Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Previous section
Insect Collections Today

What is a Key?

Anyone can be an entomologist, and all you need is an eye for detail and a few simple tools to get started.

While museum collections might be nicely labelled to tell you what you’re looking at, where it came from and much more, there aren’t any labels in nature, so we have to work it out for ourselves. After all, someone had to put those labels there in the first place!


Colour photograph showing a drawer of different insects, including stick insect, bees and butterfulies
A Drawer of Museum Insect Specimens

The number one tool, and the only thing you really need to get started looking for insects of your own, is an identification key.

An identification key is what entomologists, no matter how experienced, use to determine exactly what type of insect they’ve found. It is a series of simple questions about what the insect looks like which narrows down the possibilities based on your answers until there is only one answer left.

On this resource you’ll find an interactive PowerPoint identification key for downloading and you’ll also find a ‘Field Key’ which you can print and take with you on your garden safari, to identify insects as you go!

This particular interactive insect key is a simplified one. That means it doesn’t cover all the different types of insects that exist, just the most well-known insects and the ones you might be lucky enough find in your garden or out in the park.

If you find something that doesn’t quite match up with the key you might have found something really special. Insect identification books and the internet are a great help for finding out exactly what kind of creepy crawly you’ve caught.

A very important note: before you start using the keys, you need to make sure that the animal you’ve found is in fact an insect in the first place.

The best way to tell is by checking how many pairs of legs it has. Insects only have 3 pairs of legs (that’s 6 legs altogether). 


Colour photograph showing a mostly black beetle with some brown markings
A Goliath Beetle

Your Own Bug Hunting Kit:

You don’t need any specialist tools or equipment to get outside and start hunting bugs, entomology is really easy to get started with for everyone! Other than an identification key, there are a few extra bits and pieces that you can take on you adventures:

  • A small, clear box or jar for hold insects while you observe and identify them.
  • A magnifying glass.
  • A spoon or a small, soft paintbrush for scooping up any critters you find.

Tips and Tricks:

We know that insects can be found everywhere and anywhere on land, but when you’re out and about searching for them, these are a few places you might have the most luck:

  • Underneath rock and logs.
  • In the cracks and crevices of tree bark and rotten wood.
  • In the long grass and around wild flowers.
  • In leaf litter and the underbrush.
  • On the surface of ponds or streams

If you really want to earn those entomologist points you could keep a field journal of your findings, recording things like:

  • What you saw and where you saw it.
  • The time of day and the time of year.
  • The weather and any details about the habitat it was in.

If you can’t match an insect you’ve found to the key here, try searching online or using an insect identification book for more detailed keys.