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Insects and Spiders Hands-on Lesson Plan for Elementary Ages

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I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.

Exploring insects

Exploring insects

This is part 2 of a 5 part hands-on unit on animals and zoology. Test out various insect mouth types, examine insect parts under a microscope, make and eat edible ants, test out spider webs for vibration, and more! My lessons are geared toward 3rd-4th grade level children and their siblings. These are lessons I created to do with a weekly homeschool co-op. We meet each week for 2 1/2 hours and have 14 children between the ages of 0-13. Use these fun lessons with your classroom, family, after school program, camp, or co-op!

Comparing insects and arachnids

Comparing insects and arachnids

Introduction and Review

1. Stretch & pray. Read & discuss Proverbs 6:6-8.

2. Quickly review classification & invertebrates. Sing the first verse of

The Six Kingdom Song (Tune: Battle Hymn of the Republic)

Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

Six Kingdom Song

3. Give each child a toy spider and toy insect (or use pictures). What are the differences?

YOU WILL NEED PER CHILD OR GROUP:

  • 1 toy spider & 1 toy insect (or pictures of them)
Creating orb web designs

Creating orb web designs

Spiders and Orb Webs

4. Read most of Amazing World of Spiders by Janet Craig or Are You a Spider? by Judy Allen about spiders. Discuss main characteristics of arachnids.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • Amazing World of Spiders by Janet Craig, Are You a Spider? by Judy Allen, or other book giving an overview of spiders and/or arachnids

5. (Optional) Paint an orb web using white paint and black construction paper. You can use the pattern shown here.

  • We had the children draw the non-sticky lines in white crayon and then paint the sticky lines.
  • Note that the spider makes a straight line across, goes back halfway and drops to make a Y.
  • Then she makes radial lines and then 5 circular non-sticky lines with plenty of space between them, going from the middle to the outside.
  • Then she works her way from the outside inward with the tightly-spaced circular sticky lines.
  • As the children paint, show them pictures of various shapes of webs: orb, funnel, tangle, sheet, etc.
Scroll to Continue

YOU WILL NEED PER CHILD:

  • 1 piece of black construction paper (half or quarter sheets), white paint, white crayons, paintbrush, table covering, & pictures of various web shapes (to show the group)
Edible spider

Edible spider

Edible Spider & Spider Anatomy

6. Make an edible spider to review the basic anatomy of a spider.

  • Lay 2 round or oval crackers or cookies next to each other, preferably with one being small than the other. These are the cephalothorax (the smaller cracker) and the abdomen (the larger cracker).
  • Put peanut butter or frosting on the smaller cracker (cephalothorax).
  • Add 8 eyes (raisins or miniature chocolate chips). With 8 eyes, do you think they have good eyesight? They don't. Most spiders have simple eyes that only detect light & dark. Scientists think some spiders like jumping spiders have good eyesight because in one study jumping spiders watched a tv screen whenever it saw a jumping spider on the screen, but not when it saw other types of spiders on the screen. Most types of spiders didn't even pay attention to the tv screen. If most spiders can't see well, how are they so good at catching prey?
  • Add 8 legs (chow mein noodles, pretzel sticks, or black string licorice) to the cephalothorax cracker. Their legs have thousands of setae (tiny hairs) which feel vibrations & movements. Some can even smell & some can taste.
  • Add chelicera (the fang-like part near a spider's mouth that holds the venom) by adding 2 halves of an M&M or skittle. Most spiders have sucking mouth parts (like a straw) instead of chewing mouth parts. The chelicera sprays or injects their meal with enzyme-containing digestive juices from to dissolve the insides so they can slurp up insect smoothies or insect soup.
  • Lay the second cracker behind the first cracker. This is the abdomen and contains many of the important organs.

YOU WILL NEED PER CHILD:

  • a plate or napkin, 2 crackers or cookies (round or oval, such as a Ritz cracker & vanilla wafer), peanut butter or frosting, plastic knife (optional), 8 raisins or miniature chocolate chips, 8 items to use as legs (chow mein noodles, pretzel sticks, or black string licorice), & 1 M&M or skittle that has been cut in half (optional)
Webs and Vibrations

Webs and Vibrations

Webs and Vibrations

7. (Ahead of time, tie pieces of yarn tightly between 2 areas. The lines can overlap. (We used a table legs and chairs.) Divide children into groups of 4-6 in order to experience how spiders feel vibrations.

