Let’s learn about insects!

What is an insect?

This is an important question, because not every small animal is an insect. There are more than one million insect species known worldwide. More than half of all known species in the world are insects. Insects have all sorts of colors, shapes and sizes.

A cuckoo wasp - a beautiful insect that shows the parts of insects.

What are typical features of insects?

Insects have three body parts. The three body parts are head (front part), thorax (middle part), and abdomen (back part).

Insects have six legs. The legs of insects consist of several jointed parts. These legs connect to the thorax (=the middle part) and not to the abdomen as in many cartoons!

Insects have wings. Usually, insects have two pair of wings, but there are insect groups with one pair (e.g. flies) or even without wings (e.g. some ants). In contrast to other animal groups, insects have their wings in addition to their legs.

Insects have compound eyes. These eyes consist of many small components, so called ommatidia. These eyes have a large view angle and are very good in detecting movements. Some insects can see colors that are invisible for us, such as ultraviolet.

Insects have a pair of antennae (=feelers) connected to the head. With the antennae, insects can smell, taste, sense touch and detect much more.

Insects have a hard exoskeleton (=outside skeleton). This exoskeleton gives structure and protects the insects. Insects do not have bones inside the body. Since the exoskeleton is hard and inflexible, the insects shed their old exoskeleton when they grow.

Most insects undergo a process called metamorphosis. This means that the young insects (larvae) transform into adults, which often look very different. The advantage of a metamorphosis is that larvae and adults feed on different things and can live in different environments (e.g. fly larvae live in water; adult flies live on land).

Insects have all sorts of colors, shapes and sizes. Click on the picture to explore the diversity and beauty of insects. All images from Dominik Moser.

Fun facts and more

The latin word insectum actually means “cut into”, because the insects body is “cut into” parts.

Most people think of spiders and ticks, when they think about insects. However, spiders and ticks are no insects! Some obvious differences are that they have 8 legs and no wings.

The legs can be very different in size and shape. Grasshoppers for instance have “jumping legs” and can jump about 20 times their body length – imagine that you could do this!

The wings of insects can be very different as well: They can be thin and transparent (flies, bees), hard and shiny (beetles), or have colorful scales (butterflies).

Insects see less clear than we do. You can imagine their sight as a very “pixeled” picture. The way insects see the world is very different from how we see it!

The antennae of insects can be very different in size, shape and function. Some male butterflies can “smell” females over a distance of several kilometers!

The importance of insects

Do you like chocolate or sweet fruits? Or do you enjoy fishing or the beauty of flowers?  In any case - thank insects. Why? Find out, how insects contribute to your daily live and the environment. The importance of insects can easily be remembered with the 5 Ps:

  1. Pollinators
  2. Prey and Predators
  3. Physical decomposers
  4. Progress in science and technology
  5. Provide Pleasure

1. Insects are the most important pollinators

We need these insect pollinators to get apples, strawberries, tomatoes and many other fruits and vegetables. Even cacao, which is the main ingredient of chocolate, requires insect pollination. A general rule of thumb is that around one third of the food we eat requires insect pollination. A large majority of wild plant species also need insects for pollination to build fruits and seeds, so that they can reproduce.

2. Insects are important prey and predators

Insects are important prey (= food) for many birds, reptiles, or even fish. For example, the majority of birds feed on insects. Many insect groups are also important predators (e.g. wasps, dragonflies) that feed on other smaller animals. In this way, insects also “control” the numbers of other insects that you might find annoying (e.g. mosquitos, aphids). As prey and predators, insects are an important part of the foodweb of almost every ecosystem.

3. Insects are important physical decomposers

Insects are important for physical decomposition, which is the process of breaking down dead organisms, food waste, or even animals’ poop. The decomposition happens often together with fungi or bacteria. Decomposition is a crucial step in the cycle of life, because it brings minerals back into the soil, so that other organisms can take these minerals up again. Feeding on dead organisms and poop maybe sounds gross for us, but without these insects, a walk in a park or in a forest would be full of dead corpses and a lot of sh*t.

