An Insect Unit Study for the Entire Family
Many people are fascinated by insects, while others are terrified to be near them. No matter how you may feel about these little crawling creatures, they are an important part of God’s creation. There are over one million species of insects, which is about half of all known animal species! Make time in your homeschool schedule to study these amazing creatures. Your family will have the opportunity to witness the amazing sovereignty, power, and awesomeness of God Himself.
Before starting your insect study, prepare by doing the following:
- Plan on creating a notebook for each child to hold the insect log pages, Bible verses, definitions, lab sheets, and biography summaries.
- Locate Biblical references to the fly, the bee, and locusts and read them together. At varying points during the unit, have your children write a verse in their notebook. Or, if they find the particular insect on their bug hunt, have them write it on the log sheet for that insect.
- Have your children define entomology, entomologist, sericulture, taxonomy, taxonomist, and apiculturist and place the definitions in their notebook.
- Try to find a beekeeper in your area. Many cities and most states have beekeeper associations that may be able to assist you in locating a beekeeper.
- Invite a pest control specialist to your house. Ask him about the most common pests in your area. Are there natural ways to protect against these pests?
What Is an Insect?
Insects are invertebrates that come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Think about how plain an ant looks when compared to a beautiful monarch butterfly. Or how much larger and creepy looking the Hercules beetle is when compared to a flea. Regardless of their differences, all insects have four characteristics in common. In fact, if all four of these characteristics are not present, the creature is not a true insect. Do you know the four characteristics?
All insects have
- Three body parts—including a head, abdomen, and thorax. The thorax is behind the head and is the attachment point for the legs and wings. Muscles that aid in locomotion are located in the thorax. The abdomen is behind the thorax and is used for digestion and reproduction. This is where breathing holes and protective “gear,”such as stingers, are found.
- An exoskeleton that acts as a suit of armor to protect the insect
- Six jointed legs
- Two antennae
Many people mistake spiders, worms, and centipedes for insects. But, because they do not have the required four characteristics, they are not insects. Spiders, for example, have eight legs, while worms don’t have any.
Insects have compound eyes that allow them to see many images at once, not just one image at a time like our eyes. Insects have antennae to help them feel, taste, and smell. In some insects, antennae are used to hear. An insect’s jaw moves from side to side to help it tear apart its prey. How does a human jaw move?
List of all the insects you can think of or, if weather permits, go bug hunting. If you are not able to go outside, find pictures of insects to examine. Does each have the required characteristics of an insect? Make a log page with a drawing of the insect, where you found it, and what type of insect you think it is. Keep this log for later, because you’ll add to it. This is a good time to see if there are any Biblical references to this insect and write them on your log sheet. If the bugs you found do not have the characteristics of an insect, what are they? Research spiders, ticks, worms, and centipedes. Are they insects or a different classification of animal?
Biographies are a great way to learn! Research the lives of John Henry Comstock and Dr. Eugene Jamot. Download the file www.treasureboxpress.com/TOSHInsectArticle.pdf for a biography form.
Older students can dig deeper into the biology of bugs. Have them research how insects breathe, eat, excrete fluids, protect themselves, and so on.
Try making your own unique insect! Use varying sizes of soda bottles, straws, empty yogurt containers, chenille sticks, craft sticks, Styrofoam balls, empty paper towel rolls, toothpicks, paper, or whatever you have on hand. This is your own creation, so use your imagination and have fun. There’s only one rule—you must remember to include all of the necessary characteristics to make it a true insect.
Chigiri-e is a Japanese art of tearing washi paper (made from mulberry tree pulp) into small pieces and pasting them together to make a picture. For this activity, use tissue paper and a glue-water mixture. Tear the tissue paper into pieces to form an insect on a heavy piece of cardstock or construction paper. Lightly brush over the paper with the glue and water mixture. Some of the artwork in books by Eric Carle has a “feel”similar to Japanese paper tearing. If you have young children, read The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Very Grouchy Ladybug to them. Your child could make up his own insect story and “illustrate”several pages. If handwriting is an issue, have your child dictate his story to you.
