Bugs in the Bluestem

Bugs in the Bluestem

Designed By: Courtney Lopez, Ben White, Dan Sedlacek, Abiola Lawal

Grades: 4

Age Level: 9-11

Ohio Science Standards

Life Science

Topic: Earth’s Living History

4.LS.1: Changes in an organism’s environment are sometimes beneficial to its survival

and sometimes harmful.

Materials Needed

  • Suggest, investigate, and answer questions about prairie insects.
  • Distinguish between insects and other invertebrates.
  • Name two types of insect Orders (such as beetles and flies) Label the basic parts of an insect (head, thorax, abdomen, 6 legs, 2 antennae, wings, compound eyes).
  • Provide one reason why insects are important.
  • Enjoy searching for and examining prairie insects.

Background Information

The purpose of this lesson is to provide students the opportunity to observe, collect, classify, and identify prairie insects through a scientific investigation. Putting prairie insects in the hands of students creates a chance to apply what they have learned in the school classroom about insects and other invertebrates or about classification. In addition, through their first-hand experience in the prairie, students witness the ecological role of prairie insects. Insects are of immense ecological value in terms of biodiversity, the food chain, decomposition, pollination, and soil modification.

Insects are important because of the biological diversity they provide to the prairie. Several hundred insect species may be found in a single Ohio prairie community. In North America, hundreds of grasshopper species inhabit the prairie. Ohio is home to about 25 different grasshoppers, cricket and katydid species, which all belong to the order of Orthoptera. Insects are the largest group of grassland plant eaters in numbers and likely mass.

Prairie insects are also important because they play an enormous role in the prairie food chain. Insects are meals for other small and medium-sized meat eaters like beetles, ants, spiders, songbirds, American kestrels, other small raptors, and some rodents. They have specialized mouthparts that allow them to consume plant life in various ways.

Some examples include, Aphids and true bugs pierce plants and suck out the juices for a liquid meal. Thrips scrape holes in plants to access the liquids inside. Bees lap nectar, flies sponge it up, and butterflies and moths sip it through their hollow, siphon tongue. The worker caste of harvester ants chew on seeds, leaves, and stems with their powerful jaws. Sawflies, beetles, grasshoppers, and caterpillars feed in a similar fashion. Many species of prairie bees lay eggs in individual underground nests, placing eggs on small pellets of pollen which is later consumed as these bees develop and grow. Insects, especially grasshoppers and crickets, shape the prairie landscape with their pruning action, creating patchy open areas within it, allowing certain pioneer plant species or those more dependent upon disturbance and daylight to become established.

Prairie insects keep nutrients cycling in the system through the food chain and through decomposition. Blowflies, ants, carrion beetles, scarab beetles, yellow jackets, and many other species visit freshly dead carcasses to scavenge a meal. Dung beetles consume animal waste, manure which they tear off and roll into a ball then bury underground to eat or lay eggs on. Hatching eggs makes the first meal of the manure. A dung beetle can devour its own weight in dung juices in a day. Insect decomposers facilitate movement of nutrients through the prairie.

Prairie insects also modify and improve soil. The infinite tunneling action of ants alone loosens and mixes prairie soil, bringing nutrients from below the root zone to the top where plants can use them. Dead and dying birds and insects hauled underground by burying beetles contribute nutrients and organic matter to soil. Holes created by female grasshoppers laying eggs invite water to more easily infiltrate the surface. These inconspicuous habits play a major role in soil modification.

Most prairie flowers cannot self-pollinate. Lured by a meal of nectar or pollen or other insects, beetles, bee flies, butterflies, moths, wasps, and bees inadvertently carry pollen from one flower to another in their search for food. While many pollinators are generalists and visit a variety of plants, some are specialists. Bees are likely the most important prairie pollinators. Another bee example, some bee species match up to certain flower species based on proboscis length matching to the corresponding flower tube length of wild bergamot (long tube), purple coneflower (mid-length), or Culver’s root (short). A third bee example, bee species active at different times of the growing season visit certain groups of plants blooming during those same times. Prairie plants and insects depend upon each other for survival. Each team of flowers and insects meets each other’s needs and keeps the prairie buzzing and propagating.

Discovering and studying organisms requires classifying them: organizing them into groups of similar organisms. The main hierarchical categories for organizing living things are: kingdom, phylum, class, subclass, order, family, genus, and species. They are arranged in a nested series from the broadest categories (kingdom) to the most specific (species). A species is defined as organisms that are similar in structure and can successfully produce fertile offspring.