  • The yarn will represent the spider's web. A spider rests a leg on one of the strands in order to feel the vibrations of when a meal has arrived.
  • One child will act as the insect and tug gently at the line.
  • Another child will act as the spider and close her eyes and lay a finger (which we'll pretend is a spider's leg) on a line. She will be able to feel the vibrations on the line.
  • No matter what line is tugged, the spider can still feel the vibrations travel through the line. This is how a spider can judge when something flies into her web, and she can even tell the size of what flew into its web by the amount of force on the line.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • at least 1 piece of yarn or string (about 3 feet long) per group of children
Studying a rabid wolf spider in our catch & release jar (made from a glass pasta jar, coffee filter, & rubber band)

Studying a rabid wolf spider in our catch & release jar (made from a glass pasta jar, coffee filter, & rubber band)

Examining a spider and its tangled web (along with some leftover insect parts)

Examining a spider and its tangled web (along with some leftover insect parts)

Observing brown widow spider egg sacs

Observing brown widow spider egg sacs

Examining a Spider

8. Observe a live spider, spider web threads, egg sac, and/or molted legs, using magnifying glasses. Ask the children what they notice. Options of information you can share:

  • Watch the live spider move. It moves by moving 1st & 3rd legs on 1 side of body together with 2nd & 4th legs on other side.
  • What do you notice about its head? Can you find its chelicerae?
  • How many segments can you count on each leg? (7) At the end of each leg is a tarsus, a foot with a tiny claw that lets it hang on thin threads & cling to walls & ceilings.
  • Can you find the spinnerets in back of of the abdomen? Many spiders have 4, 6, or 8 spinnerets & contain liquid silk that hardens when forced through spinneret. That silk is stronger than steel of the same width. It's stronger than Kevlar, which is used to make bulletproof vests.
  • What do you think the egg sac is made of? It's made of a special kind of silk. A spider creates different kinds of silk: dragline silk (strongest & for escaping), capture silk (sticky & for catching prey), & egg-case silk (water proof & might contain several hundred spiderlings)
  • When I tried to get a spider egg sac from my garage door, I noticed lots of little dots emerging. Do you know what they were? Spiderlings! They each had a tiny strand of silk & they started floating all over. (I quickly moved away.) As soon as spiderlings hatch, they try to get away from their mom & siblings, so they put out a little silk & go ballooning, meaning they fly through the air like a kite. Why do you think they do that? (They need to each be in a place where they can get enough food.) Did anyone ever read a children's book that includes this? (It's in Charlotte's Web.)
  • All spiderlings don't balloon away. A mama wolf spider carries her babies around with her. Before I learned how beneficial spiders are, I stepped on a huge brown spider scurrying across my floor. Suddenly, what felt like hundreds of spiderlings started scurrying across my kitchen. I learned my lesson.
  • Of the 30,000+ species of spiders known to exist, only about 12 have enough venom to be a threat to people. Only 2 are in the US: brown recluse (about an inch across including tips of its feet & identified by the violin shape on its back) & black widow (shiny black with a bright red hourglass shape on her abdomen). Unless you're very young (like a baby or toddler), very old, or have a compromised immune system, a bite from either of those spiders probably won't kill you. From what I've heard from people who have gotten bitten by those spiders, a brown recluse bite will kind of cause your skin to die off around the bite. You can get medicine to stop it from happening. A black widow bite might make you feel sick for a couple weeks.
  • What is the largest spider in the world? (Goliath bird-eating spider (Theraphosa blondi) from Venezuela & Brazil) - It's leg-span can grow to 11 inches, which is the size of a dinner plate. (I showed a paper plate that is 11 inches across.)
  • I typically don't pick up or handle spiders because they might bite me if they feel like I'm a threat or a meal. Their bites are kind of like ant bites, a little painful &/or itchy, but it goes away after a day or two. However, I will hold tarantulas. Some can be very friendly & make good pets.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • a live spider (optional), spider web threads, spider egg sac (optional), molted spider body or legs (optional), dead spider (optional), & magnifying glasses
Observing dead scorpions

Observing dead scorpions

More Arachnids: Harvestmen & Scorpions

9. Harvestmen (Daddy longlegs) - If you have a live one to study, allow children to observe it. Otherwise, show them pictures of one.

