Insect identification - a step by step guide to identify insects to order level

This identification key works for adult insects found in Europe. It may also work for insects found in other parts of the world. All you have to do is click on the right choice in each box. This will take you to the next box, or to the page dealing with that order of insects.

Or you could try my new book availble from Amazon if it is an insect.

Smith, L. (2014). Characteristics of the insect orders. Amazon. Characteristics of the insect orders with drawings and photographs to help you understand the differences between the different types of insect, and identify which order an insect is in, as well as fast facts about each insect order, and links to web pages with more detailed information. Many orders have separate sections about the life cycle of the insect as well as its habitat requirements, and fossil history.

Box 1

Insects with wings - go to Box 2.

Insects without wings - go to Box 29.

Box 2

Insects with just one pair of wings - go to Box 3.

Insects with 2 pairs of wings. The 2 pairs can be different, as in beetles (see below) who have their front pair modified into wing cases (elytra). The front and back wings may be hooked or zipped together as they are in bees (see below) and butterflies, and will look like one pair, so look closely.


If your insect has 2 pairs of wings go to Box 7.

Bombus humilis

Box 3

Insects with large hind legs used for jumping. Go to Orthoptera, what you have is in the cricket, grasshopper, locust order.

Insects not like this - go to Box 4.

Box 4

Insects with one or more "tails" coming out of the end of its abdomen. - Go to Box 5.

Insects with no "tails" coming out of the end of its abdomen. - Go to Box 6.

Box 5

Insects with a body length less than 5 mm long, and wings with just 1 or 2 veins. Go to Hemiptera, the true bugs.

Insects with a body longer than 5 mm, and wings with many veins. Go to Ephemeroptera, the mayflies.

Box 6

Insects that are very small and have halteres (club-shaped balancing organs) in front of its wings (see below).


Go to Strepsiptera.


Insects that have halters (balancers) behind its wings (see below). This is not always easy to see.

tipulid, crane fly, daddy long legs

Go to Diptera, the true flies.

Box 7

Insects that have hard or leathery front wings. Go to Box 8.

Insects that have all 4 wings membranous. Go to Box 13.

Box 8

Insects whose leathery front wings have a membranous tip. Go to Hemiptera, the true bugs .

Insects whose front wings are the same leathery texture along the whole length. Go to Box 9.

Box 9

Insects whose front wings are hard, without veins, and meet down the centre in a straight line at least part of the way. Go to Box 10.

Insects whose front wings have veins, overlap to some extent, and are held like a roof over the body. Go to Box 11.

Box 10

Insects whose abdomen ends in a pair of pincer-like, horny appendages. Go to Dermaptera, the earwigs.

Insects not like this. Go to Coleoptera, the beetles.

Box 11

Insects that have a piercing, sucking, beak-like mouth (this may be folded under its body like a pen-knife when it is not feeding). Go to Hemiptera, the true bugs.

Insects not like this. Go to Box 12.

Box 12

Insects with hinds legs that are large, strong and good for jumping. Go to Orthoptera, crickets and grasshoppers, etc.

Insects with hind legs that are not modified for jumping. Go to Dictyoptera, cockroaches and mantids.

Box 13

Tiny insects covered in a white powdery substance. Go to Box 14.

Insects not covered in a white powdery substance. Go to Box 15.

Box 14

Insects that hold their wings flat over their body and have piercing, sucking mouthparts. The piercing mouthparts (see the drawing below) may be folded under the body when not feeding. Go to Hemiptera, the true bugs.

Hemiptera stylets

Insects that hold their wings roof-like over their body when at rest. The mouthparts are the biting type (this may be difficult to see, but it is enough to be sure they do not have a stylets - see right). Go to Neuroptera, lace wings, ant lions, alderflies, snake flies etc.

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