The biology of organisms becomes more uniform the closer to the species level as well as the more challenging to accurately identify. This lesson emphasizes classification of insects to the Order level, a fair compromise between biological uniformity and identification difficulty.

The eight most common insect Orders students collect are:

Order Name

Insect Groups


Dragonflies and damselflies


Grasshoppers, crickets, mantids; dominant on big bluestem prairies


True bugs such as stink bugs, milkweed bugs, box elder bugs; dominant on big bluestem prairies


Leafhoppers, treehoppers, aphids, scale insects


Beetles such as fireflies, ladybird beetles, and weevils


Butterflies and moths; numerous on big bluestem prairies


True flies such as the deer fly, house fly, and blow fly; dominant on big bluestem prairies


Bees, wasps, ants, ichneumons

Teacher Preparation

Before heading to the Natural Areas:

● Help save paper. Bring your students’ science notebooks or journals to record their investigation questions, field data, results, and conclusions.

● With your students, practice thinking of appropriate questions that can be investigated outdoors. ○ For example: which of these two questions can they best answer today by going outdoors? How many insects are there in the world? -OR-- How many kinds of insects are in our school yard right now? Being as specific as possible helps make the questions more realistic. Appropriate questions are key to developing an effective investigation and help develop critical thinking skills.

○ We highly recommend conducting one or more of the suggested extensions before your visit in order to integrate this field investigation into the classroom study of animals, insects, invertebrate, classification, life cycles, adaptations, prairie, or other topics. We believe such integration enhances student motivation for learning in other curricular areas. Please see section, “Teacher-Led Extensions/Adaptations/Assessment Ideas.” (On Pages 6-7).

● Organize students into small groups, each group led by a chaperone.

Engagement-in the classroom

1. Organize students into small groups, each led by a chaperone, and inform chaperones of their role in following through on instructions for students. (Map of Natural Areas on Page 13).

2. Next, prepare to go out in the field and collect prairie insects. Distribute clipboards, paper, and pencils to each student OR ask them to open their science notebooks/nature journals.

3. To begin the investigation, start a KWHL chart and ask students what they Know about prairie insects. As their teacher, record their responses on the white board or poster paper. Give them plenty of time to think and respond, guiding where needed, but not answering for them. At this point, and from their perspective, there are no right or wrong answers in asking them what they know.

a. Even if the information they give is incorrect, resist the temptation to correct them at this point if possible. Doing so will allow for open sharing and for you to gauge where they may need help with this topic during their visit.

b. However, you may prompt students for specifics by asking them such things as, “What do you know about insects? The adaptations of insects? What kinds live in the prairie? What do you know about the life cycle of prairie insects? Where do insects live in the prairie?”

Exploration/Explanation-in the classroom or in the field

4. Next, ask students what they Wonder about prairie insects? What questions do they have about them? They should think about questions that can be answered by going outside today and exploring. Each question should also be recorded in the column next to what they know. Again, give them ample time to think and respond. Try not to provide them with questions to investigate. a. Coming up with their own questions will give them more ownership in the investigation. If necessary, prompt them with questions like: “Is there something you would like to find out today about prairie insects? What do you wonder about prairie insect adaptations?”

5. Select four questions to investigate. For the third KWHL column, ask students How we will find the answer to each question. Will we stay on the trails or go off trail? What kinds of rules or tools will we need to bring and use? Match the tools with the appropriate questions on the chart, creating the third column, “H,” how we will find out.

6. On the white board, demonstrate how to organize their data sheet with a title, date, location, and four titled quadrants, one for each question. Incorporate their suggestions.

7. Review rules for the trail. Remember to mention that we will not be picking flowers or intentionally breaking plants. Remind students that they are scientists conducting a real scientific investigation just like adult scientists do. Scientists are quiet and respectful outdoors. They have a purpose in the field to complete their mission (in this case, collecting insects).

8. Travel to the area where you will collect insects and give space boundaries. In their small groups, students can collect and identify their insects to the Order and record their data. They should release the insects when finished or as needed. Move from group to group to assist and check that chaperones and students are correctly identifying their insects and to answer questions.