  • What do you notice about it?
  • When I was younger, I was told a daddy longlegs has more powerful venom than a spider. It just doesn't have a large enough mouth (or deep enough fangs) to pierce a person's skin. This isn't true. Daddy Long Legs don't have venom or fangs.
  • Why aren't harvestmen/"daddy longlegs” classified as spiders? (only 2 eyes; lacks constriction (“waist” between 2 body regions, so only 1 body); no spinnerets/silk, no fangs or venom
  • Who has ever caught a harvestmen/"daddy longlegs”? Always be careful & gentle with it because it can lose a leg & have it wiggle around in order to try to escape. However, it's sense organs are on its 2nd pair of legs, so if it loses those, it will probably die.
  • What's another way they protect themselves from predators? (releases a foul-smelling odor)

YOU WILL NEED:

  • Either a live harvestmen (daddy longlegs) or a picture of one

10. Scorpions - If you have a live or dead scorpion to study, allow the children to observe it. Otherwise, show them pictures of ones.

  • Who has been stung by a scorpion? The stings from the ones around here usually just feel like a bad bee or wasp sting. My friend's husband put on a shoe one morning & felt like he'd stepped on a sewing needle. There was a scorpion in his shoe! It hurt & swelled a little bit for a few days. He now always checks his shoes before putting them on.
  • All scorpions are venomous but most aren't lethal to humans. Of the 1,750 species, only 25 are lethal to humans. The Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides exilicauda) is the most venomous in the US. Its sting can kill young children & some people with compromised immune systems.
  • Scorpions are one of the few animals that light glow under black light. (Other animals include flying squirrels, some opossums, puffin beaks, & some marine life.)
  • The last segment (telson) has the venomous stinger & it usually only stings large or very active prey
  • Scorpions don’t lay eggs; they give birth to live young & the babies cling to their mother’s tiny chelae until their first molt.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • Either a live or dead scorpion or pictures of ones
Observing a tick we pulled off our pet

Observing a tick we pulled off our pet

Observing dust from dust mites

Observing dust from dust mites

Arachnid Parasites: Mites & Ticks

11. There are over 45,000 species of parasitic arachnids, mites & ticks. Scientists think there are still possibly 1 million unidentified ones.

12. Mites: Most mites are so small that you need a microscope to see them.

  • Allow children to observe something with dust on it & show a picture of a magnified dust mite. Dust is caused by dust mites. We shed about 3 pounds of skin a year. Dust mites eat that skin. They poop out dust. Yes, that dust around your house is poop from dust mites. It's not harmful to most humans, though, unless you're allergic to dust. The best way to kill dust mites is to wash your sheets & pillow cases every week. The heat in the dryer kills dust mites.
  • (Show Spanish moss if you have some in your area & a picture of a chigger/red bug.) When we moved here, someone told me to never touch Spanish Moss because it contains red bugs, also known as chiggers. They burrow into your skin and cause itchy red bumps. Well, the Spanish moss part isn't true. Red bugs/chiggers live in the ground, not in trees. If you pull Spanish moss from a tree, it won't have chiggers. If you pick some up from the ground, though, it might have chiggers. Chiggers are big enough that you can see them. They look like tiny red dots that move. You don't want them on you.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • something with dust on it, a picture of a magnified dust mite, Spanish moss (optional), & a picture of a chigger/red bug.

