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A simple way to tell insects apart - Anika Hazra

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There are nearly a million known insect species in the world, but most have one of just five common types of mouthparts. Why is this information useful to scientists? Anika Hazra explains how the features of an insect’s mouthparts can help identify which order it belongs to, while also providing clues about how it evolved and what it feeds on.

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TED-Ed Original lessons feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed original? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Anika Hazra
  • Director Giulia Martinelli
  • Script Editor Mia Nacamulli
  • Animator Giulia Martinelli
  • Composer Alessandro Nepote Vesin
  • Sound Designer Alessandro Nepote Vesin
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott, Elizabeth Cox
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Pen-Pen Chen

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Additional Resources for you to Explore
There are seven levels to the taxonomical hierarchy of living things. From the broadest level to the most specific, they are: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. An easy way to remember all seven levels in the correct order is by using the following mnemonic:

Keep Ponds Clean Or Frogs Gets Sick.”

We can use the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) as an example of how to classify an organism using taxonomy. Here is how this species falls into each taxonomic level:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Formicidae

Genus: Solenopsis

Species: Solenopsis invicta

The hierarchy starts out very general at Kingdom and more specific information is gained about the organism the further down the hierarchy we go, up until we reach Species. All insects form a Class of their own called Insecta and all insects belong to the same Phylum (Arthropoda) and Kingdom (Animalia). The major groups of insects can be seen within the Order, which is why we focus on this level for the basics of learning how to identify insects.

There are many ways that we can identify different groups of insects. It is best to consider as many physical characteristics as possible. Luckily for us, the mouthparts are pretty reliable for distinguishing between the major insect groups.

Ants belong to the Hymenoptera order, but if we want to identify an insect even further to its family, genus, or species, we need to look really closely at the rest of the insect’s body, as well as its mouthparts. Knowing where the insect lives and what other animals and plants it interacts with also helps in the identification process.

Here’s a list of the most common insect orders with their common names and mouthpart types:

Coleoptera (beetles) – chewing

Diptera (flies) – sponging (non-biting), piercing-sucking (biting)

Odonata (dragonflies) - chewing

Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps) – chewing (ants), chewing-lapping (bees and wasps)

Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) - siphoning

Hemiptera (true bugs*) – piercing-sucking

Orthoptera (grasshoppers, katydids and crickets) – chewing

Want to learn the details of how insects use their mouthparts to eat? Check out this site or this one. At the University of Kentucky, the Department of Entomology also provides a breakdown of mouthparts for master gardeners. North Carolina State University includes drawings and photos of the different components that make up mouthparts.

If you’re interested in learning how to identify insects, here are some other useful links to get you started, including this one and this one.

*The Hemiptera order is very diverse, containing a lot of insects that don’t really look very similar to each other. This group is otherwise known as the “true bugs,” and they’re distinct from other insect orders because of their piercing-sucking mouthpart type and their front wings. All true bugs are insects, but not all insects are true bugs!

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About TED-Ed Originals

TED-Ed Original lessons feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed original? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Anika Hazra
  • Director Giulia Martinelli
  • Script Editor Mia Nacamulli
  • Animator Giulia Martinelli
  • Composer Alessandro Nepote Vesin
  • Sound Designer Alessandro Nepote Vesin
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott, Elizabeth Cox
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Pen-Pen Chen

Share

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