Entomology is a pursuit for children and teens that can yield great
If you are an Instagram or Facebook follower of mine, then you may know that our nine year old is an entomologist. I thought it would be fun for me to report on how his year has gone and to share what we learned with you all.
As I write this, we are preparing for the 4-H Fair and his first year collection is just about ready. We have some labeling to do, but all of his specimens are pinned and we are in the home stretch. Today’s post is all about entomology- the science of insects including classification, & identification.
What is Entomology?
Officially speaking, entomology is:
This year Joshua has been studying entomology by attending lectures every month given by a husband-wife pair of PhD entomologists. They’ve been teamed up for years to lead an entomology project area for 4-H. For most of the time, he’s been attending with another 8 turning 9 year old boy and his dad. That’s right, parents are requested to be there for the ride. He’s had an amazing year learning all the intricate details of insect morphology while learning how to collect and pin insects for his own collection properly.
Classification of Insects
Insects are animals with six legs and an exoskeleton- among other common characteristics. They can be divided into many different orders. Even a young entomologist knows his insect orders! As you learn the orders, try to keep up with the latest research because sometimes they change. Our group is working with the latest findings from earlier this year. When entomologists discover orders are so related to each other they don’t need to be separate orders, they are combined. For example, termites and cockroaches are closely related and are no longer separate orders. This will be important if you are taking your insect collection to the fair!
Orders of Insects (as of February, 2014):
- Archaeognatha- Bristletails
- Thysanura- Silverfish, Firebrats
- Ephemeroptera– Mayflies
- Odonata– dragonflies & damselflies (each in their own suborders)
- Plecoptera– Stoneflies
- Notoptera- ice crawlers, rock crawlers, heel walkers (discovered in 2002)
- Dermaptera- Earwigs
- Embioptera- Webspinners
- Phasmatodea– Walking sticks, timemas
- Orthoptera– Grasshoppers, crickets, katydids
- Mantodea- Mantises
- Blattodea– Cockroaches and termites (formerly Isoptera)
- Zoraptera- Angel insects
- Hemiptera– True bugs, moss bugs, cicadas, hoppers, aphids (in suborders)
- Thysanoptera– Thrips
- Psocoptera- Psocids (booklice & barklice)
- Phthiraptera- Lice
- Coleoptera– Beetles
- Strepsiptera- Twisted winged parasites
- Neuroptera- Lacewings, antlions, mantidflies, owlflies
- Raphidioptera- Snakeflies
- Megaloptera– Alderflies, dobsonflies, fishflies
- Hymenoptera– sawflies, horntails, wasps, ants, bees
- Trichoptera– Caddisflies
- Lepidoptera– Butterflies & Moths
- Mecoptera- Scorpionflies, hangingflies
- Siphonaptera- Fleas (though it turns out that fleas are highly developed scorpionflies so this order may soon be reclassified as Mecoptera)
- Diptera– Flies
Joshua has to have 20 insect specimens with 12 orders represented in his first year collection. I’ve bolded the orders he’s collected this year.
Identification of Insects
Identifying insects comes after understanding insect morphology (form & structure). Once you know about biting mouth parts vs sucking mouth parts and whether to look for wings or not, etc., it’s easier to narrow down what the insect is.
Keys help you to look at the insect closely and make decisions based on the characteristics of the species. Use this dichotomous key to identify an insect down to its order.
Joshua has been memorizing the insect orders and trying to remember their features. If the name has “optera” in it, then it’s a flying insect, for example. He’s getting good at identifying by sight, but he still benefits from using the dichotomous key.
Resources for Classification & Identification of Insects
When we meet as a club, the leaders bring their guides to share with us. We also have our field guides. A comprehensive guide is important to an entomologist. Unless you have very young children, I would recommend skipping the children’s guides. I find my kids outgrow them very quickly. They can be less intimidating, but they lack information and sometimes make it hard to identify a specimen.
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects & Spiders (North American)– This is our main field guide. Not only does it have plenty of information on various species, but the color photographs make it easy to compare in the field- or at pinning time.
- A Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America– This one was useful to us as he identified all of the aquatic species in his collection. Can you tell the difference between different species of mayflies? This book will help! Joshua has at least two in his collection this year.
- Dichotomous Key– Going beyond matching pictures is sometimes necessary for identification, especially in the insect world. A dichotomous key has students analyze features of the insect and make a choice between one presentation of a characteristic and another. By process of elimination, you come to the final choice which will tell you what the critter is.
One of my favorite things about this entomology club is the way they choose to instruct the kids. Rather than watering down the information, our mentors lecture on the information as if their audience is much older. The wonderful thing is to watch the boys ask for more after an hour of listening intently as anatomy is drawn on the board. I love that it is real science- not classroom oriented, mini-demonstrations or labs.
Knowing your student and providing him with the materials he needs to grow is crucial to seeing your kids stick with a project area and gain experience.