Do Insects Lay Eggs?
Yes, insects give birth by laying eggs. Some insects lay their eggs on leaves, others in a nest, and still others lay eggs inside other insects. They lay many eggs at one time. This is just the first step in the life cycle of insects. Most insects continue their life cycle through a process known as complete metamorphism. However, there are other insects that go through incomplete metamorphism.
During the complete metamorphic cycle, the female will lay her eggs in a variety of places. After an egg hatches, it is called a larva. Larvae are small and typically look nothing like the adult of the species. For example, caterpillars are actually the larvae of butterflies. Larvae spend their time eating large amounts of food while preparing to enter the next stage of development, know as the pupa stage. Insects entering the pupa stage will shed their exoskeleton and emerge as an adult. The caterpillar, for example, forms a chrysalis in which it hibernates and undergoes the major changes needed to become a butterfly. Other insects form a cocoon, where they hibernate and undergo the major changes needed to become an adult.
Although complete metamorphism is the most common (about 80% of insects go through complete metamorphosis), some insects, such as the cricket and grasshopper, never go through a larval or pupa stage. Instead, they are born looking like an adult without wings. They go through incomplete metamorphism and will shed their “skin”while growing into a full adult with wings.
Where Do Insects Live?
Insects can be found just about everywhere! They are found in every type of climate, from the hot, dry Sahara Desert to the dark and humid Amazon rainforest. As strange as it may sound, they are even found in the coldest parts of Antarctica. The rock crawlers found in the Himalayan Mountains produce a type of “anti-freeze”that keeps them from freezing in the bitter cold. Of course, not all insects live so far away. Many different types can be found in your own home. God created these amazing creatures to survive in a wide range of environments.
Most insects are social creatures. They live in large groups and work together for the good of the colony. Others, however, prefer to live isolated and alone.
Bees, for example, live together in a colony. Some make their homes underground, while others build large hives in trees. They spend their life working for the good of the colony and their queen. Each colony has one queen whose only job is to lay eggs. She will lay thousands of eggs in her lifetime. If she is unable to lay enough eggs, she will be stung to death. All other female bees work very hard to gather food. The most important job for the males is to mate with the queen. Once the mating season is over, the males are killed. This may sound harsh, but it allows the colony to be the strongest it can be.
Water striders are an example of insects that live isolated and alone. Water striders walk on the surface of the water. They feed on dying or injured insects, such as dragonflies or butterflies that accidentally land on the surface of the water and cannot fly away. Water striders have three sets of legs. The front pair holds their prey. Once the water strider has its prey in its front legs, it then uses a part of its mouth called the rostrum to suck body juices from its prey! The middle set of legs propels the insect forward, and the back set of legs helps steer. In the activity below, you’ll find out how they manage to stay on top of the water.
How do water striders stay on the water? You’ll need a sewing needle, small bowl of water, a coffee filter, and scissors. Cut a 2″square piece of coffee filter from the center of the filter. Place it carefully on the surface of the water in the bowl. Next, carefully place the needle on the piece of filter. Then, gently but quickly, press one corner of the filter into the water and move the whole piece to the bottom of the bowl, leaving the needle on the surface of the water. The surface tension of the water (if not broken by your finger pressing on the coffee filter) keeps the needle on top of the water. This is how a water strider remains on the surface of the water. It is so light that it does not break the water’s surface tension.
Divide a sheet of paper into six columns. Label the columns desert, rainforest, tundra, grasslands, mountains, forest. Then, research and list insects found in each habitat.
Make a beehive. Study the hexagonshaped cavities in the beehives. Gather some honeycomb-shaped cereal, glue, and a thick piece of paper or posterboard. Glue the cereal (one piece right next to the other) on the paper to form a beehive. Draw some bees flying in and out!
