Saving the small things that run the planet

Membership costs just £3 per month


Main groups of insects

What is an insect?

An arthropod (an animal with a segmented body and external skeleton) with the following characteristics:-
  • Six legs (hence the term Hexapoda: ‘hexa’ = six, ‘poda’ = feet)
  • Most have wings (or have lost them); some people now regard these as the true insects, forming the largest part of the Hexapoda.
  • The basic life cycle is egg, larva and adult.
  • In many, the larval and adult ecology is different allowing adaptability in life-style and in exploiting food resources.
  • The more advanced insects also have a third or 'pupal' stage. The pupa allows for a major re-organisation of the body between larval and adult stages. The body design for feeding and for reproduction can be very different, giving huge flexibility, and contributing to the great success of insects.

The insects are arranged into orders, such as dragonflies and beetles.

These orders logically group into those with shared features, indicating a close relationship:

  1. Apterygota (literally 'without wings')
  2. Pterygota (these are true insects, with wings in the adult or wings have been lost)



NB. Numbers for species totals are provisional. The true world totals must be very much higher in most groups.

Numbers in brackets are where all species are introduced.

Order Common name British Species World Species
ATERYGOTA (wingless)      
Collembola Springtails 300 2000
Protura Simpletails 17 100
Diplura 2-pronged bristle-tails 13 100
(+ Archaeognatha)
3-pronged Bristle-tails 8 700
PTERYGOTA (winged)      
Ephemeroptera Mayflies 51 2100
Odonata Dragonflies 47 5500
Blattoidea Cockroaches 3 3700
Mantoidea Mantis 0 1800
Isoptera Termites (1) 2200
Plecoptera Stoneflies 33 1600
Orthoptera Grasshoppers & Crickets 30 20000
Dermaptera Earwigs 7 1100
Phasmida Stick insects (3) 2500
Thysanoptera Thrips 159 4100
Psocoptera Booklice 88 2200
Mallophaga Biting lice 514 2500
Anoplura Sucking lice 25 2500
Hemiptera Bugs 1709  
Auchenorrhyncha   370 19000
Sternorrhyncha   734 14000
Heteroptera   607 35000
Mecoptera Scorpionflies 4 500
Megaloptera Alderflies 3  
Rhaphidioptera Snakeflies 4  
Neuroptera Lacewinges & Ant Lions 76 4550
Trichoptera Caddisflies 189 7000
Lepidoptera Butterflies & Moths 2400 120000
Coleoptera Beetles 3900 300000
Siphonaptera Fleas 60 1750
Strepsiptera Stylops 18 400
Diptera Flies 6900 150000
HYMENOPTERA Bees, Wasps etc.    
Symphyta Sawflies 500 4700
Aculeates Bees, wasps and ants 600 125000
Parasitica Parasitic wasps 6000  

Major types of insects 

The insects are arranged into orders, such as dragonflies and beetles.

These orders logically group into those with shared features, indicating a close relationship.

Apterygota. The name means without wings (‘a’ = without, ‘ptera’ wings).

These qualify as Hexapoda but they are very different from the true insects. Historically they have been regarded as insects but there is some modern opinion that they are a separate evolutionary line, or lines, from ancestral Hexapods. Thus arguably they are not insects, but for present purposes that distinction is not particularly important.

Pterygota. These are true insects, with wings in the adult (or wings have been lost)

There are two basic types of life history.

Exopterygota (External wing development)

These have the primitive type of life cycle:- egg, larva and adult. The larva develops wing buds on the outside of the thorax (external) and finally moults directly into the adult form.

Over half the insect orders are of this type, mainly small orders such as dragonflies, but the most advanced order, the bugs, has huge numbers of species.

[Some recent opinion is that the mayflies and dragonflies are the most primitive and should be grouped as Palaeoptera (‘palaeo’ = ancient, ‘ptera’ winged). The rest of the Endopterygota are then placed in the subclass Neoptera (‘neo’ = new, ‘petra’ = winged).

Most orders of Neoptera are allied to grasshoppers so are in the division Orthopteroidea, whilst the booklice and bugs are in a separate division, the Hemipteroidea]

Endopterygota (Internal wing development)

An advanced type of life cycle comprises egg, larva, pupa and adult. The addition of a pupal stage allows major reconstruction between the larval stage and the adult, including the development of wing buds into a ready to expand state.

Though there are fewer orders, the most advanced ones such as the beetles, flies, wasps and moths have become hugely successful in terms of adaptation and having evolved a vast numbers of species.

[An alternative name is Holometabola referring to the complete lifecycle.]