13. Ticks - If you have a live or dead tick, allow children to observe it. Otherwise, show them pictures of ticks.

  • Who has had a tick on one of your pets or even on you? What did you do?
  • You'll definitely want to kill them. If they're attached, get them off quickly.
  • What are some diseases you can get from ticks? (Rocky Mountain Spotted fever (wood tick), Lyme disease (deer tick), & Texas fever (cattle tick))

YOU WILL NEED:

  • live or dead tick or pictures of ticks
Studying Insect Specimens

Studying Insect Specimens

Insect Specimens

14. Read "Bugs Are Insects" by Anne Rockwell about insects.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • "Bugs Are Insects" by Anne Rockwell or other book giving an overview of insects

15. Quickly discuss how insects are classified & look at insect specimens we've collected. You can use the last page of "Insects: Six-legged Animals" by Laura Purdie Salas which has the scientific classification breakdown and shows pictures on each line.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • "Insects: Six-legged Animals" by Laura Purdie Salas or other book on the scientific classification breakdown of an insect
Components of the insect cookies before they are assembled

Components of the insect cookies before they are assembled

Insect anatomy cookies

Insect anatomy cookies

Insect Antennae

16. Make an edible insect to review the basic anatomy of an insect.

  • Ask the children what is different about what we'll be using for the insect cookies versus what we used for the arachnid/spider cookies.
  • Separate the Oreo cookie so you have 3 cookies since insects have 3 body parts. Lay the part of the Oreo with the cream in the middle as it will be the thorax.
  • Add 2 eyes (raisins or miniature chocolate chips) to the head. Many adult insects adults have simple eyes (1 lens) & compound eyes (up to thousands of lenses).
  • Add 2 antennae (string licorice) to the head. The antennae are even more important than the eyes for sensory reception. They come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, & uses (moth = feathered & comb-like, June beetle = leaf-like, etc.). Antennae are covered with hair called sensilla, which are little sense organs. Some can taste, smell, and/or hear.
  • Add 6 legs (chow mein noodles) to the thorax. (Press them LIGHTLY or just lay them on top of the cream filling.) Insect legs come in a variety of shapes, all designed for how they use their legs: Mole crickets have digging legs which with very large front ones for digging through soil. Water insects have legs flattened into oars for paddling. Crickets & grasshoppers have powerful hind legs for sudden jumping long distances. Houseflies can walk on walls & windows because of tiny claws for grasping & hairy pads that secrete sticky substance. Bees use legs for walking, working with wax, brushing pollen from body, & carrying pollen.
  • Add 2 or 4 wings (almonds or sliced almonds) to the thorax. You can use whole almonds for the elytra (hard outer wings that protect delicate flying wings) and almond slices for the flying wings. Only adult insects have wings. Most have 2 pairs but some have 1 pair & some are wingless. Most insects are grouped by the design & structure of their wings, so orders end in Latin “-ptera” = wing. Entomologists (scientists who study insects) divide families into genius & species by the vein pattern of their wings.
  • The third cracker (vanilla wafer) is the abdomen and contains many of the important organs. The abdomen might be divided into segments with pairs of spiracles, which pump air throughout the body as the insect moves its wings & expands & contracts its abdomen & trachea.

YOU WILL NEED PER CHILD:

  • a plate or napkin, 1 Oreo-type cookie, 1 circle cookie (like a vanilla wafer), 2 or 4 raisins or miniature chocolate chips, 6 items to use as legs (chow mein noodles, pretzel sticks, or black string licorice), 2 pieces of string licorice, & 2 or 4 almond slices or almonds
Tesing out Insect Mouth Types

Tesing out Insect Mouth Types

Types of insect mouth designs

Types of insect mouth designs

Insect Mouth Types

17. Each insect has a "custom-made" set of mouth parts designed to fit the food God planned for it to eat.

  • Ahead of time tape a leaf to a Caprisun-type pouch drink. This will represent a flower filled with nectar. Pass one out to each student along with a piece of paper towel. Also have them take out their scissors. If desired, also pass out a party blower to each student.
  • They should first use the scissors to rip off the leaf and cut up the leaf as if you were an insect that was eating up the leaf. Which insect has sharp jaws used tear up plants? (grasshopper & others).
  • Use the straw to jab into the "plant" (juice pouch). Students can suck up the nectar. What insect might it be? (spittlebug & others)
  • If this wasn't the nectar of a flower but was your arm & it was sucking up blood, what insect might it be? (mosquito)
  • Allow student to blow out their party blower (if you gave one to each student) or simply demonstrate with one. Butterflies and bees have tongues like the party blowers. After they uncurl their tongues, they suck in nectar like a straw.
  • Now crumple or fold up the paper towel, put it over the straw, and try to suck it up. House flies and some other insects have sponge-like mouths. If they land on something solid that they want to eat, they spit out an enzyme that dissolves the material and makes it liquid so that they can sponge it up for food.

