Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Insect Wings Useful to Insects and Entomologists

One of the outstanding attributes of adult insects is that they have wings. Wings allow insects to travel to new places in search of food or mates. The ability to fly also provides a mechanism to escape enemies and to find a place to spend the winter. Wings are one of the keys to success for this group of animals.

But not all insects have wings. There are some ancient groups of insects that are wingless. For instance, those insects called firebrats and silverfish lack wings. The same is true of collembola, tiny insects that feed on organic matter in the soil.

But most insect species have wings in the adult stage. On the other hand, immature insects do not have wings. But in that stage, the lack of wings is a benefit since many immature insects feed in confined spaces, and wings would just get in the way. Such is the case with fly maggots, which feed in dead animals or garbage heaps, the grubs that crawl around in the soil looking for roots, and some caterpillars that literally bore through the plant tissue on which they feed.

In some insects, such as termites and ants, the wings are present in reproductive adults but not in other forms. Like many immature insects, the workers of these social insects crawl around in the tunnels of the nest where wings would just get in the way. Queens of ants and termites actually chew off their wings, following mating flights.

Wings are very handy to insects as tools for locomotion. Insect wings also are very handy to entomologists who classify insects. Entomologists frequently use the variation of wing structure of insects to write descriptions of species.

Most of the order names of insects are based on a Latin root for the type of wing possessed by that order. Many of the insect order names include "pteron," Latin for fur, wing or feather. In the case of insects, it means wing.

Flies are classified in the order Diptera. "Ptera" for wing and "di" for two, in reference to the two wings possessed by flies. Two wings are unusual for insects, since other winged forms have four wings./p>

Beetles have a hard pair of outer wings called elytra. Coleos, the Latin term for sheath, is the basis for Coleoptera, the order name for the beetles. Hemi means half; consequently, the insects in the order Hemiptera are half-winged. These insects have a leathery front half of the wing while the back portion is membranous.

Butterflies and moths have scales on their wings. So these insects are classified in the order Lepidoptera, which interpreted literally means "scale wing." We find the same Latin root in the human disease leprosy where the skin tends to flake or scale off. Even the poet Robert Frost noted the colored scales on the wings of butterflies and used the term "dye-dusty wing" to describe the wings of monarch butterflies in his poem, "Pod of the Milkweed."

Lacewings fall in the order called Neuroptera because their wings appear to be traversed by nerves. Grasshoppers and crickets are Orthoptera, due to the presence of straight outer wings. The same Latin root is found in the profession orthodontist, the specialist dentist who straightens our teeth.

It is obvious that wings are important to insects as a method of locomotion. It's also true that these wings provide obvious characteristics to help scientists separate insects into groups called orders. For both insects and entomologists, the wings have it!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox