The Life Story of Insects Informative Summary


This book delves into the fascinating world of insect transformations, exploring the intricate processes of growth and change that insects undergo during their life cycles. It begins by examining the basic process of growth and shedding of the cuticle (moulting) that all arthropods, including insects, experience. The book then moves on to explore a range of insect life cycles, highlighting the differences between complete and incomplete metamorphosis, the role of wing development, and the varied adaptations of larvae and pupae to different environments and lifestyles. The author, George H. Carpenter, skillfully interweaves the scientific aspects of insect biology with evolutionary history and the influence of seasonal changes on insect life cycles.

The book’s comprehensive overview of insect transformation underscores the incredible diversity and adaptability of this class of animals. It examines the various forms of insect larvae, from the armored campodeiform grubs of ground beetles to the legless maggots of flies, and explores how these forms are perfectly suited to their unique habitats and food sources. The book further explores the diverse forms of pupae, from the free pupae of beetles to the obtect pupae of butterflies, with specific adaptations for breathing, protection, and movement. Carpenter also discusses the evolutionary significance of insect transformations, suggesting that the complex life cycles of endopterygote insects arose from simpler exopterygote life cycles through a gradual process of divergent evolution between the larval and imaginal stages.

Key Findings:

  • Insect transformations are fundamentally linked to growth and the need for the insect to shed its cuticle as it grows. This process of moulting is a defining characteristic of all arthropods.
  • Insect life cycles can be categorized as incomplete (Hemimetabola) or complete (Holometabola). Incomplete metamorphosis involves less dramatic changes between the larval and adult stages, with visible wing rudiments throughout growth. Complete metamorphosis involves more significant changes, including a pupal stage, with hidden wing rudiments developing internally until the pupal stage.
  • The forms of insect larvae are incredibly diverse and adapted to a wide range of environments and lifestyles. This includes everything from burrowing grubs, leaf-mining caterpillars, and parasitic maggots.
  • Pupal stages are equally diverse and feature adaptations for various environments and life cycles. Some pupae are free and resemble the adult form, while others are obtect, with appendages fused to the body.
  • The evolution of insect life cycles has likely progressed from simpler incomplete metamorphosis to more complex complete metamorphosis. This is supported by the observation that insects with simpler life cycles are often less specialized in structure and that the larval stage has become increasingly adapted to specific environments and lifestyles.


  • What is the difference between complete and incomplete metamorphosis? Complete metamorphosis involves a pupal stage and hidden wing rudiments, while incomplete metamorphosis involves visible wing rudiments throughout larval development.
  • How do insects breathe? Insects have a system of branching air tubes called tracheae that deliver oxygen directly to their tissues. These tracheae are connected to the outside world through paired openings called spiracles.
  • How do larval forms of insects relate to their environments and food sources? Larvae display a wide range of adaptations to their environments, such as burrowing in wood or soil, mining in leaves, feeding on specific plants, or preying on other insects.
  • What are the major types of pupae, and how do they vary? Pupae can be free, with appendages separate from the body, or obtect, with appendages fused to the body. Aquatic pupae often have adaptations for breathing underwater, such as respiratory trumpets or gills.
  • How has insect metamorphosis evolved? It’s believed that complete metamorphosis evolved from simpler incomplete metamorphosis through a process of divergent evolution, with the larval stage becoming increasingly specialized for feeding and the adult stage for reproduction.

Historical Context:

  • This book was written in 1913, a time when Darwin’s theory of evolution was widely accepted. This book demonstrates how scientific understanding of insect biology was being shaped by the evolutionary perspective.
  • At this time, research on insect life cycles and transformations was progressing rapidly. This book reflects the growing body of scientific knowledge about insect biology and highlights the importance of studying insect life cycles to understand the evolution of this fascinating class of animals.