Elaboration-in the classroom

9. Return indoors to the four questions and answer them together as a class. Write them down with the questions or add a last column (the L in KWHL, Learned). Ask students to write a one-sentence discovery they made about the prairie or about insects. If needed, prompt them with sentence starters like, “I never knew that …” or “Today I discovered that …” Ask a few students to read their sentences to share their discoveries with the class. Ask students to share any new questions they have about prairie insects. Are prairie insects important? Why or why not?

Evaluation-in the classroom

10. Explain that adult scientists conduct investigations this same way, starting with what they already know about something, what questions they wish to investigate, how they will investigate them, field work, results, discoveries, conclusions, new questions, recommendations, etc.

11. Ultimately, they share their results with other scientists and people so we can all learn from them about our world. Challenge them as scientists to go home and find at least one other person they can share today’s discoveries with in person, via email, on the phone, in a letter, etc. They should briefly and quietly share who they will share their discovery with a classmate.

12. Thank students for their help with the investigation and the chaperones for their leadership. Invite them to come back again to visit.

Weather Alternatives

If you encounter unsafe weather and cannot travel to the Natural Areas:

● Give a student an overview of a prairie habitat and have them try to name as many species of land insects as possible that could reside there.

● Contact the Hefner Museum of Natural History about borrowing their plastic insects along with their dichotomous key. Which Orders do they belong to? How many of the eight common Orders were observed? Set up insect stations such as displays of preserved specimens, pre-collected live specimens to observe and sketch, and insect books. Rotate students among the stations.

Teacher-Led Extensions/Adaptations/Assessment Ideas

To maximize outdoor classroom time, teachers may conduct steps 1 through 6 in the section “Field Investigation Procedure” at school.

Extension 1:

• To help students understand the concept of classification, ask each student to remove one shoe. Place all of these single shoes into a pile. Practice classification by organizing them into groups based upon similar characteristics. Students can suggest what those characteristics might be (such as color, size, shape, design, function, etc.).

• Then they should write down their groupings and randomly select one shoe. By observing the shoe and studying their groupings, can they place it into the correct group? Try the same process with a few more shoes and revise the groupings if needed.

Extension 2:

• Diagram an insect and its external body parts (head, thorax, abdomen, six legs, two antennae, wings, compound eyes). Ask an art teacher to instruct your students in basic sketching techniques for insects.

• Practice using schoolyard insects. A great resource is Draw and Color Insects by Walter Foster and Diana Fisher. Good insect choices relevant for the prairie and included in the book are cricket, stink bug, treehopper, damselfly, ant, leaf beetle, and katydid.

Extension 3:

• Introduce the common insect Orders to your students (as described in the Background section, above or as depicted in the student materials, below). You may use the scientific names of the Orders (such as Hymenoptera) or the common names (ants, bees, wasps) or both.

• Collect, observe, and release insects in your school yard to compare/contrast to those students collect at the Natural Areas. Which insect Orders are represented? Are they the same ones as found in the prairie? Why or why not? Keep a classroom insect phenology notebook through the school year.

• From this log, make a timeline using register tape to hang in the hallway or classroom. When is the last insect observed in fall? Are any insects active in winter? When do hibernating insects begin to emerge? Which kind is first? How many Orders of insects are observed throughout the year?

Extension 4:

• Maintain and record behavior observations of an ant farm in your classroom. In September, keep a chrysalis or cocoon in a container and watch the butterfly or moth emerge.

• Record daily observations and use that data to draw conclusions about them. Release the adult moth or butterfly outdoors while the weather is still warm.

• Use insects to create a prairie food chain or food web or food pyramid.



Any animal that lacks a vertebral column, or backbone, in contrast to the cartilaginous or bony vertebrates. More than 90 percent of all living animal species are invertebrates.


A subphylum of chordate animals, comprising those having a brain enclosed in a skull or cranium and a segmented spinal column; a major taxonomic group that includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes.


Field investigations of the environment involve the systematic collection of data for the purposes of scientific understanding. They are designed to answer an investigative question through the collection of evidence and the communication of results.


The systematic grouping of living things based on characteristics, hierarchical, or phylogenetic relationships.


In biology, kingdom is a taxonomic rank that is composed of smaller groups called phyla. The five-kingdom taxonomic classification of the world’s biota into Kingdom: Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, and Monera.


