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Anytime Lesson Plan: Invent an Insect


In this activity, students will learn what makes an insect an insect by studying examples of insect adaptations and examining why there are so many different types of insects.


In this activity, students will:

  1. Learn what makes an insect an insect.
  2. Study examples of insect adaptations.
  3. Examine why there are so many different types of insects.


  • Invent an Insect sheet, one per student
  • Insect Diagram, one per student
  • Insect Profile, one per student
  • Set of insect habitat cards
  • Graphite pencils, one per student
  • Colored pencils / markers, one set per group of students (optional)


abdomen: the last of an insect’s three main body parts.

adaptation: a change in body structure or behavior to fit the environment. For example, back-swimmer insects have adapted to living in water by having oar-like hind legs.

antennae (singular: antenna): sensory organs on an insect’s head. Antennae are used to smell, taste, feel and sometimes hear.

arthropods: a group of animals with exoskeletons, jointed legs and segmented bodies, including insects, spiders, ticks, scorpions, centipedes, crabs and shrimp.

compound eyes: eyes made up of many tiny units providing a mosaic picture of the world which is excellent for detecting motion.

entomologist: someone who studies insects

exoskeleton: a hard, protective covering found in all arthropods, which provides structure like a skeleton, but is on the outside.

habitat: an animal or plant’s home, or the environment in which it lives. A habitat might be a mountaintop, or the deep ocean, a rotten log or a grassy field.

head: the first of an insect’s three main body parts. An insect’s eyes, mouth and antennae are always located on the head.

larva (plural: larvae):  the immature stage of many types of insects. Larvae look very different from the adult insects they will become.

mandibles: the outer mouthparts or jaws of an insect.

metamorphosis: the change of an insect (or other animal) from one form into another as it develops into an adult.

thorax: the middle of an insects three body parts. An insect’s legs and wings are always attached to the thorax.



  1. Print Insect Diagram, Insect Profiles and Invent an Insect sheets, one per student
  2. Print and cut out insect habitat cards
  3. Write vocabulary words on the board: insect, arthropod, exoskeleton, antennae and adaptation
  4. Copy chart of insect adaptation examples from Teacher Background on the board


  1. Introduction: Ask questions such as: What makes and insect an insect? How are insects different from other animals? Discuss the definitions of arthropods and exoskeletons.
  2. Body Comparisons: Ask your students: How are insect bodies different from other arthropods? Write their answers on the board. Then show the Insect Diagram and review features that all insects share and explain how insects use them (e.g. antennae are used for smelling and feeling).
  3. Thought Challenge: Can you think of any insects that don’t have these essential parts? Remember that insects can have different body parts during different life stages!
  4. Biodiversity & Adaptations: Even though insects have the same common body parts, they are adapted to live in very different habitats with the ability to eat a variety of things. Discuss some of the adaptations (body parts or behaviors) that insects have to survive.
  5. Small Group Work: Divide class into small groups of four to six students and pass out one habitat card per group,  Invent an Insect sheet (1 / student) and any other art supplies you wish to provide. The rules for the activity are:
    • Each group will design insects specially adapted to the given habitat.
    • Each student will design an insect that eats a food source listed on the group’s habitat card.
    • To begin, answer questions #1 - 6 before starting the drawing.
    • The insect must be labeled with the essential parts listed on the diagram.
    • The insects should be based on reality (insects can’t make jet packs to fly around).
  6. Insect Inventions: Give the students 20- 45 minutes to design their insect.
  7. Discussion and Conclusions
    • Review the food source choices and call on students from different groups with the same food sources to compare their insects. Are there similarities in their adaptations? How are they different?
    • Call on students to share any special adaptations they came up with for their insect, whether for their habitat or their food source.
    • Ask: Would this adaptation help the insect if it had a different habitat/food source?
    • Just as the class has come up with so many different kinds of invented insects, so too does nature. Because the Earth has so many different habitats and so many different food sources, we have so many uniquely adapted insects.
    • To conclude, share the attached Insect Profiles with your students. The actual insects featured here live in habitats and eat food sources used in this activity.


