Spot Identification of some of the most common Insect Orders

Authors: Joseph Spagna, Sean Schoville, and Anna Larsen

Overview: This lesson is designed to help students develop the skill of identifying insects using simple “shortcuts” or “key characteristics” to help determine which taxonomic order the insects they collect are assigned to. It is best used with students who have some familiarity with A) insect morphology and B) dichotomous keys and the difficulties of using them. Using the skills developed here, students should be able to “spot” the order of over 80% of the insects they collect. In addition, they will know the scientific names of the most common insect orders, and be able to associate these names with commonly used English terms.

Lesson Concepts:

  • Insects are a highly diverse group, so much so that we must classify them into smaller groups.

  • These groups are called Orders and each has a scientific name and one or more common names.

  • Each Order has features that make it special and different from all other types of insects. We can use these features as “shortcuts” for a quick identification of these insect Orders.

California Science Education Standards:

This skills-based lesson does not directly address the 9-12 standards, but is a "way in" to understanding biodiversity at its most basic-- being able to tell different animals apart.

Grade span: 7th & up— with some familiarity with insect morphology.


  • Fill-in sheets (1 per student, photocopy attached item)

  • Key for teacher to proper fill-in (attached)

  • Specimens, pictures, or powerpoint slides of examples of the insects to be Spot ID’ed.

  • Best to have > or = 3 or 4 specimens to pass around of each order if real specimens are to be used.

  • Blank Bingo cards (1 per student)

Advanced preparation:

Teacher should become familiar with both the insect orders and spot ID characteristics of the insects. Look over the key to the fill-in sheets, and see how those characters actually *look* on real insects or at least on pictures. Fill-in sheets can be photocopied for students, although the sheets could be made on notebook paper. Insect specimens or pictures should be selected and organized for student viewing. Blank bingo cards photocopied for students.

Time: 50-55 minutes

Teacher background:

The use of dichotomous keys for id-ing can be cumbersome when dealing with mega-diverse groups such as insects. Experienced scientists use identification “shortcuts” to sort their samples taxonomically in the field or in the lab. This exercise will help the students learn some of these shortcuts “Spot ID’s” and associate them with the scientific names for insects they are probably already familiar with in some form, and thus learn how to quickly sort common insects into these named groups.

Teaching tips:

Within time constraints, it is great to use student observations & questions about the examples or specimens to lead to the spot id characters—you may even have your students coming up with ones not on your key! Don’t be afraid to “play dumb” to make students come up with things on their own, they may well remember the “ah-hah” moments better than having you “give out” the knowledge by rote.


This is a vocabulary-intensive lesson. The taxon names and common names alone could form the basis for a small unit’s worth of vocabulary. It is good to have them keep their “fill in sheets” not just as notes but as a key to both the id’s and associated vocabulary. See this list:

Flies Diptera
Wasps, Bees, & Ants Hymenoptera
True Bugs Hemiptera
Butterflies & Moths Lepidoptera
Grasshoppers and Crickets Orthoptera
Mantises Mantodea
Beetles Coleoptera
Earwigs Dermaptera
Cockroaches Blattodea
Lacewings Neuroptera
Dragonflies & Damselflies Odonata


  1. Motivate lesson—Discuss: why do we want a “quick” or “shortcut” way to tell insects apart? If students have struggled with a key to insects, this is great motivation for learning shortcuts. Alternate motivation: do an observation drill where students figure out what the differences are between beetles (Coleoptera) and true bugs (Hemiptera). They both have shell-like wings—but the beetles’ always meet at a line down the back, while the bugs’ tend to cross or form an X or a triangle shape. Also beetles tend to have chewy mouthparts, while bugs’ are always built for sucking. 5-10 minutes

  2. Make sure each student has a fill-in notes sheet that only has the “common name” column filled in (see attached). Show the students, one by one, the insect specimens or pictures. Have individuals share if they know what common name they are looking at (some taxa will require more guidance than others). As the class discusses each taxon, they should as best they can, with an appropriate amount of guidance, figure out what makes them unique and when they hit on the right answer put it in the “spot id character” box. Then the teacher should give the scientific name. If the name has an understandable meaning (Neuroptera = neuro (net) + ptera (wing) = net-wing = lacewing!) explain it, because, Latin roots are fun and can be used as mnemonic devices. Additional "fun facts" that you can share with the students about different types of insects can go in the 4th column, as can "memory tricks" and Latin roots. 20-25 minutes

  3. Once everyone has filled in their notes sheet, and there’s been sufficient time for discussion & questions, pass out the blank BINGO cards. Students should fill their BINGO spaces in randomly with a variety of common names, scientific names, and spot ID characters copied from their notes sheet. It will take them 10 minutes, AT LEAST just to fill out their BINGO cards the first time. After the 1st time it gets easier. BINGO can be used as a review game on a later date, before a unit test or a field experience, to remind students of what they are looking for insect-wise.

  4. BINGO— students need both their BINGO cards, their FILL-IN Sheets, and a pencil.

  5. a.)Sample teacher call: “the common name for Dermaptera”
    Students mark/cover “Earwigs” if that is on their card.
    b.) Sample teacher call: “spot ID characters for Cockroaches”
    Students mark/cover “flat bodies/spiny legs/bad smell”…
    c.)Sample teacher call: “Scientific name for FLIES”
    Students mark/cover “Diptera”…

    Make sure all bingoes get “checked” by a buddy, mistakes are common until students get the hang of the game.

1 or 2 BINGO games will easily cover the rest of your class hour. Cool pinned butterflies make a really good BINGO prize, or have a variety of cool insects and let the winner or winners pick. Cokes from the school vending machine work in a pinch, if you’re not morally opposed to that, the students won’t be…


Having taught this lesson 3 times now, here are my thoughts: It is fun, learning shortcuts is self-motivating (shortcuts, yay!) and the specimens and pictures should be very interesting. The better the materials are, the more seamless the lesson will be, especially with respect to the morphology you are trying to learn to ID by.

The Bingo game is a bit gimmicky, but can be justified a couple of ways: 1. making the card forces students to write down most (24 of 30) of the terms again, and 2. playing the game right requires them to make the right associations from their notes, thus it’s valuable when dealing with this much vocabulary. It would also be possible to do some practice spot-iding of pinned specimens, pictures, or even outside class collections (eg in the Richmond High outdoor garden) given a long enough period. Then you could use the BINGO game as a review to be done in a later class period.

This type of lesson can be adapted for other taxa by anyone with the right expertise, and we did a version for plant Families last year for 10th grade biology students, which worked fine. I might try it for spider families some day, though there are 109 of those, compared to 30something insect orders.

To adapt for English-challenged speakers:

  1. Encourage drawing. The notes-sheet is not that big, but you could allow or set aside extra time for drawing various insects and parts on the back.

  2. Allow students to share the common names of the various insects in their home-language. Let them write that name in the "OPTIONAL FUN FACTS" square as a helpful note. Use differences between languages as opportunity to explain why we need 1 set of scientific names!