The study of insects is called entomology. Did you know that there are more insect species than there are bird, fish, reptile, amphibian, and mammal species combined? Almost one million species have already been identified, and some scientists think there may be three times that number! We truly live in an insect’s world!
Insects are small animals that have six jointed legs attached to a three-part body. Many have one or two pairs of wings. Spiders – with eight legs and two body parts — are not insects. They are arachnids, members of a large group of animals that includes scorpions, mites, ticks, and even horseshoe crabs!
Some other tiny creatures mistaken for insects are the centipedes and millipedes. Neither have the number of legs that their names suggest (count them sometime.) They are both in classes of their own. What about slugs and snails? Both are members of the mollusk family which includes oysters and clams and other shelled sea creatures. Woodlice, so common in leaf litter, are crustaceans. Other crustaceans you may be familiar with are crabs, lobsters and shrimp. Yum!
Many insects can be annoying, but all play a part in the scheme of things, and many are very helpful. Mosquitoes can be a nuisance, as can those insects that pester other animals and destroy crops in fields and warehouses. But how would many of these plants reproduce without the help of pollinating insects? Some insects transmit diseases, but many others provide honey, wax, silks, and shellac — all important products. Do you like insects? Can you imagine what the world would be like without them?
Hunt for Insect Homes
With so many insects around, you’ll have no trouble finding where they live! Insects generally don’t live very long (adult mayflies live for less than a day; common houseflies last about 20-30 days) but they do find shelter for themselves in a number of places.
Look for insects under rocks and fallen logs, within the bark of trees, and in water. Spiders stretch their webs in corners, both indoors and out. Ants make anthills; certain wasps, such as paper wasps, construct fabulous homes.
Fallen leaves are home to many creatures that come out only at night. Gather up a handful of leaf litter to take home making sure you get plenty of the damp leaves near the ground. You can get the tiny animals to come out of hiding with a Berlese funnel (also known as a Tulgren funnel). This simple set-up is made with a funnel (make your own from thick cardboard if you don’t have one), wire mesh, a glass jar and a lamp. Cut the wire mesh into a circle to fit into the funnel. Place the funnel in the jar. Put some leaf litter into the funnel and place it under the lamp. Leave the lamp on for several hours. The heat will drive any animals down through the leaves, where they’ll fall through the mesh into the jar.
You may also be familiar with galls — swellings on leaves, stems, and other parts of some plants. Various insects are gall makers, including gall wasps, aphids, and some flies. When these insects lay their eggs on the plant, the plant responds by forming tissue around the eggs or newly-hatched grubs. The mature insects eventually leave the galls by making tiny holes to exit by. Count the holes in a gall. How many insects lived inside of it (each makes its own exit hole)? Tie some fine netting around any whole galls you find. Check the galls daily. What kind of insects lived inside them?
[Image: Courtesy of Flickr user nothing is ever the same]