YOU WILL NEED PER CHILD:

  • Caprisun-type pouch drink and straw with a leaf taped to it, piece of clean paper towel, party blower (that blows out and rolls back up) (optional), & pair of scissors
Molting demonstration

Molting demonstration

Molting

18. Discuss molting. Show clothing in various stages (baby, children's, & adult) to demonstrate how we grow out of clothing sizes and "discard" the old ones. Pass around an exoskeleton. Show a balloon and tell them that is the nymph or baby cricket. Wrap tissue paper around it and tape near the hole of the balloon. This is the cricket's exoskeleton. Slowly blow up the balloon to show the cricket growing. As it becomes bigger the tissue paper will tear and break off. This is molting.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • clothing of different sizes, a balloon, tissue paper, exoskeleton, & tape
Holding mealworms

Holding mealworms

Beetles

19. (Optional) Pass out mealworms. They don't bite and tolerate lots of handling. Let children each hold one as you discuss their life cycle and care requirements. Let each child take one home in a sandwich bag. This is a great way for children to observe the life cycle of insects.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • mealworms (purchased at pet store) & sandwich bags

20. Beetles (Coleoptera: "Sheath-winged")

  • Pass out magnifying glasses & any beetle specimens (alive or dead) for the children to observe while you talk about beetles.
  • Beetles are the largest order of insects. There are about 400,000 known species, which means about 40% of all insect species are beetles. 25% of all the known animals in the entire world are beetles!
  • All beetles have hard forewings (elytra) which form a straight line down its back & front closely over its body like shell, which acts as protective coverings for the delicate flying wings beneath them. They also have strong jaws & chewing mouth parts.
  • Mealworms are the larval form of the mealworm beetle, a species of darkling beetle.
  • Discuss a bit about any of the beetles you are passing around for the children to examine. For example:

    A. Ladybug/Ladybird beetle

    • differ in number of spots
    • Whenever my kids find ladybugs, I tell them to put them on our fruit trees. Why? (They eat aphids - up to 500/day = control pests.)
    • Winter: groups huddle to hibernate - Who has come across a group of them indoors during the winter? Every winter the guest room of my mother-in-laws house is filled with ladybugs.

    B. Weevils

    • Who has found these in your flour? We have!
    • snout beetles with prominent rostrum = beak-like projection in front used to bore into roots, leaves, seeds, etc. – lay eggs in flour
    • Granary = flour; boll – cotton
    • My brother-in-law was stationed in Enterprise, Alabama. In the middle of downtown they have a monument dedicated to the cotton boll weevil. Why? It destroyed their cotton crops, which led them to pursue more profitable crops and businesses.

    C. Fireflies

    • one of few terrestrial bugs displaying bio-luminescence
    • Who has caught these at night?

YOU WILL NEED:

  • dead or alive beetles such as ladybug/ladybird beetle, weevils, rhinoceros beetles, dung beetles, fireflies, etc. for children to observe & magnifying glasses
Observing butterflies

Observing butterflies

Butterflies & Moths

21. Butterflies & Moths (Lepidoptera: "scale-winged")

  • Allow children to examine butterfly specimens while you discuss about butterflies. Make sure to use your magnifying glasses to observe the scales and try to notice the mouth as well.
  • 2nd largest insect order
  • If you're presenting to younger children, share about the butterfly life cycle. I read See How They Grow: Butterfly by Mary Ling.
  • 180,000 known species. Do you think there are more types of butterflies or moths? 90% are moths!
  • How can you tell the difference between moths & butterflies? (nocturnal vs. diurnal, bodies, wings held flat or up when at rest, antennae)

