see WHEN
they molt, how much bigger they get as they molt, and how long in
Butterfly or Moth Emergence. Collect several cocoons or
chrysalis in spring or fall (if fall, pupae need to be kept cold
to complete development). Hopefully at least one will emerge during
class in the spring.
All organisms are classified
according to a hierarchy:
This can be compared
with the division of land in the United States. The largest grouping
is a country, which is divided into states, then counties, towns,
streets, and individual houses.
Insects all belong to
the Class Insecta. These are further grouped into orders.
90% of insects belong to a few very common orders. Common
adult insects can be distinguished by looking at characteristics
of their wings, mouthparts, and legs:
dragonflies and damselflies. These insects have large, clear
wings and chewing mouthparts.
Orthoptera: grasshoppers and crickets. The
front wings of crickets and grasshoppers are leathery and these
insects have chewing mouthparts and back legs which are large and
adapted for jumping.
Hemiptera: true bugs. True bugs have sucking
mouthparts, and the front pair of wings are half leathery, half
Homoptera: aphids, cicadas, leafhoppers. Homopterans
have sucking mouthparts, and the front wings are either leathery
or membranous (but not half and half, as with true bugs).
Coleoptera: beetles. Beetles have very hard
or leathery front wings with no veins showing and chewing mouthparts.
Lepidoptera: butterflies and moths. These
insects have coiled sucking mouthparts and scale-covered wings.
Diptera: flies, including house flies, mosquitoes,
and horse flies. True flies have only one pair of functional
wings, with the back pair modified into balancing organs called
"halteres." True flies have and piercing, sucking,
or sponging mouthparts.
Hymenoptera: bees, wasps, and ants. These
insects have two pairs of clear wings and chewing mouthparts.
Comparative Study of Butterfly and Moth. Capture
a butterfly and moth, and put each in a separate jar. Compare similarities
(number of legs, wings, mouthparts, etc.) and differences (colors,
antennae, body, how wings are held at rest, etc.).
Have students collect
lots of insects (maybe working in groups) with the goal of getting
representatives from several orders. Ask students to try to
classify each insect into the correct order by their own methods,
giving their reasons for putting the insects in certain groups.
Older students may be
able to appreciate learning where words originate (e. g. "diptera"
means two-wings, "lepidoptera" means scale-wings). Much
of the vocabulary in insect taxonomy can easily be explained based
on characteristics of insects having a particular taxonomic name.
Classroom Uses of Insects
1) Name "good"
and "bad" insects and things they do
(remember, in the natural world, there is no such thing as "good"
and "bad." Insects are only good or bad when humans
label them as such!).
honey, wax and pollination from bees, silk from silkworms, pollination
from many insects for fruit and alfalfa production, scent from flowers
due to luring insects, beneficial insects which eat pests (ladybugs,
praying mantids), medical cures and research (e. g. movie "Medicine
Man"), fly maggots can be used to clean infected wounds.
Less than 1% of insects are considered "bad." Examples
of pest insects include those that damage food (e. g. worms in apples,
others feed on various crops); roaches, termites, houseflies and
other household pests; those which sting or bite (wasps, bees, mosquitoes,
ticks, fleas); insects that transmit diseases, especially mosquitoes,
which transmit malaria and dengue fever.
Go around the room, with each person naming an insect or insect
"part" that starts with each letter of the alphabet.
1) Do honeybees prefer
sugar to nutrasweet?
Fill small, open containers
with either sugar water or water mixed with nutrasweet (or any artificial
sweetener). Place the containers near a bee hive or in a field where
bees are foraging. Have the students record the number of
bees that visit each type of liquid. Older students may want
to do a statistical test like the t-test or chi square.
2) Can honeybees see
& learn colors?
Use a few colors of construction
paper to represent "flowers." Place a clear container
in the center of each flower. Fill one container with sugar
water but use plain water for the rest. After a few minutes, the
bees will probably start flying straight to the flower with the
sugar water. If so, rearrange the flowers, to see if they still
go to the right color. Hint: bees can't see red!
with Spiders. Even though spiders aren't insects,
they are closely related and make great subjects for classroom demonstrations.
1) How do spiders know
when they've caught something in their web?
This demonstration can
show that spiders are able to determine when an insect gets captured
in their web, and how large the prey is. Tie a string taught
between two fixed objects. Have a student on one end not look
but touch the string to feel vibrations (this is the "spider").
Have another student twang the string at the other end with
different forces, and see if student #1 can tell the difference.
2) Do all spiders' webs
have the same pattern?
Visit and observe spider
webs or collect several webs by first coating with talcum powder
or spray gently with white spray paint, then attach the webs to
black construction paper that has been sprayed with hair spray to
make it sticky. Compare to see if all spiders make webs with the
same geometry. Students may fins that spiders that are of
the same species build similar webs, but unrelated spiders may make
very different webs
and other good books:
M. Ninety-nine Gnats, Nits and Nibblers.
A. Six-Legged Science: Insects in the Classroom. Young
Books: Butterfly & Moth (1988), Insect (1990),
Amazing Beetles (1991).
P. M. Bugwise.
A. B. & E. B. 1001 Questions Answered About Insects.
S. The Kids' Nature Book.
M. The Insect Almanac.
F. T. The Insect Appreciation Digest. The Entomological
J. Biology for Every Kid.
Kentucky 4-H has detailed
guides for insect collecting, identification, and pinning. These
should be readily available from county 4-H offices.
County 4H agents may
also be able to visit classrooms with activities and live insects
borrowed from the University of Kentucky. Owners of local
pest control companies may also be interested in coming to a classroom
and talking to students. Pest control professionals are usually
knowledgeable about insects, and they can also discuss the pest
control business, which is unusual and interesting.
Mascots - how to keep insects and their relatives in the classroom.
Starting an Observation Honey-Bee
Entomology Resources | PRESCHOOL - ELEMENTARY
preschool and elementary educational materials, please visit our adjacent
B. Newton and R. Bessin, University of Kentucky Department of Entomology.
Original document: 19 April 2004
Except "american cockroach" and "mealworm," courtesy
Last updated: 19 April 2004
page is maintained by Blake Newton, Department of Entomology, University
Please send questions or suggestions to: email@example.com