For us backyard naturalists, this challenge is even easier than it seems. That's because about half of the orders are very small ones seldom encountered, or else species included in them appear only in habitats unlikely to occur in backyards. The vast majority of conspicuous insects backyard naturalists are likely to see and identify belong to one of just ten orders -- the "Big Ten." The Big Ten is just a grouping I've always used to help myself keep the orders straight -- it has no scientific status at all.
What follows is a list of insect orders as defined in a popular insect field guide. In the following list, my "Big Ten" are highlighted in red.
THE INSECT ORDERS
according to a popular field guide
A MORE RECENT CONCEPT OF THE SUBDIVISIONS OF
Nowadays with gene sequencing providing new insights into how living things are related, many traditional concepts are changing, including among the insects. The following is a list of insect orders according to the NCBI Taxonomy Database, as of September, 2010. Note how there are newly recognized orders such as the "Heelwalker Order" plus nowadays cockroaches, mantids and more have their own orders. Probably these concepts will change more. To see current concepts, go to the NCBI page for the Class Insecta
- Order Ephemeroptera (mayflies)
- Order Odonata (dragonflies, damselflies)
- Order Embioptera (web-spinners)
- Order Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths)
- Order Trichoptera (caddisflies)
- Order Coleoptera (beetles)
- Order Diptera (flies)
- Order Hymenoptera (wasps, bees, ants... )
- Order Mecoptera (scorpionflies)
- Order Megaloptera (dobsonflies... )
- Order Neuroptera (antlions, lacewings... )
- Order Raphidioptera (snakeflies)
- Order Siphonaptera (fleas)
- Order Strepsiptera (twisted-wing parasites)
- Order Dermaptera (earwigs)
- Order Blattaria (cockroaches)
- Order Isoptera (termites)
- Order Mantodea (mantids)
- Order Grylloblattodea (rock crawlers, icebugs)
- Order Mantophasmatodea (heelwalkers)
- Order Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets)
- Order Phasmatodea (walking sticks)
- Order Hemiptera (true bugs)
- Orter Phthiraptera (lice)
- Order Psocoptera (booklice, barklice)
- Order Thysanoptera (thrips)
- Order Plecoptera (stoneflies)
- Order Zoraptera (angel insects)
Looking over the above list, it's easy to see why so many people "get hooked" on insects. It's simply because insects have so many strange manners of being. When you begin paying attention to insects, it's like going to another world where you find beings totally different from anything you've ever known, or even thought of. Even more mind-expanding is the fact that always, once you've studied what seems to be the insects' weirdness, their cruelty, or even their profound stupidity, you come to see that their manner of being is actually an exquisite adaptation to the ecological niche they occupy.
If you'd like to review some insect field guides available online at Amazon.com, you might take a look at the Golden Nature Guide called Insects : A Guide to Familiar American Insects; The Audubon Society's "First Field Guide" for beginners, called Insects; Audubon's "Pocket Guide" called Familiar Insects and Spiders North America, and; the Peterson Field Guide A Field Guide to Insects: America North of Mexico.
A good way to begin the insect-learning process is to print up our "Key to the Big Ten Insect Orders," go outside with your hand lens, and see if you can assign some insects to their orders.