4. Research on insects leads to scientific progress

Research on insects also leads to much progress in science and technology. A lot of our knowledge about heritage and genetics is based on research with insects. Research on a tiny fly won several Nobel prices! New research shows that some insects can even digest plastic, which could help to solve the ongoing waste problem. Some insects also provide substances for medicine. Other insects produce the intense red color “carmine”, which is used in food (sweets, yoghurt) or for makeup (rouge, lipstick). Insect “technology” is still ahead of human technology in many areas (e.g. in flying structures) – so it is important to preserve these creatures of inspiration.

5. Insects provide pleasure

A final important aspect is that insects also provide pleasure. Think about all the beautiful butterflies, cute ladybugs, or the summer sound of crickets. The beauty of insects has inspired many artists, writers, creators of jewelry and many more. Almost all colorful flowers you can see or blooming trees and bushes require insects as pollinators. The function of these beautiful colors and sweet smells is actually to attract insect pollinators. So when you enjoy beautiful flowers – thank insects. If you take a closer look at insects,  you will be astonished by their own beauty. Take some time to enjoy the shiny colors and the fascinating details of their structures.

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Explore different insect groups!


General information, importance and needs:

  • There is mainly one species cultivated worldwide: the western honeybee (Apis mellifera)
  • Honeybees are social insects and live the whole year in large colonies (10000s of bees).
  • Honeybees have complex social structures and ways to communicate.
  • Honeybees are generalists and visit a broad range of plants to collect nectar and pollen.
  • Both adult honeybees and the larvae require nectar and pollen. Honeybees make honey out of nectar, which is stored in the hive.
  • Honeybees have rather short tongues and do not visit flowers, where they cannot reach the food.
  • Honeybees are important pollinators for many wildflowers, trees, herbs, fruit and vegetable plants.

Interesting facts and stories:

  • Honeybees can make honey out of “honeydew” secreted by aphids.
  • Honeybees can communicate the location of food sources by dancing.
  • Honeybee products we use are e.g. honey and beeswax. Beeswax is used for candles and various cosmetics.
  • Beekeepers take care of honeybees. They not only collect honey, they also move the honeybee hives to different sites, and treat honeybees against parasites.

Wild bees (incl. Bumblebees)

Click/Tap on image above to explore the diversity of wild bees. All images from Dominik Moser.

General information, importance and needs:

  • Most wild bees are solitary. This means that they do not build colonies and each female lays eggs.
  • Bumblebees however, are social insects and live in colonies of up to 500 individuals. Only young queens overwinter and start new colonies in spring.
  • Wild bees can collect both pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their offsprings.
  • Bumblebees often have long tongues and can reach nectar in deep flowers.
  • Wild bees pollinate herbs, wild flowers, trees, fruit and vegetable plants.
  • Wild bees are an important food source for many birds.
  • Many wild bees are specialists: They require specific plants for food and nesting.

Interesting facts and stories:

  • There are more than 20000 wildbee species worldwide and around 300 in Sweden (including 40 bumblebee species).
  • Bumblebees can fly even at bad weather conditions (cold, windy) unlike honeybees. They can heat themselves up to 30° Celsius, even when temperatures outside are only 0° Celsius. That is why you can see bumblebee queens flying so early in spring.
  • Most wild bees build nests in open ground, some in cavities or hollow stems (e.g. of raspberry) - “bee hotels” do not help ground nesting wild bees or bumblebees
  • Bumblebees are the best pollinators for tomatoes: They make small vibrations that “shake out” pollen.


Click/Tap on image above to explore the diversity of beetles. All images from Dominik Moser.

General information, importance and needs:

  • Beetles have hard front wings, which give them an additional protection. They are often very colorful and shiny.
  • Some beetles are pollinators.
  • Many beetles are important decomposers. They break down dead plants, dead animals and excrements.
  • Some beetles live as predators for small insect larvae or small fish underwater.
  • Some beetles are natural “pest controls”. Ground beetles eat several larvae of other insects and even eat small slugs. Ladybugs and their larvae feed on aphids.
  • Many beetles and their larvae need dead wood. Most species are specialized on one or few tree species.
  • The larvae of some species (e.g. of the darkling beetle) are used as food. Research shows that this larvae can even digest plastic and could help to solve our plastic waste problem.
  • Some beetles occur as “pests” in agriculture (e.g. potato beetle) and in forestry (e.g. barkbeetle). This is particularly problematic in monocultures with little diversity.

