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Aphid Credit Tim Crabb
Aphid Credit Tim Crabb

There are over 24,000 species of insects in Britain and, globally, well over one million species have been described to date. The classification of insects can be complex but it is very important to group and identify insects so that they can be studied reliably. Insects, like all animals, are classified using a hierarchical system of classification. Here is an example using the marmalade hoverfly, Episyrphus balteatus:

Kingdom: Animalia (all animals)

Phylum: Arthropoda (all arthropods)

Class: Insecta (only the insects)

Order: Diptera (only the true flies)

Family: Syrphidae (only the hoverflies)

GenusEpisyrphus (only a sub-set of the hoverflies)

Speciesbalteatus

Female Episyrphus balteatus Credit Robin Williams
Female Episyrphus balteatus Credit Robin Williams

From this hierarchy we derive the scientific name for the marmalade hoverfly – Episyrphus balteatus. This ‘binomial nomenclature’ allows there to be a two-word, universally recognised name for each species, which avoids the confusion that might arise from using a common name in one particular language or from a particular region. Traditionally, the genus and species should be written in italics.

There are also groupings that fit between the traditional ranks of the hierarchy which are often included because they are evolutionarily important. For example, insects in the wider sense constitute the subphylum Hexapoda, which separates the arthropods with six legs from others such as centipedes and spiders. Hexapoda is then divided into two classes: the Entognatha includes primitively wingless hexapods such as springtails, while all the ‘true’ insects are subdivided into five major groups also know as superorders, the Apterygota, Palaeoptera, Polyneoptera, Paraneoptera and Endopterygota. You can explore the world of insect classification from this page and learn about the fascinating groups of insects that can be found in Britain.

More discussion about this classification, with a list of more detailed references, can be found in Peter C. Barnard’s book The Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects, published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2011, and obtainable from the RES. It also contains detailed information on all the 558 families of British insects.

Insecta


Apterygota

Primitive wingless insects with incomplete metamorphosis.

Zygentoma

Silverfish and firebrats


Palaeoptera

Primitive winged insects, with their wings held upright or outstretched at rest and incomplete metamorphosis.

Ephemeroptera

Mayflies or upwing flies

Odonata

Dragonflies and damselflies


Polyneoptera

Winged insects, with a broad, fan-like extension to their hind wings, and incomplete metamorphosis.

Orthoptera

Grasshoppers, crickets and bush-crickets

Phasmida

Stick-insects

Plecoptera

Stoneflies

Dermaptera

Earwigs

Dictyoptera

Cockroaches, termites and mantids

Embioptera

Webspinners

Grylloblattaria

Rock crawlers

Mantophasmatodea

Heelwalkers

Zoraptera

Zorapterans


Paraneoptera

Higher insects, with mostly incomplete metamorphosis, where a nymph generally resembles the adult.

Hemiptera

True bugs

Phthiraptera

Sucking and biting lice

Psocoptera

Booklice and barklice

Thysanoptera

Thrips


Endopterygota

Higher insects, with a clear metamorphosis from larva via a pupa to adult, also called Holometabola.

Coleoptera

Beetles

Diptera

True flies

Hymenoptera

Ants, bees, and wasps

Lepidoptera

Butterflies and moths

Mecoptera

Scorpion flies

Megaloptera

Alderflies

Neuroptera

Lacewings

Siphonaptera

Fleas

Raphidioptera

Snakeflies

Strepsiptera

Twisted wing flies

Trichoptera

Caddisflies or sedge flies

See also