What is an insect?

Audience: a five year-old

Motivations:  Candy, play time, bugs, adults giving them attention.

Explanation:  What is an insect?  A butterfly? An ant? A snail?  No not a snail!  Insects have 6 legs and 3 body parts.  So a spider is not an insect.  Insects have hard outsides, unlike us that have hard bones on the inside.  A baby insect does not always look like an adult; a baby butterfly is a caterpillar.  So all butterflies are adults—even the small ones.  Actually, any insect with wings is an adult.  But not all insects have wings—like ants.  Insects are animals, called invertebrates.  There are many types of insects, how many can you think of?


Audience: College student

Motivations:  beer, getting an A, what’s on the test?

Explanation:  Do you have a backbone?  Insects do not.  This does not mean they are scared to jump off a bridge… Actually because of their body structure with a hard outside made of chitin they are able to jump off much higher places than us—relatively speaking.  Insects have a completely different body plan.  They are segmented with 3 main body parts—the head, thorax, and abdomen—each subdivided again.  For example, the thorax has 3 additional segments, each with paired legs.  Their differing anatomy has enabled their vast diversification and specialization to fit into the array of ecological niches.


Audience: Grad student

Motivations: self-betterment, impress the big-wigs, new scientific directions

Explanation:  Protostome or Deuterostome?  Aka developmentally speaking, insects form a mouth first while we vertebrates start with our anus.  However differences run deeper, insects at the 4 cell stage already have differential cell development, i.e., the gonads information is in only one of the cells.  Taxonomically speaking, by saying “Class:  Insecta” the amount of included information should categorize and define the animal group.  What can we do with this inherent knowledge?  Definitions and classifications enable a deeper discussion surrounding not what makes an insect but why, how is it unique, and what can scientists learn and apply across the animal kingdom?


Audience: Ph.D. in the field

Motivations: Science passion

Explanation:  The amount of shared research between humans and Drosophila is astounding.  Genetically, so much is similar between insects and humans, but we are more closely related to starfish.  However, rather than limit our understanding, identifying commonalities and stark differences creates pockets of areas for new directions.  Scientific growth occurs from identifying these connections, especially if closer evolutionary relatives are different.  Insect biology has far-reaching implications including the medical field, ecology, agriculture, and engineering.  The limit is not what insects can do, as they fill an ever-growing number of niches, but how we can abstractly consider their lives.