YOU WILL NEED:

  • butterfly & moth specimens (butterflies, moths, butterfly wings, and/or empty cocoons & chrysalises), magnifying glasses, & a book about the life cycle of a butterfly such as How They Grow: Butterfly by Mary Ling (optional)
Observing a grasshopper

Observing a grasshopper

Grasshoppers

22. Grasshoppers (orthopetera: "straight winged")

  • Allow children to examine specimens while you discuss about grasshoppers & crickets. Make sure to pay close attention to the legs.
  • When they're not flying, their wings are straight along body
  • Crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, locusts, mantises, cockroaches
  • Most are herbivorous & chewing = lots of crop damage. Mantises, however, feed on insects & are popular with gardeners.
  • Discuss about specific ones you might have brought for children to examine. Examples of what to say:

    A. Grasshoppers

    • divided by length of antennae: long-horned (katydid & cricket) & short-horned (locusts)
    • normally short-horned are solitary – if overpopulated, nymphs develop darker colors = absorb more heat = more active = bigger appetite = hordes (because they imitate each other)
    • Make sounds & each variety is distinct so you can identify they by their song
    • Stridulatory organs = musical instruments – like violin – scraper (like comb) rubbed across file (smooth or knobby) & forewings act as resonating membranes
    • Higher temps = more intense songs & more chirps

    B. Mantis

    • carnivorous: eats insects, lizards, & mice
    • easily blends in & resembles flowers, twigs, leaves, & stones (ingenuity of Creator)

    C. Cockroaches

    • 4000 known species & world’s most numerous insects
    • only 35 species invade our homes; can carry pathogens that are harmful to humans

YOU WILL NEED:

  • dead or alive grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches, katydids, and/or mantises for children to observe & magnifying glasses
Following an "ant trail" to food

Following an "ant trail" to food

Ants

23. Ants (Hymenoptera: "Membrane-winged" = Bees, Wasps, & Ants)

  • Allow children to examine specimens while you briefly discuss about ants.
  • Options to mention:
  • Some colonies have lived for more than 80 years
  • May have several queens
  • 12,500 species & varieties are fascinating. Some enslave ants from other colonies. Some harvest their own food. Some "milk" aphids like cattle.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • dead or alive ants & magnifying glasses

24. Pretend to be ants. Follow a phenome "ant trail" to food.

  • Have a girl pretend to be a worker ant who finds food. (All worker ants are girls.)
  • Have her walk back & drop craft pom poms or cotton balls to create a "pheromone chemical trail." (If you're teaching older children, she can go under the table, between chairs, etc.).
  • When she arrives back at the ant pile, she'll tell everyone she found food. Everyone will crawl or walk in a single file line, following the pheromone trail to the food.
  • Have them use their "mandibles" (mouths) to carry the food back to "ant pile" to eat it.
  • If desired, you can leave one ant behind to act as the queen. She can have some of the food brought back to her (on a plate) by 2 worker ants who work together to bring back the container.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • craft pom poms or cotton balls & a snack (mentioned below)
Tasting cricket protein bars

Tasting cricket protein bars

Cricket Treats & Review

25. (Optional) For our treat, the children ate what they thought were brownie bites. They were pieces of cricket protein bars.

  • I also offered them candy if they'd try other insect snacks.
  • Grasshoppers ("chapulines") are considered food in many cultures around the world. In parts of Mexico they are added to tacos. They are an inexpensive, plentiful source for protein. (Tip: Remove the legs as they easily get caught in your teeth.)
  • Mealworms were tastier than the crickets. The ones below are crunchy.

YOU WILL NEED:

  • treats made from insects such as cricket protein bars, chapulines, or meal worms and candy

26. 5 Minute Review of what we learned today.

27. Let each child select a phylum/class on which to present for our end-of-unit dinner and presentation evening. Also give directions for the presentations.

Tasting honey while learning about bees

Tasting honey while learning about bees

What About Bees?

We didn't include bees in this lesson because I have an entire lesson devoted to bees. If you'd like to add in this lesson as an extra week, go to Bee & Honey Lesson.