Common UK insect identification — Woodland Trust

Insect identification: common UK insects

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:

  • Six legs
  • Three body sections (head, thorax and abdomen)
  • Pair of antennae
  • Exoskeleton
  • Compound eyes
  • 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.

A Perfect Guide on How to Identify Flying Insects

Flying insects flourish, both in diversity and in numbers, especially in the tropical regions. They are small in size and swarming is a commonplace activity among these social creatures.

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Flying insects flourish, both in diversity and in numbers, especially in the tropical regions. They are small in size and swarming is a commonplace activity among these social creatures.

According to entomologists, flying insects or winged insects could have made their appearance more than 300,000,000 years ago (early Carboniferous age). Flying insects belong to the sub-class Pterygota, and are a major and diverse group of arthropods. Insects are invertebrates and the only species among this class to have developed wings for flight.

It is estimated that this group comprises over a million identified and almost 30 million unidentified species, adding up to over 90% of the different life forms present on our planet. Insects with the most number of species are beetles, butterflies and moths, ants, bees and wasps, and true flies. The study of insects is known as ‘Entomology’, which is a Greek word meaning ‘cut into pieces’.

Flying insects may be small creatures but are a good example of a successful adaptation theory, having survived all conditions on earth. Some modern flying insects belonging to the group Neoptera have foldable wings that they can beat faster as compared to the primitive insect groups. Other studies on insect flight have revealed an interesting fact, high atmospheric oxygen is conducive to the appearance of gigantic insects.

Flying Insect Identification Guide

Entomologists have classified flying insects into 25 groups. Following is the classification of some commonly-found flying insects–grasshoppers and crickets (Order Orthoptera), cockroaches and mantids (Order Dictyoptera), butterflies and moths (Order Lepidoptera), beetles (Order Coleoptera), flying ants, bees, wasps, and sawflies (Order Hymenoptera), dragonflies and damselflies (Order Odonata), fleas (Order Siphonaptera), flies (Order Diptera), stick and leaf flying insects (Order Phasmida), winged termites (Order Isoptera), cicadas, aphids, hoppers, and water bugs (Order Hemiptera).

Flying insects are found indoors as well as outdoors. A familiar and not-too-incorrect term ‘pests’ refers to flying insects that are found indoors, in homes. There are bloodsucking flying insects like the mosquitoes and bed bugs. Some among these pests like mosquitoes, roaches (cockroach), and flies are disease carriers, while others like termites destroy your furniture; moths damage your clothes, and beetles destroy your leather goods or woolen carpets. Flying insects or pests, like the locusts found outdoors, destroy crops.

Not all flying insects are destructive. Some are active pollinators, like the butterflies, while others, like the industrious bees, produce honey, wax, lacquer, or the caterpillars produce silk. Insects like the wasps are natural scavengers of flies among other insects, or the scavenging beetles that contribute towards producing topsoil, play an important role in preserving the ecological balance. On the lighter side, flying insects like the grasshopper, cockroaches are considered a culinary delicacy and nutritive (for proteins) diet in some countries. And of course, some winged insects like the butterflies are synonymous with beauty.

Identifying a Flying Insect

Metamorphosis is crucial in an insect’s life and refers to a change in its structure or form during its developmental stage. There are two types of metamorphoses, viz. incomplete metamorphosis and complete metamorphosis. Some flying insects do not develop wings until the adult stage in what is called an incomplete metamorphosis. The young ones of these insects are called ‘nymphs’.

Complete metamorphosis is a term associated with the thriving insect groups, wherein the hatched egg produces a worm-like form like any of the following.

  • Eruciform (caterpillar-like)
  • Scarabaeiform (grublike)
  • Campodeiform (elongated, flattened, and active)
  • Elateriform (wireworm-like)
  • Vermiform (maggot-like)
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The males and females of many species of flying insects differ from each other in body structure. Insects also have circulatory and nervous systems. An insect’s body can be separated into three sections, which are as follows.

  • The head (with the mouthparts, compound and simple eyes or ocelli, and two sensory antennae).
  • A three-segmented thorax (usually with three pairs of jointed legs and two or four wings).
  • Segmented abdomen (having the digestive, excretory, and reproductive organs). All three abdominal units are distinct, but interconnected.

Normally, flying insects have one to three simple ocelli or eyes in the head apart from a pair of evolved compound eyes. However, these ‘eyelike markings’ can also be found on the wings of some insects like the butterflies. There is usually a spot of color within a colored ring.

Insects possess segmented but interconnected bodies. Their body is supported by a hard outer covering. Flying insects have an outer skeleton or cuticle which is made of two layers – the epicuticle, a waxy, water-resistant layer, and the thicker procuticle, which is further made up of an outer layer (exocuticle), and an inner layer (endocuticle).

The endocuticle is thick and is constructed of crisscross layers of fibrous chitin (a tough, semi-transparent substance which acts as a protective shell) and proteins, while the exocuticle is rigid and sclerotized (sclerotin is an insoluble protein that spreads in the chitin of the cuticle of arthropods, hardening and darkening by a natural tanning process).

The outer layer of the procuticle is reduced to a large extent among soft-bodied insects, especially in the larval or caterpillar stage. Insects molt many times as larvae. Molting is a process by which the insects discard their exoskeleton. Insects molt to increase in size with a larger outer covering, in order to establish their adult size.

Each insect species follow unique behavior patterns. For example, swarming is common among social insects like bees and wasps. They live as gigantic families, with all individual bees being the offspring of a single queen bee. A chemical messenger called pheromone, which is passed throughout the colony by food sharing, helps them achieve their social behavior.

Other social flying insects are ants, termites, and some species of bees and wasps. However, not all insects exhibit such social behavior; there are many other species that show a lesser degree of interaction. Flying Ant Day or Flant Day is a term used for the day the queen ants leave their nests and fly out a few meters accompanied by the smaller male ants in order to mate. Eventually, the queen ants drop to the ground, lose their wings, and try to start a colony.

Stinging Insects 101

How to identify the pest, the nest and the threat

Stinging insects such as various types of wasps, yellowjackets, hornets and bees, are common summertime pests and their stings can be more than just a painful nuisance. The National Pest Management Association reports that stinging insects send more than half a million people to the emergency room every year. Those with allergies to stings are most at risk, although anyone can be affected if a large number of stinging insects swarm and sting at once.

One way to protect yourself and your family from types of stinging insects like wasps and hornets this summer is to ensure your property is free from hives and nests. On a routine basis, walk around the exterior of your home, paying special attention to overhangs, eaves, the underside of porches and decks for nests. Also inspect shrubs, trees, sheds and other structures. If you do find a nest on your property, do not attempt to remove it on your own. The colony can become defensive and attack en masse. Instead, contact a licensed pest control professional who will be able to relocate or remove the hive in a safe manner.

Some stinging insects pose more serious threats than others. To determine the risk to your family, you will need to identify the type of insect, especially for wasps and yellowjackets. A trained pest professional will be able to properly identify a pest species and its threats, but you can also use this guide to help determine the species:

Types of Stinging Insects

Bumble Bees

  • Pest:Bumble bees are between ¼ — 1 inch in size, have black and yellow markings, and an overall fuzzy appearance.
  • Nest: Bumble bees build their nests out of pollen clumps, usually in the ground or a dense grass clump, and often in an abandoned mouse nest.
  • Threat: Bumble bees are considered a beneficial insect because they pollinate flowers. However, they can sting. If a nest is located in or near a structure, then control is necessary.

Carpenter Bees

  • Pest:Carpenter bees are between 1/2 — 1 inch in size. They resemble bumble bees, but the top of their abdomen is largely bare and shiny.
  • Nest: Carpenter bees do not live in nests or colonies. They bore into wood, where they make galleries for rearing their young. Carpenter bees tend to prefer decaying or weathered wood to new or painted wood.
  • Threat: Carpenter bees are a serious property threat, and can cause structural damage over time if they are not eliminated. Male carpenter bees can be territorial and may hover in front of one’s face aggressively, but they have no stinger and these actions are merely for show. Female carpenter bees do have a potent sting, which is rarely used.


  • Pest:Honeybees are between 1/2-5/8 inch in size and orangish brown or black in color.
  • Nest: Honeybees are social insects and live as colonies in hives, with mature colonies of 20,000 — 80,000 individuals.
  • Threat: Honeybees are not aggressive and do not search for something to attack. Instead, they are defensive and will attack only whatever seems to threaten the colony.
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Baldfaced Hornets

  • Pest: Bald-faced hornets are largely black in color, with a mostly white face.
  • Nest: Bald-faced hornets build aerial nests out of paper carton. The nests are usually in exposed locations, often on trees, utility poles, overhangs or other structures. The nests can be quite large, growing to 14 inches in diameter and 24 inches in length.
  • Threat: Bald-faced hornets are considered beneficial insects because they control many pest insect species. However, if their nest is located near a structure, control is warranted.

