Many kids are fascinated with bugs. Whether they’re flying, crawling, or skimming the surface of a pond, insects can hold our attention for hours. Some of those kids will grow up to become entomologists, studying the amazing diversity of the insect world. Their deepening interest may start with their first magnified view of an insect specimen. Learn how to study insects under the microscope.
Why Study Insects?
In a word, food: according to the United States Department of Agriculture, 35% of global food crops depend on pollinators. The United Nations Environmental Program reports that of the 100 top food crops on the planet, 71 are bee-pollinated, and 84% of 264 European crop species are dependent on pollinators. Crops are also at risk of devastation from insect invasions, and studying how to repel voracious swarms of insects without destroying the environment is vital to food production.
Studying insects helps us understand the dangers that insects pose to many types of plant life. For example, the emerald ash borer has wrought devastation in the United States, killing ash trees by the millions. It’s not native to the US and probably arrived as a hitchhiker on wood packaging from Asia.
Entomologists also help with the study of insect-borne diseases that affect humans and livestock. Understanding more about how insects spread these diseases gives us a head start in controlling that spread.
Biodiversity is another reason to study insects. As climate change, pollution, and the increasing human population encroach on or destroy animal habitats, researchers can start to form a picture of the short- and long-term impacts on ecosystems globally.
If you want to study insects, you have to catch them first. Many kids do this with their parents when they first become interested in insect life, using jars or even just capturing one in their hands before letting it go.
You can collect specimens by scooping them up using a net in a patch of tall grass. A less efficient (but more fun) way to capture insects is to chase them with a net until you can catch one—this might yield fireflies, butterflies, moths, and grasshoppers.
Educators who don’t have the time or inclination to chase after insect specimens can order prepared slides of insects and plants along with microscope kits.
Once you’ve captured your insect specimens, what do you do with them? Pick through your net and select the insects you want to examine. Then release the rest. Collecting insects in a responsible way means doing so without unnecessarily harming or depleting the population of insects in the collection area.
Using tweezers, gently pick up your specimens and put them in a glass jar that has a tight lid. You can make a series of initial observations just by watching the insect in the jar. You could include a little bit of water or a sample of the vegetation that grows where you found the insect. Use a magnifying glass to observe the insect’s body, how it moves, and, if the insect likes the plant materials you supplied, even how it eats. You’ll also identify body parts you want to look at closely like wings, eyes, legs, and abdomen.
Preparation for Microscope Observation
Specimens can be prepared for observation with a solution of 70-80% ethyl alcohol, which also acts as a preservative. After the insects have been in the solution for a few seconds, carefully collect them to place on a microscope slide. You can also dissect insects to separate body parts for individual study and closer observation.
When you’re using a Foldscope paper microscope, you can secure the specimen to the paper slide with clear stickers that come with the microscope kit. One benefit of observing with a Foldscope is that you can couple the microscope with your phone to take pictures and record videos to look at carefully later.
Insects as an Introduction to Scientific Observation
Insects don’t have to be exotic to be interesting. Looking at common house flies or ants that occasionally invade our homes can be just as fascinating as observing the colorful wings of a butterfly or the furry coat of a bumblebee.
One of the most enjoyable moments educators experience is the reaction students have when they first look through a microscope at a common insect. Gasps of “oohs,” and “aahs!” burst out around the classroom. Students begin to share their unexpected observations. It could be the tiny hairs on an insect’s legs, the multiple eyes in a fly’s head, or the wiggly antennae of a butterfly. It could be the legs of a grasshopper or the structure of the glowing part of a firefly.
Microscopic observation widens student perspectives and can spur scientific curiosity for school children and adults alike. Scientific observation goes beyond science: microscopic observation can be the inspiration for works of art, marvels of engineering, or even advances in technology. (Did you know that the original computer “bug” was caused by a moth? Unfortunately, history doesn’t tell us whether anyone looked at it under a microscope.)
Studying insects under a microscope reveals the complexity of insect anatomy, including the intricate designs on insect wings and the contents of insect bellies. If you’re lucky, you’ll also capture some insect eggs or maybe even insects in the larval stage to observe developmental moments frozen in time. Start or continue your scientific journey with a portable paper Foldscope microscope.
The advantages of Foldscopes for studying insects are many, but the primary benefit is immediacy. Foldscopes can travel with you into the field, where encounters with interesting or even previously unknown insects spur instant curiosity. With 140x magnification and 2-micron resolution, the Foldscope is powerful enough to view tiny insects and even single-celled organisms. When used with a phone connected to the internet, observers can upload images to identification databases as soon as they’re recorded. Shop our store for the Foldscope microscope or microscope kits that will get you, your kids, or your students excited about scientific exploration and eager to head out to collect insect specimens to study.