There are a staggering 27,000 types of insect in the UK. Some can be tricky to tell apart, even for the experts. Here we look at some of our most commonly encountered insect groups and the clues we need to look for to help narrow them down.
What is an insect?
Broadly speaking, invertebrates are animals without a backbone and include multi-legged, hard-bodied minibeasts, known as arthropods, as well as corals, slugs and snails, worms and soft-bodied sea creatures. Arthropods can then be separated into groups including crustaceans (such as crabs and woodlice), spiders and insects.
Happily, insects share a number of characteristics to help you separate them from the crowd:
Three body sections (head, thorax and abdomen)
Pair of antennae
Most have wings
Three or four stage life cycle (egg, larva or nymphs, pupa and adult)
Insects come in a number of groups, or 'orders', not all of which have representatives here in the UK. Let's explore nine of the more frequently encountered minibeast types and some of their more well-known members.
Coleoptera - beetles
biting or chewing mouthparts
hardened wing cases, with wings folded beneath
life cycle: egg -> larva -> pupa -> adult
Not to be confused with bugs (Hemiptera), some of which also have hardened wing cases
Spotlight species: 7-spot ladybird
active from early spring to autumn, hibernating through winter, sometimes indoors
widespread across the UK in gardens, woodland and grassland habitats feeding on aphids
when threatened, extrudes a nasty-tasting yellow substance from its leg joints to put off predators
mostly two sets of translucent wings, the front larger than the back
always found near water and famously short lived
Not to be confused with damselflies or dragonflies as mayflies don't feed as adults
Spotlight species: common mayfly
dark spots on the wings and triangular markings along the body
breeds in ponds and slow moving water in England
contrary to popular belief, this particular species of mayfly can appear at any time over the summer
Insects are incredibly important. They recycle decaying material. They pollinate plants. They feed a huge variety of birds, mammals and other animals. Without them we would be unable to grow food, and much of the other wildlife we treasure would be lost forever.
A single mature oak tree is home to as many as 350 species of insect alone, and mixed, native woodlands support even more. With healthy woodlands come abundant insects and thriving people and wildlife.