Aren’t All Insects Bad?
Cockroaches, beetles, silverfish, and termites are a few examples of what most people would consider harmful, or bad, insects. They are harmful to our environment and to our property. They destroy our vegetable gardens, chew holes into our clothes and books, and even destroy the wood in our homes. Although many people think all insects are bad, this isn’t true.
Many insects are considered beneficial. This means that they are helpful to people. Bees and butterflies help by carrying pollen from one plant to another, which is called pollinating. Without their help, many plants and trees would not be able to produce flowers or fruits.
Some insects, such as the praying mantis and ladybug, are beneficial because they eat the harmful insects.
Older students (this information may be too frightening for younger children) can research diseases transmitted by insects (malaria, bubonic plague, typhoid fever, African trypanosomiasis). The Center for Disease Control maintains malaria risk information by country on its website www2.ncid.cdc.gov/travel/yb/utils/ybGet.asp?section=YBAll. Also, investigate the life of Dr. Carlos J. Finlay.
Make a cool Mexican ant mask! Download the file www.treasureboxpress.com/TOSHInsectArticle.pdf for the template and instructions.
Check out beneficial and harmful insects up close. See images created by an electron microscope of a fruit fly’s face or spider hair at www.pbrc.hawaii.edu/microangela/. Viewing God’s work under these microscopes is truly spectacular!
Whether beneficial or harmful, an insect’s heartbeat can range from 90 to 120 beats per second, and its wings can move from 2 to 20,000 times per minute, depending on the insect. Houseflies beat their wings 20,000 times per minute! Honeybees can fly up to 7 mph, but need to beat their wings 190 times per minute to do this. Just how easy is it to beat your wings 190 times a minute? Gather a stopwatch or a watch with a second hand, a piece of paper and pencil, and two helpers. You’ll ask each to either jump or move his arms as many times as he can in one minute. Make a log sheet with a place to write the name of the activity, the person’s name, and the number of times he completed the task in one minute. Decide who is going to jump and who is going to flap his arms. The person jumping will represent the heartbeats, and the other helper will flap his arms up and down to simulate insect wings. Time them for one minute and count how many jumps/arm movements they make in a minute. Were they able to do 100? 140? Try this with several helpers and compare the results. Then, make a list of some of the “coolest”insects you’ve found during this unit, whether on the Internet, in your yard, or in a book. Research and record how many times their heart beats per minute or how many times their wings move per minute.
Insects have been divided into 30 orders. The orders are based on the number of wings, the type of metamorphosis the insect goes through, mouthparts, legs, and other distinguishing characteristics. A good website for information on all 30 orders is from Texas A and M University— insects.tamu.edu/fieldguide/orders.htm. The most common of the 30 are lepidoptera, coleopteran, ortoptera, humenoptera, and diptera. Entomologists sometimes disagree on the exact number of insect orders, but most agree there are between 27 and 30!
Have older children research a minimum of eight insect orders and record their unique characteristics. Perhaps they could focus on what they consider to be the “coolest”or strangest insect orders. Some interesting websites include www.insects.org/entophiles/index.html and www.insects.org/class/index.html.
Countries around the world have used drawings of insects on postage stamps. Select an insect order and design a series of postage stamps using insects found in the order. Remember, what are the unique characteristics of this order? All of the insect drawings should reflect this information. Or, make up your own insect order and insects! Then, design a series of postage stamps based on your insects. Websites of interest: www.cals.ncsu.edu:8050/course/ent591k/stamps and store.coolstamps.com/endeavor/search?s_q=insect&quick=1.
Remember the bugs you found in the first activity of the unit? Next, identify the order to which they belong. Record the information on the log sheet.
Are Insects Around During the Winter?