Phylum is a taxonomic ranking that comes third in the hierarchy of classification, after domain and kingdom. Organisms in a phylum share a set of characteristics that distinguishes them from organisms in another phylum. Example: Phylum Arthropoda - By far the largest individual phylum, the Arthropoda includes all the segmented animals with hard skeletons that we know as insects and crustaceans.


In biological classification of organisms, a class is a major taxonomic rank below the phylum (or division) and above the order. This taxonomic group is composed of organisms that share a common attribute.


A subclass is a minor taxonomic rank that is below a class and above an order. For instance, class Mammalia may be further subdivided into subclasses.


A taxonomic rank used in classifying organisms, generally below the class, and consisted of families sharing a set of similar nature or character. Example: Class Mammalia includes Order Chiroptera (bats), Order Primates (primates), Order Carnivora (meat-eating mammals).


The taxonomic rank in the classification of organisms between genus and order. Organisms belonging to the same family would have evolved from the same ancestors and share relatively common characteristics.


A genus is a taxonomic category ranking used in biological classification that is below family and above species. Species exhibiting similar characteristics comprise a genus. In binomial nomenclature, the genus is used as the first word of a scientific name in which the first letter is capitalized.


Perhaps, all could agree that a species is the most basic unit or category in the biological classification of organisms. Using the biological approach of defining a species, it tells us that a species is an individual capable of mating with another of the same kind to produce fertile offspring.

Nutrient Cycle

Nutrient cycling in ecosystems includes a sequence of processes: uptake of inorganic (and in some cases organic) forms of elements by biota, transfer of these elements from one organism to another (through food chains), release back to the environment in available forms (release in soluble forms, remineralization), and element reassimilation by organisms.


Pollination is the act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma. The goal of every living organism, including plants, is to create offspring for the next generation. One of the ways that plants can produce offspring is by making seeds. Seeds contain the genetic information to produce a new plant.


A pollinator is anything that helps carry pollen from the male part of the flower (stamen) to the female part of the same or another flower (stigma).


Prairie, level or rolling grassland, especially that found in central North America. The vegetation is composed primarily of perennial grasses, with many species of flowering plants of the pea and composite families.

Food chain

A feeding hierarchy in which organisms in an ecosystem are grouped into trophic (nutritional) levels and are shown in a succession to represent the flow of food energy and the feeding relationships between them.

References and Resources

Check out these books/websites for supplementary materials for Adults

● A Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America by J. Reese Voshell, Jr.

● Encyclopedia of Insects by James K. Liebherr and Joseph V. McHugh in Resh, V. H. & R. T. Cardé (editors)

● Insectigations by Cindy Blobaum Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America by Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman

● Prairie, a Natural History by Candace Savage

● Ranger Rick’s NatureScope, Incredible Insects by National Wildlife Federation An Introduction to Ants of the Tallgrass Prairie, http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/insects/ants/index.htm

● Bugguide, http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740

● Grasshoppers: Their Biology, Identification, and Management, http://www.sidney.ars.usda.gov/grasshopper

● Insect World Records, http://ufbir.ifas.ufl.edu/



Check out these books/websites for supplementary materials for Children

● Bugs! By Christopher Nicholas

● Flies Taste with their Feet, Weird Facts About Insects by Melvin and Gilda Berger

● Golden Guide, Insects by Herbert S. Zim, PhD and Clarence Cottam, PhD

● Hey Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose

● Peterson First Guides, Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler

● The Bug Book by Dr. Hugh Danks

● The Everything Kids’ Bugs Book by Kathi Wagner

● Thinking About Ants by Barbara Brenner

● What’s Inside? Insects by Dorling Kindersley, Inc.

● Bugbios, insect Orders http://www.insects.org/entophiles/index.html

● North American Insects and Spiders/Orders, http://cirrusimage.com/index.htm

● What’s That Bug?, www.whatsthatbug.com

Credits / References for Adapted Lesson Plan

This field investigation was developed and written by Prairie Wetlands Learning Center Staff, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thanks to Prairie Science Class naturalist Tia Thysell for reviewing this lesson plan. Thanks to the following teachers for reviewing this lesson plan: Kathy Kolle, Cleveland Elementary, Fergus Falls; Chip McAllister and Mona Davis, Prairie Science Class, Fergus Falls; and Jean Larrivy, Fergus Falls School District. Thank you to Moriya Rufer, Lakes Program Coordinator, RMB Environmental Laboratories, Detroit Lakes, for reviewing this lesson. https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/4thPrairieInsects.pdf

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