There are about 900,000 known insect species, three times as many as all other animal species together, and thousands of new ones are described each year. They are commonly grouped in 27 to 32 orders, depending upon the classification used. The largest order is that of the beetles (Coleoptera). Next, in order of size, are the moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera); the wasps, ants, and bees (Hymenoptera); and the flies and mosquitoes (Diptera). Other major orders are the true bugs (Hemiptera); the cicadas, aphids, and scale insects (Homoptera); the grasshoppers and crickets (Orthoptera); the cockroaches (Blattodea); and the mantids (Mantodea).
Insects are found throughout the world except near the poles and pervade every habitat except the sea (although there is one marine species of water strider). Fossil records indicate that many species exist today in much the same form as they did 200 million years ago. Their enormous biological success is attributed to their small size, their high reproductive rate, and the remarkable adaptive abilities of the group as a whole, shown by the enormous variety in body structure and way of life. The mouthparts may be adapted to chewing, sucking, piercing, or lapping and the legs for walking, running, jumping, burrowing, or swimming. Insects may feed on plants or decaying matter or prey upon other small animals (especially other insects) or parasitize larger ones; they may be omnivorous or highly specialized in their diets. They display a remarkable variety of adaptive shapes and colors that may serve either as camouflage or as warning (see mimicry). Some have stinging spines or hairs and blistering or noxious secretions, used for defense.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.