Ed Golson Outdoor Education

Insect classification

There are a lot of insects. In fact, there are many times more insects than there are all other animals put together. In order to simplify things, scientists often group similar insect together based on what they look like. That way, instead of trying to learn about each of the thousands of species, we can simply examine the characteristics of large groups.

The following is just a sample of a dozen of the more common groups in Michigan. Most scientists group insects into one of at least 29 different orders, although many of those are very rare or small.  To learn more about the common groups, simply scroll down or click on your favorite group up in the table.


(Order: Ephemeroptera)


(Order: Odonata)


(Order: Orthoptera)


(Order: Phasmida)


(Order: Dictyoptera)


(Order: Isoptera)


(Order: Hemiptera)


(Order: Coleoptera)

Mosquitoes/Fruit Flies

(Order: Diptera)


(Order: Lepidoptera)


(Order: Trichoptera)


(Order: Hymenoptera)

Order: Ephemeroptera (Mayflies )

There are over 600 species of mayflies in North America. They are fragile looking flies with 2 pairs of triangular wings that have many veins in them. The mayfly larva lives in freshwater environments and eats aquatic plants. Once they turn into adults, mayflies don't eat at all. Their entire purpose is to mate and then die a few days or hours later. Mayflies don't affect humans much, but they are an important part of the overall food chain.

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Order: Odonata (Dragonflies/Damselflies)

There are approximately 415 species of dragonflies in North  America. Dragonflies are known for their 2 pairs of powerful, transparent wings and their long bodies. They also have large eyes with many facets. Dragonfly larvae are aquatic, and adults are often found near water. Dragonflies eat small insects like mosquitoes and flies, but have been known to eat larger insects like bees and butterflies. Contrary to popular myth, dragonflies will not bite humans.  

Damselflies are similar to dragonflies, but they can be distinguished by looking at the position of the wings. Dragonflies hold their wings out when resting whereas damselflies fold their wings together above their body.  Dragonflies are also strong fliers, whereas Damselflies have a weak, fluttery flight.

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Order: Orthoptera (Grasshoppers/Crickets)

There are over 1800 species of grasshoppers and crickets in North America. They are characterized by having a long, straight body and easily noticeable antennae. Most have two pairs of wings. The front wings are straight and narrow and the hind wings are broad and fan-like. The males of most species have specialized organs they can use to create sounds- like the crickets chirping. Orthopterans are usually found in open fields feeding on grasses and other vegetation. A few species are predators and feed on other insects.                                                 




Univ. of Florida - Used with Permission

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Order: Phasmida (Walkingsticks)

There are approximately 31 species of walkingsticks in North America, but there are many more species in the rest of the world. As their common name suggests, these are insects that look like sticks. They are very long and slender and have a leathery body. Walkingsticks feed on leaves and other vegetation. They use their strange appearance as a type of camouflage to hide from predators. They look so much like the sticks they live on that it's hard for most birds and other predators to tell the difference.

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Order: Dictyoptera (Cockroaches/Mantids)

There are roughly 70 species of cockroaches in North America, but worldwide there are over 4000 species. Cockroaches are recognized by their flat oval body and long skinny antennae. Cockroaches are mainly nocturnal- meaning they move at night. They are also capable of moving quite fast when they need to. They are omnivores and will eat different things. They can be found under the bark of trees and in people's houses.

The Praying Mantid, or praying mantises, are carnivorous insects.  Their colors vary, ranging from light greens to pinks, but most are pea green or brown.  Camouflage is very important for the praying mantis' survival, because they have so many enemies, such as birds.  They must be able to blend in with their habitat to avoid being eaten.  They have a triangular shaped head with a large compound eye on each side.  They are the only insect that can turn from side to side in a full 180 degree angle.  Nearly 2,000 species are widely distributed throughout most of the world.  They are terrific pest exterminators helping to keep the population of bugs down that are a threat to the farmer.   

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Order: Isoptera (Termites)

Termites may look similar to ants, but they are actually related more closely to cockroaches. There are at least 1,900 species of termites in world. Termites have soft bodies and dark wings. Termites live in large hives and separate themselves into three groups: soldiers, workers, and reproductives. Termites eat wood, but don't have the ability to digest it by themselves. In order to digest their food, they have specialized bacteria or protozoans in their stomachs that break the wood down for them.

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Order: Hemiptera (Aphids/Cicada)

Insects of this order are often called the true bugs. There are close to 4,000 species of hemipterans in North America and close to 50,000 species worldwide. Insects of this group have mouthparts that are modified into a beak that extends from the front of the head. Their front wings are thick and leather-like. When their wings are folded behind their body, they overlap each other. They can be found in either land or aquatic habitats . They usually feed on plant juices, but some eat the eggs of other insects.  

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Order: Coleoptera (Beetles/Fireflies)

This is the largest order of the entire animal kingdom. North America is home to almost 24,000 species of beetles. Worldwide, there are nearly 300,000 species. There are as many types of beetles as there are types of plants and algae. Their front wings are hard and leathery and form a straight line down their back when they are folded together. They also have mouths that are specialized for chewing.

Fireflies are famous for having an abdomen that glows brightly during the summer. These insects use their lights as a way to attract mates.

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Order: Diptera (Mosquitoes/Fruitflies)

The order diptera is another group with a lot of species. In North America there are close to 20,000 species; worldwide, it has well over 100,000 species. Flies have one pair of thin membranous wings. They often have short antennae and mouthparts that are adapted for sucking. They can live in aquatic or land habitats. This is an important group for humans because they can spread disease, eat crops, and pollinate many plants.

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Order: Lepidoptera (Butterflies/Moths)

Lepidoptera is another large group of insects. There are 11,000 species in North America and about 110,000 species worldwide.  Butterflies and moths are covered with tiny hairs used as sensory organs. They also have wings that are covered in scales.  Butterflies and moths have a mouth that is adapted to suck nectar.  A few ways to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth: 

                              Butterfly                                 Moth

Antennae                club-like with a swollen tip        Feathery

Color                     Usually bright colors                 Usually less bright

Active Time           Usually active during the day      Usually active at night, attracted to light

Pupa                      Chrysalis hanging from a branch  Cocoon underground or on the ground


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Order: Trichoptera (Caddisflies)

There are 1,200 species of caddisflies in North America. Caddisflies can be identified by their long segmented antennae and their membranous wings that are covered by short hairs. They also have jaws that are very small. They are found in most any type of habitat, but prefer freshwater.

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Order: Hymenoptera (Bees/Ants)

There are roughly 18,000 species in the order hymenoptera in North America and many more species throughout the world. Hymenopterans have four membranous wings with the front pair being bigger than the rear pair. These insects have six legs, a three-part body, a pair of antennae, compound eyes, jointed legs, and a hard exoskeleton.  Most species of this order have mouths adapted for chewing. Many insects of this order, particularly bees, are important plant pollinators and make honey and beeswax.  Both species are social insects (they always live in groups).  Bee and ant queens lay the eggs, and workers gather food. 


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