Interesting facts and stories:

  • There are more than 400 000 known species worldwide and more than 4000 species in Sweden. Beetles are the most diverse animal group. 1/4th of all animal species are beetles!
  • Beetles cannot sting and are harmless for humans.
  • Beetles living in the water can carry bubbles of air to breath while diving.
  • The dung beetle (Scarabaeus) was very important in ancient Egypt and connected to the sun god. Apparently the beetles moving of a dung ball, was a symbol for the movement of the sun.
  • Many people collect beetles as a hobby due to their diversity of colors and shapes.

Butterflies & moths

Click/Tap on image above to explore the diversity of butterflies. All images from Dominik Moser.

General information, importance and needs:

  • Differing between butterflies and moths can be difficult for non-experts. Most butterfly species are day active, whereas most moth species are night active.
  • Differing between butterflies and moths can be difficult for non-experts. Most butterfly species are day active, whereas most moth species are night active.
  • Butterflies and moths have scales. These scales can be very colorful and form beautiful patterns.
  • Butterflies and most moths have long sucking mouthparts (= proboscis) and often feed on nectar. They can reach nectar in long floral tubes.
  • Butterflies and moths are important pollinators for wild plants, herbs and fruit plants. They are often the only pollinators for many plants with long floral tubes.
  • The larvae (=caterpillars) often feed on leaves or other plant parts. This is often very specific, different species need different host plants.
  • Butterflies are a food source for birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Bats feed on night active moths.

Interesting facts and stories:

  • There are about 180 000 species of Butterflies worldwide and around 2650 in Sweden.
  • In Madagascar exists a moth species with a proboscis length of more than 30 cm! It is the only pollinator species of an orchid with a similar long floral tube.
  • Caterpillars appear to have more than 6 legs. In addition to the 6 “real” legs, they also have several pairs of additional “fake” prolegs.
  • In many regions worldwide, people eat caterpillars or pupae of many species.
  • The silk we use for clothing is made from moth cocoons, which protect the pupae. Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers.

Flies (incl. mosquitos)

General information, importance and needs:

  • Many flies, such as hoverflies are important pollinators of plants. They are particularly important in colder temperature zones and in the mountains.
  • Many fly species are important for decomposing dung, dead animals or trees.
  • The larvae of mosquitos and some other fly species develop in water and are important food sources for many fish, water birds, amphibians, or the larvae of dragonflies.
  • Adult flies are important food sources for birds, predatory insects, amphibians, reptiles and insect eating mammals (e.g. bats).
  • The larvae of many hoverfly species act as natural “pest controls”, because they feed on aphids.
  • Mosquito larvae consume small organisms in water and play an important role in recycling nutrients.

Interesting facts and stories:

  • There are more than 100 000 species of flies worldwide and around 4500 in Sweden.
  • Some hoverflies migrate between countries, like birds! One such species that is very common in Sweden is the marmalade hoverfly.
  • Only female mosquitos bite humans and suck blood. The main food for adult mosquitos is actually nectar. Therefore, mosquitos contribute to pollination of wildflowers.
  • Some flies can even smell with their feet (e.g. the house-fly).
  • The fruit fly is highly important for science: Research connected with fruit flies already won several Nobel-prizes!
  • Do you like chocolate or cocoa? Thank a fly! Cocoa is pollinated by a small fly.


General information, importance and needs:

  • Ants are social insects and can live in huge colonies with millions of individuals.
  • Ant colonies are highly organized. Ants can build big nests, and have a high level of communication.
  • The female worker ants often lack wings. Males and queens have wings.
  • Many ant species are predators and eat other insects. They feed on many “plant pests”.
  • Many birds, amphibians, reptiles and even mammals (hedgehog, bear) feed on ants.
  • Ants are not important as pollinators, but they play a role in seed dispersal for many wildflowers (e.g. violets, wood anemone).
  • Ants feed on all kinds of food, including carrion and food waste in urban environments. In this way, ants are a natural “clean-up”.