Additional Adaptations
To make the activity more challenging, assign an additional required adaptation. For example:

  • looks like an animal other than an insect (mimicry)
  • is active only at night (nocturnal)
  • blends in with an environment (camouflage)
  • must be able to eat specific things (crushing mouthparts for seeds)
  • must be able to avoid certain predator characteristics (strong back legs for jumping)
  • must be able to move or stay put (fleas move from host to host)

Research Project
Once students have invented their insects, have them research real insects that live in their assigned habitat with their assigned food source. See Resources for recommended books and websites. Provide students a blank Invent an Insect sheet on which they can draw and write about the insect they research.

3-D Insects!
In addition to, or in lieu of drawing their insects, provide students with modeling clay or similar sculpting material. Still require that they answer the questions on the Invent an Insect sheet and share their inventions with the rest of the class.

Design a Habitat Challenge
Have students design habitats for others and see if they can build an insect adapted for that environment.

Go Outside!
Now that students have a perspective on insect habitats and adaptations, take them outside and see what insects students can discover in their school yard or neighborhood. Use clear plastic containers, such as Tupperware, to catch and observe the insects wit h magnifying glasses. Then, release them where they were found.

Use the Academy’s Naturalist Center
Make an appointment with a reference librarian to check out insect books, field guides, videos and DVDs for your classroom. Or, contact them with pictures of insects that you find and they will help you identify them. www.calacademy.org/academy/exhibits/naturalist_center/
(415) 379-5494, naturalist@calacademy.org


Borror, D.J. & White, R.E.  A Field Guide to Insects: America North of Mexico.  New York, NY: Peterson Field Guide Series, Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Doris, E.  Entomology.  New York, NY: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1993.

McGavin, G.C.  Insects, Spiders and Other Terrestrial Arthropods.  New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

Mound, L.  Insect [Eyewitness Series].  New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley, 2007.

Powell, J.A. & Hogue, C.L.  California Insects.  Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1980.

Pyle, R.M. & Kest, K.  Insects: A Peterson Field Guide Coloring Book.  New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993.

http://bugguide.net, Bug Guide: Identification, Images, & Information for Insects, Spiders & Their Kin in the United States & Canada; July 2010

California Content Standards

Grade Three

Life Sciences

  • 3.b Students know examples of diverse life forms in different environments, such as oceans, deserts, tundra, forests, grasslands, and wetlands.
  • 3.d Students know when the environment changes, some plants and animals survive and reproduce; others die or move to new locations.

Grade Four

Life Sciences

  • 2a. Students know plants are the primary source of matter and energy entering most food chains.
  • 2b. Students know producers and consumers (herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, and decomposers) are related in food chains and food webs and may compete with each other for resources in an ecosystem.
  • 2c. Students know decomposers, including many fungi, insects, and microorganisms, recycle matter from dead plants and animals.
  • 3a. Students know ecosystems can be characterized by their living and nonliving components.
  • 3b. Students know that in any particular environment, some kinds of plants and animals survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.
  • 3c. Students know many plants depend on animals for pollination and seed dispersal, and animals depend on plants for food and shelter.
  • 3d. Students know that most microorganisms do not cause disease and that many are beneficial.



Scientists classify animals according to how their bodies have evolved. Animals with similar characteristics are grouped together. Insects belong to a very large group (phylum) of animals called arthropods. Spiders, crabs, centipedes, ticks, scorpions, shrimp, also belong to the arthropod group. What makes an arthropod an arthropod is an exoskeleton, or an external, jointed skeleton that provides structure and protection for the animal’s softer insides. The plates of exoskeleton may overlap but have flexible joints in between, allowing insects’ different body parts to move independently of the rest, much like animals with internal skeletons. Within the phylum arthropod, there is a smaller group called insects.

