The Ultimate Guide to Studying Insects - Eva Varga

April 7, 20148

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by insects. I have curated an insect collection of my own for years and I love sketching them in my nature journal.

Insects are all around us and their abundance makes them the perfect introduction to the world of zoology. Studying insects is a wonderful experience for upper grades to begin using the taxonomic binomial naming system for the first time.

ultimate guide insects

An Introduction to Insects or Basic Entomology

Insects belong to the phylum Arthropoda. As such, they have a hard exoskeleton which they molt several times as they grow, bilateral symmetry, and jointed appendages (legs and antennae).  The arthropod phylum is the largest in the animal kingdom – more arthropods than any other animal.

The phylum can be further divided into four classes:  Insects – 3 pairs of legs, Arachnids (spiders & mites) – 4 pairs of legs, Crustaceans (crabs & lobsters) – 5 pairs of legs, and Millipedes & Centipedes.

If you are looking for a fun, hands-on curriculum for upper elementary or middle school students, I have compiled a number of my favorite lesson plans in a unit study approach, Introductory Entomology. Through hands-on activities, real life simulations, and multi-media presentations this six-week unit incorporates more than 10 entomology lessons and suggested extension activities.

I have also gathered a number of great resources and lesson plan ideas from across the web to provide you with the ultimate guide to studying insects.  You’ll most assuredly find inspiration and activities galore – many of which include free notebooking printables. The following list should get you started on your insect studies:

  • Bug Collecting – A step-by-step guide to collecting bugs and insects
  • Adventures with Insects & Critters – All about collecting and keeping insects and other small critters
  • Conduct an Insect Survey – Collect data to calculate the diversity of insects; includes a free notebooking printable
  • Aquatic Science: Spring Pond Study – Get the kids outside equipped with a small wash tub, an ice-cube tray, and this free download to investigate aquatic critters
  • BugScope – Provides free interactive access to a scanning electron microscope so that students can explore the world of insects
  • Integrated Pest Management – One of the lessons in my Introductory Entomology unit engages kids in a cooperative learning, simulated experience
  • Keep a journal of your observations – See Cicada for a spectacular example
  • The Xerces Society – A nonprofit that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Find a wealth of insect resources on their website.

When teaching about insects in middle school, I feel it is important to introduce them to the use of a dichotomous key and to provide ample opportunity to practice classification skills. I put together a PowerPoint presentation to introduce kids to the differences between insect orders. You can download the presentation here:  Insect Classification.

damselflyIn addition to the broad resources I have shared above, I have also compiled a number of hands-on activities specific to insect orders.  You may wish to study insects one order at a time or perhaps you have a budding coleopterists (an entomologist who specializes in the study of beetles) in your family.  The links provided here are grouped according to the most common insect orders:






  •  Links coming soon


june beetle noseLiterature Connections & Lapbooks

There are numerous non-fiction books about insects.  One of my favorite books is a book of poems by Paul Fleishman, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Written to be read aloud by two voices – sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneous – this collection of 14 poems celebrates the insect world, from the short life of the mayfly to the love song of the book louse.

While I highly recommend the print version for the gorgeous illustrations by Eric Beddows, I also recommend the audio version – particularly if poems written for two voices is unfamiliar to you. Upon listening to this book, my kids delighted in creating insect poems of their own.

In my quest to share with you the best of the best, I came across a few wonderful posts that are perfect for younger siblings:

Citizen Science

There are numerous opportunities for people of all ages to explore insects and contribute to real, ongoing research.


Field Trips & Excursions

Many zoos and aquariums have special exhibits that feature insects.  I’ve highlighted a few here but be sure to contact natural history museums and zoos in your local area.  While smaller venues may not have a permanent exhibit, they may feature insect exhibits periodically in their rotation.

Career Opportunities

Students in upper grades may already have an idea that a career in biology or zoology is in their future.  Some may be interested in collecting insects and not realize that their hobby can actually be a possible career.  If you are interested in learning more about the possible career options in entomology, read my post Science Career Options: Entomology Careers.


  • Heather Woodie

    April 7, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks Eva! Nicely done- love the insect orders!

    • Eva Varga

      April 10, 2014 at 7:10 am

      Thanks, Heather! Insects are a passion. 🙂

  • Michelle Cannon

    April 12, 2014 at 9:13 am

    My daughter is a bug-aholic. I can always use more resources! Thanks!

  • Emily

    April 13, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    This is a perfect starting point for me. Our 4-yo is constantly asking about the insects (and plants) we see, and I had no idea where to start. Just a couple of days ago we captured a snakefly, the first that I’ve ever seen. Thanks to social networks online, I was able to name it and learn more about it. Now we’ll have to take the next step and identify organisms on our own.

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  • Holly

    May 11, 2015 at 9:49 am

    Eva, do you have any suggestions for turning this into a high school level course?

    • Eva Varga

      June 5, 2015 at 7:07 am

      At the high school level, I would suggest students put together an insect collection – either a traditional mounted collection or a collection of detailed sketches. Either method should include a paragraph of life history notes. At the middle school level, I asked that students include at least 15 different insect specimens representing 12 orders. Advanced students should include 20 or more insect specimens representing 15 different orders. High school students might also be interested in reading a non-fiction text (Butterflies in My Stomach by Ronald Taylor, for example). Lastly, they may wish to design an in-depth survey of the dragonfly (for example) species in your local area and create a specialized publication for natural resource specialists.

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