Interesting facts and stories:

  • There are more than 13000 ant species worldwide.
  • Some ant species “keep” aphids in “farms”. The ants feed on the aphids’ honeydew. The ants protect the aphids from predators and even bring them to new host plants.
  • The largest coherent ant colony is almost 6000 km long and stretches from Italy to Spain!
  • Ants can together overcome obstacles (e.g. by building ant-bridges) or attack larger prey.
  • Leafcutter ants collect leaves and use them to grow fungus, which they eat!
  • Some ants produce antibiotics, which can be used in medicine.

True bugs (shield bugs & aphids)

General information, importance and needs:

  • It is often difficult to differ between shield bugs and beetles. Typical for shield bugs is their triangular “shield” on the back.
  • Some species (pond skaters) can walk on water and are often visible on lakes.
  • Aphids suck on plant-saps, which weakens the host plant. Aphids can infest food plants and decorative plants.
  • Many bird species feed on true bugs. Ladybugs, hoverfly larvae and some other insects feed on aphids.
  • Some groups of true bugs can occur as pests in homes (e.g. bed bugs), or in gardening or agriculture (aphids).
  • Some species of true bugs (Cochineal) produce an intense red dye called “carmine”. Carmine is used in paints, in cosmetic products such as rouge or lipstick. It is also a popular food color (e.g. for candy, yogurt,…).

Interesting facts and stories:

  • Some species of true bugs (Cochineal) produce an intense red dye called “carmine”. Carmine is used in paints, in cosmetic products such as rouge or lipstick. It is also a popular food color (e.g. for candy, yogurt,…).
  • The main anti-predator adaptations of true bugs include camouflage, warning coloration (firebugs), or spraying a stinky smell for defense. That is the explanation for the name “stink bugs”.
  • Aphids secrete honeydew, which is a sugar-rich, sticky liquid. Ants feed on this honeydew and they even protect the aphids from predators or bring them to new host plants. Honeybees collect aphids’ honeydew and process it into a special type of honey.
  • Aphids can clone themselves. In this way, they reproduce very fast. It is almost impossible to “get rid of” aphids with pesticides, because aphids reproduce so fast.

Grasshoppers, locusts & crickets

Click/Tap on image above to explore the diversity of grasshoppers. All images from Dominik Moser.

General information, importance and needs:

  • They feed mainly on plants, often on various grass species. However, some bush crickets are predators!
  • They can both jump and fly.
  • Many species are camouflaged and are hardly visible for predators.
  • Mainly males “sing” to attract females. The “singing” is actually a result of rubbing together body parts (wings or legs). Some species can hear with their legs.
  • They are prey for many beetles, ants, spiders, birds and small mammals (e.g. hedgehogs).

Interesting facts and stories:

  • There are about 20 000 species of grasshoppers, locusts and crickets worldwide. About 35 species can be found in Sweden.
  • Under special circumstances, some species can build large swarms and feed on agricultural crops. A plague of swarms destroying harvest plays an important role in the Bible.
  • The biggest swarm ever observed had the size of California in 1875! Surprisingly, the species building this swarm got extinct due to farming and other human influences!
  • Female bush crickets and crickets have a long tube-like organ at the end of the abdomen. It looks like a dangerous sting, but it is completely harmless: It is a tube for laying eggs.
  • In many regions worldwide, people eat grasshoppers, locusts or crickets. Grasshoppers could be a future sustainable food source. They contain a lot of protein, but need much less resources than cattle or pigs.
  • Many species have strong back legs. A grasshopper can jump around a meter – this is about 20 times the body length!

Wasps and other Hymenoptera

We include here all “Hymenoptera” which are not bees or ants. These “Hymenoptera” are wasps, parasitic wasps and sawflies (which are no flies, but hymenoptera).

General information, importance and needs:

  • Some species are important pollinators of wild plants. Fig wasps are also the only group that pollinates figs.
  • Some wasps are social, and build their own nests and colonies.
  • Many parasitic wasp species have a “cuckoo livestyle” (social parasites) and lay their eggs in the nests of other insects. The larvae feed then on these insects or the food inside the nests.
  • Most sawflies lay their egg in plants (leaves, bark,…), where the offspring develops. They often need very specific host plants.
  • Adult wasps are predators and feed on many other insects such as flies or mosquitos, but they also hunt spiders. Some species are also attracted by our food or sugary drinks.
  • Some birds feed on wasps or even attack their nests to feed on larvae (e.g. the honey buzzard, badger).

