Insects in our life

What is the chemical formula for formic acid?

How long do butterflies live for?

Can the bodies of butterflies be furry, or only moths?

And did you know that a queen bee can lay up to 1500 eggs a day?

Skipper butterfly carrying a load of pollen grains. By Dr. Raju Kasambe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
I have been starting off each session with the children asking questions or telling the whole group interesting facts about insects. Often I didn’t know the facts they tell me, and I don’t know the answers to the questions. I try to research them for the next time. I used Quora to find out the answer to the furry butterfly question, as I couldn’t find it easily myself.

In class 3, after the the Q&I session we looked at a great ‘bug poster‘ from

If you go on the website you can see a version of the poster and you can click on any picture to find out if the ‘bug’ is good or bad and what it does. (Note that some of the pictures take you to the same webpage and you might have to do a little bit of detective work to find out exactly what the creature in the picture is.)

This was a good way to start discussing good insects and bad insects, and how we might control them without using insecticide. We talked about parasites and parasitoids and the difference between them. We then started to make our own poster with words and pictures depicting how insects could be harmful or helpful.

In both classes I tried to conduct a lifecycle cut-and-paste activity. In the outdoor class, the wind, coupled with the restlessness of the children, made this rather tricky. I think we managed nevertheless to discuss the different stages of an insect life cycle. Some insects such as butterflies go through complete, marked, metamorphosis between larva and adult, and others go through gradual metamorphosis e.g. grasshoppers, where the young (known as a nymph) closely resembles the adult form. Talking about insects shedding their skins got us thinking about when insects were most vulnerable in their life cycle, and prompted another question about how long it takes for their skin to harden again. (It depends on how long the insect lives for. For some long-lived insects it could take 2 weeks.)

The next session was meant to be ‘Insects in the bush’ but we were put off visiting Stony Range by an aggressive nesting butcher bird, and our trip to Alan Newton Reserve in North Curl Curl was cut short by the start of an impressive storm. We retreated to the classroom and did some more insect drawings and discussed adaptations instead. Some children enjoy drawing insects, some are not very keen at all, and I admit that this class was not well planned. I think I should have an ’emergency lesson plan’ up my sleeve for next time we have bad weather.

More information

Friend or foe?‘ information from Museum Victoria.

More specific information about pollination, seed dispersal and bites and stings, all from the Australian Museum.

And an activity to test ant repellents, from Science Buddies.

Drawings of insects and insect life cycles

Butterfly life cycle

Ask a biologist: Complete metamorphosis and incomplete metamorphosis

Short videos and games about insect metamorphosis

Text-dense but very informative page about insect life cycles with a special section about parasitoids, and aphid life cycles including parthenogenesis.

Arthropods on the Understanding Evolution site. There’s a special bit about size restraints, particularly relating to moulting.

Making ‘pooters’

You can’t study insects without catching them. So this term’s classes started off with discussing different ways of collecting insects (see this information from the Queensland Museum), and my students making their own ‘pooters’ from plastic tubs or water bottles, a couple of tubes and some modelling clay. If you want to make your own there are many different versions on the internet. Here’s a local naturalist making one from an old-fashioned camera film cannister.

We looked at the ‘keys’ that biologists use to identify creatures in the field, and tried out different types of keys. There was a side discussion about sea creatures when the children in one class found out that several are named after creatures in Greek myths (e.g. medusas and hydras).

We discussed health and safety issues (stay near me, don’t suck up ants, don’t stick your hand into a pile of dead leaves, watch out for funnel webs and redbacks, etc!) and then went out into the backyard to look for insects. I also used the inverted umbrella trick that I had first seen on The Happy Scientist and collected quite a few creatures from our back hedge.

The backyard yielded plenty of ants, flies, a cockroach, ladybirds, leaf bugs and some tiny white things that might have been moths. (I am not very good at identifying insects yet. I hope I will improve over the term.)

We saw a beautiful praying mantis in one class. I spotted this creature on our front hedge in another.

If you can’t see it, look for the red eyes. What a great example of crypsis (adaptations that help insects to blend in with their surroundings).

My own children have been spotting insects and getting me to photograph them in between classes.

In the second class I asked children for any interesting facts they knew about insects, and any questions they wanted answered. We discussed biological classification and I explained the bionomial system for naming species. We went out again into the nearby park and found loads of flies – yep, it’s fly season again here in Sydney. We saw several hoverflies, which have stripy abdomens to mimic wasps or bees.

Some children have had a great time in these classes. Some children were disappointed that they didn’t catch much when we went out. (It’s a problem for the specialists as well, as this article from the Australian Museum points out.) Some children would probably admit that collecting insects is not their idea of fun.

It’s up to me to make this term’s classes as fun and informative as other terms, even for the people who are not keen on insects.
Over the next few weeks we are going to venture into different habitats to see what different creatures we can find. I will try to build my own Berlese funnel. (My first attempt was miserable.) We will draw insects, learn about beneficial and harmful insects, make our own keys and, finally, I hope each child will give a presentation to the rest of the class about an insect of their choice.

Here are some links if you or your children want to know more:

Identifying insects
If your child wants to look up insects they have found, try these sites

Wildlife of Sydney

Interactive keys


The Australian Museum has loads of information about insects in Australia.

E-book about Aussie insects

And real life book ‘Australian Insects and Spiders: A Pictorial Guide’ by Niki Horin, pub. The Five Mile Press, 2010. Dewey Classification 595.70994

Attracting butterflies to your garden.

Insect body parts

Printables on Enchanted Learning (for younger children)

Ant anatomy printout