European Hornets

  • Pest:European hornets are large in size, between ¾ and more than 1 inch. They are brown with yellow abdominal stripes and a pale face.
  • Nest: European hornets build paper carton nests that are usually covered in a brown paper envelope as protection. Typically, the nests can be found in hollow trees, barns, out buildings, hollow walls of houses and attics.
  • Threat: European hornets are considered beneficial insects because they control many pest species. However, if their nest is located near a structure, control is warranted.

Mud Daubers

  • Pest: Mud daubers are long and slender, usually black in color, and may have pale markings or a metallic luster.
  • Nest: Mud daubers are solitary wasps and do not live in colonies. Females construct nests of mud. Many short mud tubes, usually about 1 inch long, are constructed side by side. They frequently build nests under eaves, porch ceilings, in garages and sheds, barns, protected building walls and attics.
  • Threat: Mud daubers are considered beneficial insects because they control spiders. However, if their nest is located near human activity, control is warranted.

Velvet Ants

  • Pest: Despite their name, velvet ants are not ants at all, but are actually types of wasps. Female velvet ants are very hairy and black in color, sometimes with areas of bright red, orange, yellow or white. Males are less hairy and duller in color, but have wings, unlike females.
  • Nest: Velvet ants often live in the types of nests used by wasps and ground-nesting bees. In other cases, they build nests in bare or sandy soil.
  • Threat: Velvet ants are sometimes called «cow killers» because of their very potent sting. However, only female velvet ants have stingers.

Paper Wasp

  • Pest: The paper wasp, a type of wasp species, is brownish in color with yellow or reddish markings.
  • Nest: Paper wasps get their name from the paper-like material of which they construct their nest. Paper wasp nests are often umbrella-like in shape and are never enclosed in an envelope. Nests are often found hanging from twigs and branches of trees and shrubs, as well as porch ceilings, door frames, eaves, deck floor joints, railings, etc.
  • Threat: If a nest is touched, there is a high probability you will get stung, although paper wasps are typically not an aggressive type of wasp. Paper wasps are considered beneficial insects because they control many pest insect species. However, if their nest is located near a structure, control is warranted.


  • Pest:Yellowjackets have a yellow and black color pattern and are between 3/8 — 5/8 inches.
  • Nest: Yellowjackets live in nests constructed of paper carton, which can grow to be basketball-sized. One nest will contain a number of rounded paper combs, attached one below another and covered with a many-layered envelope. Depending on the species, the nest may be near the ground, such as on plant roots, logs or timber, or aerial and attached to shrubs, bushes, houses, garages or sheds.
  • Threat: Yellowjackets are slow to sting, unless their nests are threatened. Yellowjackets are considered beneficial insects because they control many pest insect species. However, if their nest is located near a structure, control is warranted.

Remember, it is not advised to attempt to remove a stinging insect nest on your own, and doing so can be extremely dangerous. Instead, work with a licensed pest professional to access your property and the nest, to identify the type of stinging insect (like wasps or other dangerous stingers), and to determine the best way to eliminate the threat to your family.

Can Pests Transmit Coronavirus?

Now that winter has passed, it’s important to note that coronavirus is not spread by vector pests.

Insect bites and stings

Insect bites and stings can cause an immediate skin reaction. The bite from fire ants and the sting from bees, wasps, and hornets are most often painful. Bites caused by mosquitoes, fleas, and mites are more likely to cause itching than pain.

Insect and spider bites cause more deaths from venom reactions than bites from snakes.


In most cases, bites and stings can be easily treated at home.

Some people have extreme reactions that require immediate treatment to prevent death.

Certain spider bites, such as the black widow or brown recluse, can cause serious illness or death. Most spider bites are harmless. If possible, bring the insect or spider that bit you with you when you go for treatment so it can be identified.


Symptoms depend on the type of bite or sting. They may include:

Some people have severe, life-threatening reactions to bee stings or insect bites. This is called anaphylactic shock. This condition can occur very quickly and lead to rapid death if not treated quickly.

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Symptoms of anaphylaxis can occur quickly and affect the whole body. They include:

  • Chest pain
  • Face or mouth swelling
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fainting or lightheadedness
  • Abdominal pain or vomiting
  • Rash or flushing

First Aid

For severe reactions, first check the person’s airways and breathing. If necessary, call 911 and begin rescue breathing and CPR. Then, follow these steps:

  1. Reassure the person. Try to keep them calm.
  2. Remove nearby rings and constricting items because the affected area may swell.
  3. Use the person’s EpiPen or other emergency kit, if they have one. (Some people who have serious insect reactions carry it with them.)
  4. If appropriate, treat the person for signs of shock. Remain with the person until medical help arrives.