Interesting facts and stories:

  • Some groups of wasps can sting. Wasps will only sting, when they or their nest is disturbed or threatened. Staying calm is the best way to avoid stings.
  • Some groups of cuckoo wasps are incredibly colorful.
  • Killing a wasp can attract more wasps, because the threatened wasp sends out a chemical alarm-signal that smells like banana.
  • Some parasitic wasp species are a helpful biological control of “pest species” in greenhouses, e.g. when they parasite on aphids. They contribute to harvest tomatoes, strawberries or cucumber.

Dragonflies & Damselflies

Click/Tap on image above to explore the diversity of dragonflies. All images from Dominik Moser.

General information, importance and needs:

  • Dragonflies are often very colorful, have four transparent wings, a thin body, and large compound eyes.
  • The larvae of dragonflies develop in water.
  • The dragonfly larvae belong to the top predators and feed on other larvae from flies, mosquitos and even tadpoles or young fish.
  • Adult dragonflies are very successful flying predators (good eyesight + agile flight). They feed mainly on mosquitos and flies, but can hunt other flying insects as well.
  • Dragonfly larvae are also food for water birds, amphibians and larger fish. The adults have almost no natural enemies.

Interesting facts and stories:

  • There are about 5600 known species worldwide, and about 60 species in Sweden.
  • Pairing dragonflies fly in a tandem, which sometimes looks like a heart.
  • Dragonflies are the helicopters of the insect world! Dragonflies can fly at a speed of about 50 km/h. They can also hover at a spot, fly backwards, and make fast turns.
  • Dragonflies cannot sting and do not bite humans. Although they are harmless, people are afraid of them.
  • Fossils show that some ancestors of dragonflies (350 Mio years ago) had a wingspan of up to 75cm!

Insects decline – What it is & why it matters

What is insect decline?

Many insect species worldwide are declining, that means that we have fewer and fewer insects. When this decline continues over a longer period, insect species can disappear locally or even globally. Some insect species have already died out in Sweden or even died out globally! This decline endangers ecosystems and directly affects our future lives.

Why is insect decline a problem?

We need insects to harvest our crops - about 75% of all crop species are pollinated by insects. A general rule of thumb is that around one third of the food we eat requires insect pollination. If we have not enough insects, we have a problem producing our daily food! Insects also have many more functions and are important prey for other animals – so losing these insects will affect almost every ecosystem worldwide in a negative way!

Most fruits require pollination by insects.

How bad is the decline?

A recent study from Germany reported a decline of 75% in insect biomass in 27 years! An example in concrete numbers: When these researchers collected 100 grams of insects in a trap in 1989, this amount dropped to 25 grams in 2016. That is a massive decline! Other studies reported declines for many insect groups all around the world. However, for most places in the world, we do not have not enough long-term observations to give exact numbers, but the trends for many insect species is negative. Some numbers for Sweden: Around 30% of all bee species and 20% of all butterfly species in Sweden are at risk or endangered. Will we lose all insect species? No, but many species could disappear, particularly the more specialized insect species. The consequence is that we have less diverse and a more monotonous nature.

What are the reasons for this decline?

Insect decline results from human actions. The main reasons for the decline are changes in the landscape due to intensive agriculture (=farming) and deforestation. This changed landscape is often very monotonous and provides less habitat and food for insects. Moreover, intensive farming often uses pesticides (=poison) to fight animal pests, which also kills many other insects. Cities and other urbanized areas are also a problem for insects, when they do not offer enough “wild” spaces where insects can thrive. Finally, climate change also affects many insects in a negative way. So there is not “one” reason, but an interplay of several reasons that are connected to human actions.

Agriculture with little diversity and use of pesticides endangers insects.

If human actions are crucial for the decline, it needs a transformation of human actions to reverse this trend. We do not only need to be aware of the problem, we need to take action!

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The project “Actions for Insects” shows how we can create a better world for insects together.