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Finding Insects: A Guide for Young Naturalists

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Where Do Insects Live?

This article offers ideas for the first step in helping young people and students get started in the study of insects (entomology). It has some great ideas for your bug hunt with a child who needs to get outside and let their curiosity flow—and probably get a little muddy in the process.

"Where Do Insects Live?" follows the belief that a true connection with nature begins with actually getting out into nature. Once you know where to look for insects, you have an activity that will bring the child into contact with the amazing natural world.


Where Insects Live, and How to Find Them

If you want to get started studying insects, you first have to find them! But where can you find insects? This is a great question with many answers. Insects live in many places. Here are the most common places that insects live:

  • On plants and trees: You will find butterfly and moth caterpillars, wasp and termite nests, some kinds of beetles and ants, and also many spiders living in and on trees.
  • Flying in fields and around flowers: Butterflies, bees, flies, beetles, and all kind of other insects come to flowers in fields so they can feed on the nectar; some find mates in open habitats.
  • At lights at night: Moths generally fly at night, and they often come to porch lights or other electric lights. So do some beetles.
  • On the ground: Many kinds of beetles and ants can be found on the ground; also non-insects like centipedes, millipedes, and spiders.
  • In the ground: Many moth species make their cocoons (pupate) underground; Many beetle larvae live and pupate underground; cicada nymphs live underground for years at a time. If you dig deep enough, you may find them.
  • In water: dragonfly nymphs and the immature forms of some other insects live in ponds and streams; some beetles live under water; a few spiders hunt for fish and small frogs near water!
  • In your house: Insects and bugs evolved over millions of years, when of course there were no houses or even humans. But some have adapted to living inside: beetles, centipedes, flies, cockroaches, and spiders often live in basements and garages.
Wasps made their nest in this tree

Wasps made their nest in this tree

Insects Live On Trees and Plants

Since nearly all butterfly and moth caterpillars eat leaves, it makes sense that you will find them living on trees and plants. They are usually very well camouflaged so they don't get eaten by birds, but some are brightly colored because they taste bad and want to warn birds away. Wasps often make their nests in trees, as do honeybees. Other communal insects that make nests, like termites and ants, often live in tress and other plants. You may also find beetles crawling on trees, since some beetles larvae tunnel into the tree trunk.

Spiders, which are of course not true insects, also often live on trees and other plants.

Many insects live in fields where they can get nectar from flowers

Many insects live in fields where they can get nectar from flowers

In Fields and Around Flowers

Sunny fields with flowers are an excellent place to find insects. Insects that live in these places are often there to drink nectar or eat pollen from the flowers. This includes butterflies, wasps, flies, some kinds of moths, and many other insects. While they may not live only in these places, they spend much of their time there.

Flying insects like butterflies also get together in sunny fields and open spaces to find mates. You will often see them flying together in courtship "dances."

Moths and other insects are often found at lights

Moths and other insects are often found at lights

Moths and Many Others Are Found at Lights at Night

Moths use the moon to guide them when they fly to a mate or a food source, so when they see an electric light they get confused and wind up circling it in tight spirals. This is true of other night-flying insects like some beetles and mayflies.

Spiders also live around electric lights, because they can snare moths and beetles with their webs.

Insects like this amazing stag beetle live on the ground

Insects like this amazing stag beetle live on the ground

Many Beetles and Other Insects Live on the Ground

In general, most insects live on the ground. The number of ground beetles alone is amazing, and add to that all of the caterpillars, spiders, and other insects and "bugs," and you have the number one place where insects live. Look under rocks and boards, in grassy places, near ponds, and in wooded areas. Even your own back yard has insect on the ground, if you look close enough.

This cicada nymph has spent years underground, and is now ready to hatch into an adult

This cicada nymph has spent years underground, and is now ready to hatch into an adult

Under the Ground

There are many moth caterpillars that crawl underground when it's time to pupate; they stay there until the adult moth hatches out (butterflies almost never live or pupate underground). Many beetles do the same thing, although their larvae, called grubs, live underground and eat roots.

Finally, cicadas spend many years underground as larvae called "nymphs" -- when they are ready to become adults, they crawl out and attach to a tree, where they leave their cool-looking larval shell after they fly away.

Dragonfly larvae live in ponds and streams

Dragonfly larvae live in ponds and streams

In or Near Water

Some insects live in are very close to ponds and running water. One of the most common is dragonflies. Dragonflies are like butterflies and beetles in that they undergo complete metamorphosis. This means they have a larval stage called a nymph, which lives underwater and eats other insects. Many beetles also live underwater their whole lives, breathing by grabbing a bubble and holding it while they hunt for prey or scavenge dead fish.

Some spiders are capable of catching and eating small fish; these big spiders live near the water's edge.

Though not technically insects, spiders have adapted very well to living where humans live.

Though not technically insects, spiders have adapted very well to living where humans live.

And of Course, Some Insects Live In Your House

Of course, many insects and "bugs" like spiders and centipedes have adapted to living with humans. Most basements have at least a small community of beetles, centipedes, flies, cockroaches, and spiders.

How Do Insects Grow Up?

This is a great question, because they don't grow up like humans. Here's a quick and easy explanation of how most insects "grow up"

  • Every insect begins life as an egg, laid by a female that has mated with a male. This is true of everything from beautiful butterflies to cockroaches.
  • The egg hatches after a week or two. What comes out is called a "larva." Plural of larva is "larvae," as in, "The butterfly laid eggs that hatched out into many tiny larvae."
  • If it's a butterfly or moth, the larva is called a caterpillar. It's very tiny at first, but it eats leaves and gets bigger.
  • Bees, beetles, flies, dragonflies, and many more insects follow this same pattern, only their larvae are not called caterpillars. They're just called "larvae." Some eat leaves, and some eat other insects.
  • All larvae shed their skin as they grow. This is because insects don't have internal bones like you and me. They are just goop inside. What holds them together is a tough outer skin called an "exoskeleton." Because the exoskeleton can't expand as the insect grows, it has to shed it once in a while.
  • No larvae have wings. Only the adult has wings. For example, adult beetles have wings under their hard outer shell, but they don't often fly.
  • Butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps, and anything else with a "larva" form eat and grow until it's time to turn into a cocoon or pupa, when it doesn't move or eat. Inside it's changing into the winged adult. Wasps, for example, have larvae that form a pupa, just like butterflies.
  • The adult insect hatches out of the cocoon or pupa, dries its wings, and flies away (if it's a beetle, though, it just crawls away!).

This entire process, from egg to larva to pupa to adult, is a four-stage life cycles called "complete metmorphosis." There are exceptions. Some insects don't do complete metamorphosis. They do "incomplete metamorphosis." For some insects, like grasshoppers or a cockroaches, the larva looks just like small version of the grown-up bug. This small version is called a "nymph." These insects don't pupate; they just get bigger by shedding their skin until they're adults.

Did You Find an Insect?


The following sources were used for this guide:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.