General steps for most bites and stings:

Remove the stinger by scraping the back of a credit card or other straight-edged object across the stinger. Do not use tweezers — these may squeeze the venom sac and increase the amount of venom released.

Wash the site thoroughly with soap and water. Then, follow these steps:

  1. Place ice (wrapped in a washcloth) on the site of the sting for 10 minutes and then off for 10 minutes. Repeat this process.
  2. If necessary, take an antihistamine or apply creams that reduce itching.
  3. Over the next several days, watch for signs of infection (such as increasing redness, swelling, or pain).


Use the following precautions:

  • DO NOT apply a tourniquet.
  • DO NOT give the person stimulants, aspirin, or other pain medicineВ unless prescribed by a health care provider.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call 911 orВ your local emergency number if someone with a sting has the following symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath
  • Swelling anywhere on the face or in the mouth
  • Throat tightness or difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling weak
  • Turning blue

If you had a severe, bodywide reaction to a bee sting, your provider should send you to an allergist for skin testing and therapy. You should receive an emergency kit to carry with you wherever you go.


You can help prevent insect bites and stings by doing the following:

  • Avoid rapid, jerky movements around insect hives or nests.
  • Avoid perfumes and floral-patterned or dark clothing.
  • Use appropriate insect repellents and protective clothing.
  • Use caution when eating outdoors, especially with sweetened beverages or in areas around garbage cans, which often attract bees.
  • If you have severe allergies to insect bites or stings, you should have an emergency kit and an EpiPen. Make sure your friends and family know how to use it if you have a reaction.

Alternative Names

Bee sting; Bites — insects, bees, and spiders; Black widow spider bite; Brown recluse bite; Flea bite; Honey bee or hornet sting; Lice bites; Mite bite; Scorpion bite; Spider bite; Wasp sting; Yellow jacket sting


  • Bedbug — close-up
  • Black widow spider
  • Body louse
  • Flea
  • Fly
  • Kissing bug
  • Dust mite
  • Mosquito, adult feeding on the skin
  • Wasp
  • Insect stings and allergy
  • Brown recluse spider
  • Black widow spider
  • Stinger removal
  • Flea bite — close-up
  • Insect bite reaction — close-up
  • Insect bites on the legs
  • Head louse, male
  • Head louse — female
  • Head louse infestation — scalp
  • Lice, body with stool (Pediculus humanus)
  • Body louse, female and larvae
  • Crab louse, female
  • Pubic louse-male
  • Head louse and pubic louse
  • Brown recluse spider bite on the hand
  • Insect bites and stings


Boyer LV, Binford GJ, Degan JA. Spider bites. In: Auerbach PS, Cushing TA, Harris NS, eds. Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 43.

Elston DM. Arthropods and leeches. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 359.

Otten EJ. Venomous animal injuries. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 55.

Suchard JR. Scorpion envenomation. In: Auerbach PS, Cushing TA, Harris NS, eds. Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 44.

True Flies, Order Diptera

Habits and Traits of True Flies

Martin Deja/Getty Images

  • B.A., Political Science, Rutgers University

Insects of the order Diptera, the true flies, are a large and diverse group that includes midges, no-see-ums, gnats, mosquitoes, and all manner of flies. Diptera literally means «two wings,» the unifying characteristic of this group.


As the name, Diptera indicates, most true flies have just one pair of functional wings. A pair of modified wings called halteres replace the hindwings. The halteres connect to a nerve-filled socket and work much like a gyroscope to keep the fly on the course and stabilize its flight.

Most Dipterans use sponging mouthparts to lap juices from fruits, nectar, or fluids exuded from animals. If you’ve ever encountered a horse or deer fly, you probably know that other flies have piercing, biting mouthparts to feed on the blood of vertebrate hosts. Flies have large compound eyes.

Flies undergo complete metamorphosis. The larvae lack legs and look like small grubs. Fly larvae are called maggots.

Most insect taxonomists divide the order Diptera into two suborders: Nematocera, flies with long antennae like mosquitoes, and Brachycera, flies with short antennae like house flies.

Habitat and Distribution

True flies live in abundance worldwide, though their larvae generally require a moist environment of some kind. Scientists describe over 120,000 species in this order.

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