Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


Download the audio files or subscribe to our podcast.






Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Kids' art results in some interesting-looking insects

lady bug drawing
Isabelle Szeto, 1st grade
Purdue Chinese School

From 1952 until 1967 Art Linkletter hosted a TV show called House Party. One feature of that CBS program was a "Kids Say the Darndest Things" segment where Art interviewed children from 6 to 10 years of age. The answers to Art's questions proved what most parents already knew: Leave it to young kids to spill the beans, especially on family matters!

Pictures drawn by kids also give us a little insight into how children view the world. At least that has been the case with insect pictures created by school children for display at the Purdue University Bug Bowl. As part of the annual April event, students from local schools have been invited to submit original artwork incorporating arthropods. The work is then judged according to grade category and displayed during Bug Bowl. In recent years over 1200 works of art inspired by millipedes, centipedes, scorpions, ticks, spiders and insects have been submitted.

dragon fly drawing
Anya Lu, 4th grade
Happy Hollow School

As you can imagine, because the artists range in age from preschool through high school, the technical quality of the renderings ranges widely. However, observers of the show have noted some trends that occur in the Bug Bowl art. Not surprisingly, younger children tend to produce cartoon versions of insects while the older students try to achieve realistic representations of their chosen creature. Ladybugs and bees are common in the younger children's art while the more advanced students depict a wide range of creatures. Also the art of the young participants tends to show only the insect while the older students incorporate more situations into the picture, such as a bee on a flower.

butterfly drawing
Anna Ye, 10th grade
Purdue Chinese School

Younger students who submit art to the contest consistently incorporate human characteristics into their arthropods. For example, human-style faces include eyes with a single lens and a mouth with teeth. Often the eyes and the mouth are drawn so as to capture the feeling of the artist about that insect. Many times bees are shown with sharp teeth or even fangs and a frown, and the obvious stinger. The same frowning, toothy grin is also common on illustrations of spiders. Ladybugs on the other hand often have a smile on their face.

But even though the characteristics of the human eyes and mouth dominate the insect heads drawn by the young artists, one distinctly insect feature is included in almost all drawings. That feature is antennae. Yes, almost every creature drawn included antennae. Sometimes knobbed, sometimes fuzzy, sometimes beadlike, but all obviously antennae, a structure that entomologists say is a defining characteristic of the creatures we call insects.

Young illustrators may or may not capture what to entomologists is another defining morphological characteristic of insects – a body divided into three distinct sections. More likely than not the first section, the head is obvious in the drawings but the middle and last sections, the thorax and the abdomen, tend to be fused into one structure.

Most of the students know that an insect in the adult stage has six legs. But where to attach the legs to an insect body in a drawing is, well, problematic. At least that appears to be the case if one looks at the Bug Bowl art. In nature, insect legs are always attached to the thorax. While the legs can sometimes be long and touch the surface in front of or behind the insect, the structures are articulated with the middle portion of the insect body. Many young artists incorrectly depict some of the legs as arising from the rear section of the insect.

In general, when it comes to color of the creatures showing up in Bug Bowl art, the students are close to reality. Bees are yellow and black striped. Ladybugs are red with black dots. Grasshoppers are green. Of course, the creative element always enters into art. So a few ladybugs show up as bright blue, and an occasional red and black-striped bee is seen.

It is in the butterfly art of Bug Bowl that creative coloring hits the forefront. Butterflies of every color combination you can think of have shown up for display. But maybe that is the way it should be. Nowhere is artistic license more appropriate than in depicting the "flying flowers" of the insect world. Such renderings might not be accurate, but they sure are interesting!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox