Insect, invertebrate animal of the class Insecta of the phylum Arthropoda. Like other arthropods, an insect has a hard outer covering, or exoskeleton, a segmented body, and jointed legs. Adult insects typically have wings and are the only flying invertebrates.
The body of the typical adult insect is divided into three distinct parts, the head, thorax, and abdomen. The head bears three pairs of mouthparts, one pair of compound eyes, three simple eyes (ocelli), and one pair of jointed sensory antennae. The thorax is divided into three segments, each with a pair of jointed legs, and bears two pairs of wings. The abdomen has posterior appendages associated with reproduction. The exoskeleton is composed of a horny substance called chitin.
Insects breathe through a complex network of air tubes (tracheae) that open to the outside through a series of small valved apertures (spiracles) along the sides of the body. In chewing insects the digestive system includes a muscular gizzard that is lacking in sucking insects. The simple circulatory system is composed of a tubular heart that pumps blood forward into the head, from which it diffuses through the tissues and back into the heart. The aquatic larvae of many insects breathe by means of external gills; some very primitive species breathe directly through the body wall.
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.
A few species, notably the fireflies, produce light, used as a signal in courtship, by a chemical reaction. The sexes are separate in insects, and reproduction is usually sexual, although in many insect groups eggs sometimes develop without fertilization by sperm (see parthenogenesis). In some insects, such as bees, unfertilized eggs become males and fertilized eggs females. In others, such as aphids, all-female generations are produced by parthenogenesis. Eggs are usually laid in a sheltered place; in a few insects they are retained and hatched internally. After hatching, the insect must molt periodically as it grows, since the rigid exoskeleton does not allow much expansion. A new, soft exoskeleton forms beneath the old one, and after each molt the insect undergoes a rapid expansion before its new covering hardens. The stages between molts are called instars; the final instar is the adult.