Observing Insects: Why We Watch & What We Learn

Dragonfly courtesy of Matt Bertone / Flickr

If you learn the joy of observing insects, you’ll probably never be bored! Did you know it’s estimated that at any time on Earth there are 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) living insects By comparison, there are only about 500 films on Disney+, and nature requires no subscription. We’re not saying to skip out on Moana, but we are suggesting you skip outside and check out some interesting insects! If you want to get right to it, download our free Insect Trap Materials Lab, a 30-minute lesson incorporating ecology and engineering.

Read on below for some interesting facts and stories about how and why scientists capture and study insects, and how meteorologists might be watching insects by accident.

Did you know it’s estimated that at any time on Earth there are 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) living insects?

Why Observe Insects?

An entomologist (a scientist who studies insects) will probably capture and observe innumerable bugs during their career so they can learn about their lives, bodies and environments. But why are other types of scientists interested in monitoring and learning from insects too?

We Wish We Could Fly Like Dragonflies

Skimming, hovering, gliding, swooping, and maneuvering over the surface of a pond or lakeside meadow, dragonflies are incredibly skilled flyers and put on quite the airshow. With strong, flexible wings and great precision (dragonflies score an A+ for catching their prey!), it’s no wonder human engineers want to know just how they do it! But you can’t watch that kind of airborne artistry in a mason jar, so researchers have built insect “arenas,” employed very fast cameras, and use computer software to study the aerodynamics of dragonfly flight. Read more and watch a 2-minute video about an engineer studying dragonflies at the University of Virginia.


Video Break

The Art of Observing Insects

Science Artist Clair Gaston does not catch insects in a trap before drawing them, but she captures them in a different way — with photos! Clair loves studying insects because of their life cycles, colors, and ways of moving through the world. So she watches them in nature and gets up close as much as she can to see them from different angles. She notes, “They move around so much! So I take lots of photos. And I do look for deceased insects and often pick them up for my small collection… Insects are endlessly fascinating!” You can see some of Clair’s art on her webpage.

Cloudy With a Chance of Cicadas

Sometimes scientists aren’t trying to see insects, but insects are such a force that they demand to be seen! You’ve probably watched meteorologists on your local news or weather channel tracking storms across a big screen — but did you know that sometimes those “clouds” might actually be swarms of insects?! This year’s big “Brood X” of periodical cicadas may have made an appearance on the radar in some eastern states
Insects are some of the most important and misunderstood animals on the planet. They do very  essential work! They turn flowers into fruit through  pollination, eat dead animals and plants to help keep environments clean and cycle nutrients, and are an essential food source for many animals like birds and bats. Scientists can sometimes use simple observation to study insects. But it is often necessary to trap insects to really understand them. In this lab, designed for  3-5 graders, learners will analyze materials and then write about and draw ideas for building traps to capture insects. They will discuss their ideas with the group and read about existing traps scientists use to capture insects. Get the lesson here, which can be adapted to virtual or classroom learning and includes extensions and more resources.

Written by: Angel Horne

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