You can enjoy insects all year long! Some insects that you see in your area during spring and summer are still around during the winter. Insects are cold-blooded, meaning that their body takes on the temperature of the air around them. Butterflies, bees, wasps, and grasshoppers cannot live in cold temperatures. They die off in the winter. Those that do survive cold temperatures are not always the adults we see in warm weather. If you live in an area with cold winters, you probably won’t see the insect itself. However, you might find a nest, cocoons, eggs, or larvae. There are several ways insects survive in cold weather.
Some butterflies, including monarchs, migrate south as the weather gets colder.
Other insects survive the winter without migrating to a warmer climate. If you live in an area with cold winters, you probably won’t see the insect itself. However, you might find nests, cocoons, eggs, or larvae. Before it turns too cold, the adult will lay eggs. When the larvae hatch, they dig into the leaf, and a gall forms around them. Gall is plant tissue that grows around the larva. The larva continues to grow until the weather warms up. Several orders are gall producers. The diptera order (flies) has the largest number of gall-producing insects. You may find their galls in tall grasses, linden, wisteria, and iris. The hymenoptera order also has many gall-producing insects; these galls are found mostly on oak trees. They have been described as looking woolly, woody, or mossy.
Other insects, such as honey bees, survive the cold temperatures by huddling in the hive. Bees in the middle of the huddle move their bodies and wings to produce heat. Rings of honeybees form around them to keep the heat in. When the bees in the middle get tired, they move to the outside and trade places. Honeybees also produce a special material, called propolis, to seal cracks in the hive—just like the caulk we use in our homes!
Have you ever watched ants on an anthill during the warm months? They are busy building tunnels underground and storing food for colder weather. During the winter, ants move deeper into the colony and feed off the food they stored during the warm months.
Dragonflies, boatmen, and backswimmers are all insects that live under water and ice during the winter. You might find them (in some form or another!) during cold weather.
Go gall hunting! Take some tweezers, a jar, a magnifying glass, scissors, cheesecloth, and rubber bands. The galls will look like a small growth on the leaf. (Reminder: oak trees, goldenrod plants, irises, and tall grasses are good places to look. Also, most types of wasps prefer oak trees!) Some may be empty, having been food for predators. You might also find a spider in the gall, which has taken up residence to keep warm. When you find a gall, carefully cut the leaf from the plant and place it in the jar. Cover the mouth of the jar with cheesecloth and secure it with a rubber band. Hopefully, the insects will eventually emerge and you will have a variety of creatures!
The famous graphic artist M.C. Escher created artwork that has been described as symmetrical and mathematical. Several of his pieces center on insects. Visit www.mcescher.com to view these works. Then, gather some colored pencils and paper to create your own M.C. Escher-style insect drawing.
Other Fun Activities
Make a grasshopper habitat: insected.arizona.edu/lesson_14/setup.htm
Make an origami butterfly out of a dollar bill! www.entomology.wisc.edu/insectam/visitor/classactivities.html
Have your children research the following insects: the fastest flying, the smallest, the heaviest, the longest, the longest jumping, the loudest, and the longest living.
Check out some of these fascinating insects and complete a log sheet on each. They each have some unusual, and sometimes dangerous, characteristics: bombardier beetle, Madagascan giant hissing cockroach, stink bug.
Do you have a cook in the family? Well, you may not want these recipes on the menu, but they are fun to read: www.ent.iastate.edu/misc/insectsasfood.html.
Research how to treat various bug bites and stings. Research what to do if you are with someone who is allergic and has been stung by a bee.
Aquatic Insects and How They Live by Robert McClung
Atlas of Insects by Michael Tweedie
Audubon Society Book of Insects by Les Line
Guide to Observing Insect Lives by Donald Stokes
Pet Bugs: A Kid’s Guide by Sally Kneidel
Zoobooks: Insects by Wildlife Education, Ltd.
The Bug Scientists by Donna M. Jackson (explores various insectrelated careers)
Bombus the Bumble Bee and Bombus Finds a Friend by Elsie Larson
Icky Bug Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta
Little Insects Coloring Book by Dover Publications