  1. All arthropods, including insects, shed their cuticle as they grow. This process is called moulting or ecdysis.
  2. The cuticle of insects is a non-living, hardened secretion of the epidermis.
  3. The wings of insects are always developed after hatching or birth. This is true for all insects, regardless of their metamorphosis type.
  4. The most ancient fossil insects are believed to be from the Devonian period. These insects were often large and had close affinities to modern-day mayflies, dragonflies, stoneflies, and cockroaches.
  5. Insects with complete transformations likely evolved from insects with incomplete transformations. This is supported by the fact that simpler life cycles are found in less specialized insects.
  6. Some insect groups, like certain aphids, have alternating generations of winged and wingless individuals. This is often linked to population density and the need for dispersal.
  7. The term “instar” refers to the form an insect takes on between moults. For example, an insect hatched from an egg is the first instar, and after its first moult, it becomes the second instar.
  8. The pupal stage of insects is characterized by the outward appearance of wing rudiments. This is a key feature that distinguishes complete metamorphosis from incomplete metamorphosis.
  9. Insect larvae are incredibly diverse in form and function. This reflects the wide range of environments and food sources that insects have adapted to.
  10. Caterpillar pro-legs are adapted for clinging to plants and moving along stems and leaves. They are a defining feature of lepidopterous larvae.
  11. Some insect larvae, like those of oil beetles, undergo hypermetamorphosis. This involves a series of distinct larval stages with different forms and functions.
  12. The ‘anchor process’ or ‘breast bone’ is a characteristic feature of gall-midge larvae. It is a sclerite located beneath the prothorax.
  13. The ‘leather jacket’ is the grub of the crane fly, a common pest of gardens and agricultural fields. It feeds on plant roots.
  14. The rat-tailed maggot, the larva of the drone fly, has a long telescopic tube at the end of its abdomen that allows it to breathe atmospheric air while feeding in stagnant water.
  15. The bot fly of the horse (Gastrophilus equi) lays eggs that are licked into the mouths of horses. The hatched larvae then attach themselves to the horse’s stomach.
  16. The ox warble fly (Hypoderma bovis) lays eggs on the hair of cattle, which are later licked into the mouths of the animals. The hatched larvae then migrate through the host’s tissues, ultimately emerging from the skin as large, barrel-shaped maggots.
  17. The pupae of some insects, like those of gnats, have respiratory trumpets that allow them to breathe atmospheric air while submerged.
  18. The puparium is a hardened, protective case formed from the last larval cuticle of some Diptera. The enclosed pupa undergoes its final metamorphosis within this case.
  19. The female of the vapourer moth (Orgyia antiqua) is wingless. The male flies in search of the female, which remains on the cocoon surrounding the pupa.
  20. Some insect larvae, like those of the codling moth (Carpocapsa pomonella), hibernate as full-grown larvae. They are able to survive the winter without pupating.


  1. The number of moults in an insect’s life is always one less than the number of instars.
  2. The stem mothers of aphids can reproduce parthenogenetically, producing large numbers of offspring without mating.
  3. There are nearly six thousand species of fossil insects that have been found in Cainozoic rocks.
  4. The larvae of mayflies can undergo as many as 21 moults during their life cycle.
  5. The aquatic life of a dragon-fly larva can last for more than a year.
  6. The larvae of the ‘thirteen-year’ and ‘seventeen-year’ cicads live underground for 13 or 17 years before emerging as adults.
  7. The female of the African Tsetse fly (Glossina) gives birth to nearly mature larvae that pupate soon after birth.
  8. The lifespan of a mayfly imago is typically only a few hours or a few days.
  9. The larvae of the cabbage fly (Delia brassicae) eat their way into the roots of cruciferous plants.
  10. The maggot of the mangel fly (Pegomyia betae) feeds on the leaves of mangels, creating a large blister between the two leaf skins.
  11. The pupal stage of the ox warble fly lasts for about a year.
  12. The male mayfly has complex eyes to help him find a mate quickly.
  13. The male silk moth and eggar moth have feathery feelers with thousands of sensory hairs, allowing them to detect female pheromones.
  14. The eggs of the vapourer moth are protected from the winter by a layer of silk and hairs from the mother’s body.
  15. The caterpillars of the magpie moth (Abraxas grossulariata) are brightly colored in black, cream, and yellow, which is thought to be a warning coloration.
  16. The ‘woolly bear’ caterpillar of the tiger moth (Arctia caia) has a dense hairy covering that protects it from the winter cold.
  17. The caterpillars of the turnip moth (Agrotis segetum) are able to feed throughout the winter, except during periods of hard frost.
  18. The codling moth (Carpocapsa pomonella) is usually single-brooded, but can be double-brooded in warmer climates.
  19. The pupae of the white butterflies (Pieris) overwinter, emerging as adults in the spring.
  20. The spring brood of white butterflies often shows slight but consistent differences from the summer brood, illustrating seasonal dimorphism.


  1. Ametabola: Insects that do not undergo any significant metamorphosis, with the young resembling the adult.
  2. Hemimetabola: Insects that undergo incomplete metamorphosis, with visible wing rudiments throughout growth.
  3. Holometabola: Insects that undergo complete metamorphosis, with hidden wing rudiments developing into external structures during the pupal stage.
  4. Instar: The form an insect takes on between moults.
  5. Cuticle: The hardened, non-living outer layer of an arthropod.
  6. Moulting or Ecdysis: The process of shedding the cuticle.
  7. Epidermis: The layer of living cells beneath the cuticle.
  8. Imaginal buds or discs: Internal groups of cells that develop into adult structures during metamorphosis.
  9. Campodeiform: A larval type characterized by a long, slender body, long legs, and a well-developed head.
  10. Eruciform: A larval type characterized by a cylindrical body, short thoracic legs, and abdominal pro-legs.


  1. The common white butterfly (Pieris) undergoes complete metamorphosis: Its egg hatches into a caterpillar that feeds on cabbage leaves, eventually forming a chrysalis (pupa) from which the winged adult emerges.
  2. The grasshopper (Schistocera americana) undergoes incomplete metamorphosis: Its young nymphs resemble the adult, except for their smaller size and lack of fully developed wings.
  3. The oil beetle (Meloidae) displays hypermetamorphosis: Its first instar is a small, armored larva called a triungulin, which attaches to a bee to be transported to its nest. It then undergoes a series of moults, changing to a soft-bodied grub that feeds on honey.
  4. The ant lion (Myrmeleontidae) has a campodeiform larva: This larva is a predator, digging pits in sand to trap small insects.
  5. The apple aphid (Aphis pomi) demonstrates parthenogenesis: The female aphids can reproduce asexually, producing multiple generations without mating.
  6. The caddis fly (Trichoptera) larva builds a protective case: It uses silk to bind together various materials, such as pebbles, twigs, or plant fragments, creating a portable shelter.
  7. The gall-midge (Cecidomyidae) larva causes the formation of galls: These larvae live inside plant tissues, causing the plant to develop abnormal growths that provide them with food and shelter.
  8. The hoverfly (Syrphidae) larva preys on aphids: It has a distinctive maggot-like form and is often found on plants, hunting for aphids.
  9. The drone fly (Eristalis) has a ‘rat-tailed maggot’ larva: This larva has a long, telescopic tube at the end of its abdomen that allows it to breathe air while feeding in stagnant water.
  10. The ox warble fly (Hypoderma bovis) is a parasite of cattle: Its larvae migrate through the host’s tissues, ultimately emerging from the skin as large maggots that breathe atmospheric air.


The life stories of insects are a testament to the incredible diversity and adaptability of life on Earth. From the simple growth and moulting of primitive insects to the complex metamorphosis of butterflies and flies, each life cycle is intricately linked to the insect’s environment, food sources, and evolutionary history. By understanding these transformations, we gain a deeper appreciation for the remarkable strategies that insects have developed to thrive in a wide range of habitats and ensure the survival of their species. Carpenter’s book provides a fascinating and insightful glimpse into the wonderful world of insect metamorphosis, inspiring further exploration and appreciation for these fascinating creatures.

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