Incredible Insects

Summer Explorations for You and Your Child

By Arianna & Frank Grindrod

Summer is splendid season to be outside exploring with children. There is just so much to investigate! A myriad of flowers are blooming in the garden and field; bees are buzzing and gathering pollen in their pollen baskets; butterflies are sipping nectar; preying manti are hunting for food. Listen! Crickets chirp and children chatter; each are separate instruments in a summer orchestra. Enjoy the symphony of sounds. Let the buzzing and chirping entice you and your child into the exciting world of the six-legged. There is not much you will need—just an open heart and mind towards our creepy-crawly neighbors, for they will be your teachers.

Identifying Insects

Insects are the largest group, or class, of animals in the animal kingdom! They are found almost everywhere on the planet, living in a wide range of habitats. We can even find them living in our homes. Insects belong to the phylum of invertebrates, having no backbone; instead of bones on the inside of their bodies, insects have a hard outer covering called an exoskeleton. Insects also belong to the subphylum called arthropods who share some distinct characteristics, such as jointed legs and segmented bodies.

Spiders, millipedes, and lobsters are other examples of arthropods and invertebrates. But they are not insects. How can you tell the difference between an adult insect and others arthropods and invertebrates? Insects have three body parts—a head, a thorax (where the legs and wings are attached) and an abdomen (where the heart, digestive system and reproductive organs are located); whereas spiders have only two body parts and eight legs. And where are the lungs on an insect? Insects don’t have lungs. Instead they have a series of tubes, called spiracles, carrying oxygen through their bodies. Aquatic insects, however, may have breathing tubes, portable air bubbles, or gills!

Exploring the Insect World

Because insects live all around us, they are easy and fun to study. Here are a few hands-on activities you and your budding naturalist can do together to learn more about these fascinating and incredible beings.

Sing with Me: Sing the song “Head, Thorax, Abdomen” (to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”) to learn about insect body parts.

Head, thorax, abdomen, jointed legs.
Head, thorax, abdomen, jointed legs.
Antennae, wings, and an exoskeleton.
Head, thorax, abdomen, jointed legs.

Tracking the Six-Leggeds: Find or create a small wet clay or mud area that is somewhat slippery to the tough and a very cooperative insect such as a grasshopper and watch the grasshopper make tracks in the mud. Using a magnifying lens, have your child study the tracks. As they focus on a creature they saw make tracks, they may become ever more excited to see what other invertebrates make tracks. Always remind the child to be gentle and respectful to our small friends.

Insect Safari: If you and your “little bug” would like to catch and observe insects, then there are very specific ways to safely catch, observe and release the critters. The equipment you will need is simple: a few bug boxes of various sizes with magnifying tops, a field insect net and an identification guide. Many of our local bookstores carry insect identification guides for children.

Walk into the field and gently sweep the field net back and forth through the grass. Take a look at what you have caught. For a closer look, carefully inch the bug box under one insect and place the top on, making sure not close it on any little antennae or feet. Please make sure that no live creatures are under direct sunlight in the magnifying boxes!

Observe this amazing creature! What do you and your child notice? Did you catch an insect or some other invertebrate? Do you notice three body parts—the head, thorax and abdomen? Count the creature’s legs. Are the legs hairy, barbed or spindly? Are its legs designed for hopping or crawling? What color is this animal? Does it have any special markings on its body? Does this critter have wings? What is the shape of its body? In a field journal, take some time to draw the creatures you catch. Can you identify this creature or what would name it if you could?

After you observed the animals you have caught, a nice way to honor them and let your child know the importance of respecting other life forms is to do a releasing ceremony.
Holding the bug box, return the creature to the field while saying this poem aloud:
“Run away, crawl away, fly away, hop! You are free to go.
I’m not going to stop you from living your life. You deserve to be free;
but thank you for sharing this time with me”.

A note about who not to catch: It is not recommended that you catch bees, wasps, moths, butterflies or adult dragonflies. Bees and wasps do not make good specimens because they do not to appreciate being caught and may sting you. It is better to observe them while they are busy pollinating a flower. Butterflies, moths and dragonflies are also not happy with this method of observation because they have delicate wings easily damaged when brushed up against. Again, better to observe them wherever they are.

Orders of Insects

Now that you and your wee naturalist know what an insect is, it is time to learn a few of the different groups insects belong to based on similar characteristics. Below is a sampling of the insect groups you may find in the field.

As you read each description to your youngster see if she can identify the insect by either looking at pictures or at live field subjects.

• Butterflies & Moths (order, Lepidoptera): These creatures have two pairs of fine, powdery-covered scaly wings.
• Ants, Bees & Wasps (order, Hymenoptera): These “tiny-waisted” creatures are usually considered to be very social, living together in large colonies or hives.
• Mosquitoes, Flies & Gnats (order, Diptera): Insects in this group have only one pair of wings, usually clear, rather than the usual two pairs.
• Beetles (order, Coleoptera): To know this group of insects look for tough front wings that meet in a straight line down their back.  A pair of thinner wings is kept folded under the top pair when this creature is not flying.
• Dragonflies & Damselflies (order, Odonata): These darlings have two pairs of nearly transparent wings that are almost equal in length. They have large compound eyes and long slender abdomens.
• Leafhoppers & Cicadas: Observe two pairs of wings that form a tent over the insect’s body when it is not flying or jumping.
• Grasshoppers & Crickets (order, Orthoptera):  Notice the long hind-legs of these jumping musicians of the field.
• True Bugs (order, Hemiptera): Look for the triangle shape on these creatures’ backs.  The triangle is formed by the leathery forewings crossing each other when the insect is not flying. These insects have sucking mouth parts, whether they are supping on plant or animal juices. YUM!

If you are observing insects with an older child, you may stimulate a discussion with the following questions. If you were in charge of classifying or grouping insects, how might you group them differently? What criteria would you use? Would you also use physical characteristics that you could notice, such as color, body shape or size? Or do other characteristics jump out at you?

Insects are incredible! Take some time to investigate their delicate beauty and the diversity of species. They are marvelous reminders of the tenacity of life!