Three Body Segments
All insects have segmented bodies. Insect bodies (excluding their legs, antennae and wings) are divided into three segments – the head, the thorax and the abdomen. With some insects, it’s difficult to tell exactly where one segment stops and another begins. But there is a fool-proof way to tell which part is which. First, look for the eyes and antennae. They’re always located on the head. Next, locate the legs. They’re always connected to the thorax. All that remains on the body is the abdomen, located on the opposite end as the head!

Six Legs
All adult insects have six legs. Insects who undergo complete metamorphosis (meaning they change from an egg to a pupa to a larva to an adult), lack legs entirely during the first phases of their lives. By looking at an insect’s legs, you can usually tell what type of environment it lives in. For example, many insects that live in the water, such as water boatmen, have flattened oar-like legs to help them paddle through the water. Other insects may have legs suited for running, or climbing, or jumping great distances.

Adult insects also come equipped with a pair of sensitive antennae on their heads. These sense organs are used to feel, smell, and sometimes hear. Antennae come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, depending upon how they are used. Scientists use antennae to help identify different types of insects because they are very particular to individual species of insects.

Compound Eyes
Insect eyes are different from our own. Like us, virtually all adult insects have a pair of eyes located on the front side of their head. Unlike us, these eyes are comprised of thousands of separate lenses that together form a mosaic image. An insect’s vision of the world through these compound eyes is not very sharp and lacks the details our own eyes can pick up. However, most insect eyes can still detect color and pattern and are especially sensitive to movement.

Simple Eyes
Most insects also possess a set of “simple” eyes or ocelli on the top of their heads. These simple eyes differ from compound eyes in that they each consist of a single lens with only a few sensory cells underneath for detecting changes in light. Most often, ocelli are located on the top of an insect’s head. The number, form, and function vary greatly throughout insect orders.  

All but our most “primitive” orders of insects possess wings. Even ants and termites possess wings, or at least the reproductive members of the colony, the queen and kings.  Typically, insects have two sets of wings that move together in unison. In beetles, the front pair of wings has been modified to form a protective casing for the hind wings called elytra. True flies appear to have only two wings. This is because the hind wings have been modified into halteres, which resemble small knobbed structures that act as a counterweight to the front wings, helping stabilize the insect’s flight.

Insect Ecology
Insects occur in abundance everywhere on our planet, except for in oceans and the polar regions. These places aside, wherever entomologists have looked, they have found a great diversity of insect species, each suited to the environment they live in. This includes extreme environments like mountain tops, deserts and frozen fresh water.

Not only have insects filled practically every habitat on Earth, but within each, they’ve filled nearly all ecological roles, from scavengers, to primary consumers, to predators, to parasites, and so on. Insects are not only well adjusted to the environments in which they live, but also their role within that environment, largely defined by what they eat. Plants, fungus, other insects, decaying matter, blood and fecal matter have all been exploited by insects as sources for food. In order to eat, and sometimes catch, their food, insects have developed specialized body parts specific to each.

How we’ve come to have so many different types of insects filling so many roles is a matter of time and evolution. As far as we can tell, insect have been around for 325 million years, during which they have had plenty of opportunity to evolve and diversify.

Species Chart


Adaptation is the process whereby a group of organisms becomes better suited to its environment over the course of many generations. This fundamental concept of evolution shapes not only where an organism lives, but how it lives as well. Through a process of trial and error (error in this case meaning death without successful reproduction), combined with random genetic variations, populations of organisms and their descendants slowly become better adapted to the conditions around them.

Animals may adapt to their environment with changes in their behavior (e.g. a bumble bee flies further south to find plants in bloom during an atypically cold spring). They also adapt with changes in body structure. Every aspect of an insects’ body may be explained as an adaptation to some environmental factor. Below are examples that may be helpful to review with students.

Insect Table


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