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Classifying Insects

Insects specimens pinned in white boxes

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Suitable for students in Middle or High School 

Get to know some of your insect neighbors, and become a classification whiz! Test your skills with amazing close-up images of insects, then if you can do it safely, go outside and apply what you've learned with a survey of your garden or neighborhood. You'll want to have a journal and something to write with while you complete this activity. 

Keeping things in Order

Scientists classify, or sort, living things into groups based on their shared characteristics.  When animals have something in common with one another, it can be a clue that they are related to each other. The more they have in common, the more closely related they often are. One type of grouping of related species of animals is known as an “order”. Species in the same order share common characteristics, and are also more closely related to one another than species in other orders. Today, we’ll be learning about 6 orders of insects. 

What characteristics do the members of each of the following insect orders, or related groups, share? Click the links below to see images of local species that belong to each of these six orders. The images are posted on a website called iNaturalist.

Butterflies and moths!   They all have 2 pairs of large wings Wings are not see through and have scales on them  Noticeable antennae

Make a page in your journal with the name of each order at the top-- use this space to write a short description of the common characteristics of each group. Feel free to include drawings, or anything else that you find helpful in describing!

 

Sorting out the Insects of Los Angeles

 

The Biodiversity Science: City and Nature (or BioSCAN) project is the world’s largest urban biodiversity study; biodiversity is the variety of life, and urban is another word for city. BioSCAN is an in-depth look at insect biodiversity in Los Angeles.

lisa gonzalez with malaise trap in LA bioscan community science
We set up Malaise traps at sites across the L.A. Basin. Site hosts monitor the traps and remove the sample once a month.

Using over 80 insect traps, called Malaise traps (like the one above), Museum staff and volunteers are discovering new species and examining insect biodiversity in the core of the city, and out to the coast, mountains, and nearby deserts. Through studies like these, scientists can track which species are in an area and how common they are. After being collected, specimens from the BioSCAN project are carefully examined under a microscope, sorted (often first by volunteers!), then identified to a species level. Sometimes, the insects collected are types that have never been seen before!

To date, BioSCAN has identified over 800 species, including 47 species that are completely new to science.

The following super magnified images are some of the insects collected through BioSCAN. Try your hand at sorting them into the correct "order" based on the characteristics you defined above, or use our Insect Order ID Guide.

Use your journal to record your answers. On a new page, place the numbers 1-10 in the left margin. For each image, write down which order you think the insect belongs to and the evidence you see to suggest that. Hint: Not all orders are represented, and there may be multiple images of some orders! (Answer key found below.)

 

Huge eyes (with geometric pattern), barely visible antenna See through wings

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

blue insect with See-through wings Skinny/tapered where body segments meet

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Brown insect with a hard-looking rounded outer shell

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Insect with see-through wings and large eyes, coarse hairs

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

insect with hard rounded outer shell covering wings, Line down center

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Wings are not see-through (on the outside at least) 3 body parts all look like one, no clear head

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?
Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN / Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

See-through wings Big eyes with a geometric pattern, tiny antennas, large/noticeable mouthparts

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Orange and green insect with outer wings not see-through  3 body parts all look like one, no clear head

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN / Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Insect with head fused with body No obvious wings

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?
Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

insect with 2 sets of see-through wings (back ones are smaller) and a skinny waist

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

1 of 1

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?
Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN / Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN / Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?
Photo: Lisa Gonzalez, 2019. © BioSCAN/Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County

Which order does this insect belong to? What do you see that makes you say that?

Put your sorting skills to the test with living specimens! Explore your yard or neighborhood for insects-- when you find them, see if you can classify (or sort) them! You can keep track of what you find using the camera on your smartphone or tablet, or use a journal to record your observations with notes or drawings.

Want to go even deeper? Try the following activities, and you'll be well on your way to becoming an expert on your local insect neighbors!

  • Check out these tricks for collecting and observing bugs at home!
  • Help us discover more about the insects and other creatures of Los Angeles! iNaturalist can also be used to share your nature observations photos with scientists at the Natural History Museum. Click here to find out how.
  • Try surveying every day for a week, or once a week for several weeks, taking notes on what you find. Then combine your data and create a bar graph showing which orders were present and how common they were (write names of orders along the bottom axis, and number of observances on the left axis). Share your findings to your family and neighbors!

Click here to see the Answer Key!