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While preparing for Thanksgiving, I realized the turkey baster was missing from the kitchen. I knew exactly where it was, however. It was in the bin where I keep all my insect teaching demonstrations. It turns out that a turkey baster is a great tool to show how certain types of insect mouthparts work. That gave me an idea for some weekend science fun that is quick, easy and educational.

Remember the discussion in the cochineal scale post about whether they were scales or beetles, and how different insects possess different types of mouthparts? Studying insect mouthparts can help not only with identification, but also to further understand the insect’s biology.


  • Enlarged photographs of insect heads showing mouthparts (nature calendars work well) or large plastic insect models
  • Pliers, gardening shears or scissors (as an example of chewing mouthparts)
  • Turkey baster (as an example of sucking mouthparts)
  • Boxed drink with straws still in the wrapper (as an example of piercing/sucking mouthparts)
  • Party favor and drinking straw (as an example of siphoning mouthparts)
  • Sponge (as an example of sponging mouthparts)
  • Few tablespoons of baking powder
  • Small container of water
  • Plant leaves (optional)

Chewing Mouthparts - Mandibles
Common insects such as beetles, grasshoppers and caterpillars have mouthparts that are like pruning shears. The jaws, called mandibles, are cutting blades that move from side to side. You can show this by cutting a hole in a plant leaf with pruning shears or scissors.

model insectmodel insect

Dr. George Butler made this model of a grasshopper head for me about 15 years ago. The insect's upper 'lip' (that covers the mandibles) is hinged, so it can be pulled up to show the white mandibles underneath. Under the mandibles are the maxillae, which have finger-like projections called palps. The palps taste and move around the food. The lower 'lip' also has palps. It is called the labium. Who knew an insect mouth would be so complicated?

For younger children, a pair of plastic pliers can be a safe and easy example of how mandibles work.

model insect

There was a beetle in the picture too. This is what happened to it 🙂

cat eating beetle

Piercing/sucking Mouthparts - called a Proboscis
A large group of insects, such as mosquitoes, stink bugs and cicadas have mouthparts like tubes that pierce into their food source and suck up the juices.


This is a model of a cicada head.

Some sucking mouthparts are like the turkey baster, but most sucking mouthparts are not simply tubes. They consist of a sheath or wrapper around a bundle of structures called stylets.

model insect

Insert two box drink straws into one wrapper, with the bottom open. Then punch the straws into the drink. You will see that the wrapper folds back the way a sheath would in an insect proboscis. The fluid would flow up not just within the straws, but between them as well.

model insect

Siphoning Mouthparts
Adult butterflies and moths have siphoning mouthparts that are simply a flexible tube that they slip into fluids, like nectar. When not in use the tube rolls up like a party favor.

model insect

model insectmodel insect

Sponging Mouthparts
Certain types of flies have mouthparts that are like bits of sponge. In a fun demonstration, sprinkle some baking powder on a plate or table surface. Explain that this represents some food like sugar that a fly might want to eat.

model insect

Ask the children to try to “eat’ it with a piece of dry sponge. It doesn’t work too well. Ask them how the fly might make it work better. Usually someone gets the idea to wet it. Pour a bit of water on the powder (I use baking powder because it fizzes a bit adding to the drama). Explain that a fly actually ‘spits’ on its food to wet it. Now the sponge can suck up the food easily.

model insect

Mixed Mouthparts – For example, the Honey Bees

Not all insects have just one type of mouthpart. For example, honey bees have two types, mandibles and a proboscis. The mandibles are used for any chores about the hive that require grasping or cutting, such as working wax to construct the comb, biting into flower parts (anthers) to release pollen, carrying detritus out of the hive, or gripping enemies during nest defense.

The proboscis of the honey bee is simply a long, slender, hairy tongue that acts as a straw to bring the liquid food (nectar, honey and water) to the mouth. The sheath in this case is called the stipes. When in use, the tongue moves rapidly back and forth while the flexible tip performs a lapping motion. After feeding, the proboscis is drawn up and folded behind the head.

honey bee head

The study of insect mouthparts isn't just for kids.  In depth discussion of insect mouthparts can be found at the  University of Kentucky Master Gardener Website

While you are at the University of Kentucky, they have a whole bunch of information about insects and activities for kids, starting at this link:
Kids Home University of Kentucky


For those of you introducing young children to science, have you caught an episode of "Peep and the Big Wide World" yet? Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the premise of this television show is that three animated bird friends ask questions and explore the world as budding scientists. After the humorous cartoon segment, there is live-action video of preschoolers performing age-appropriate science activities.

I have to admit I wasn't that impressed the first time I saw this show. The simple round figures seemed a bit ridiculous. But it has really grown on me after watching a few episodes, and my tween son is definitely hooked. The characters are surprising complex for being circles with stick legs. From what I’ve seen, the television show seems to attract viewers on both sides of its target audience, both younger and older.

I am not a big fan of young children spending a large part of their day sitting around and watching television. There are times, however, when a little educational television comes in handy, like when your child is under the weather, or when you can’t get outside. You may want to use it as a jumping off point to inspire new discoveries, or kick start explorations.

The creators of this series have a great attitude about how to introduce kids to science. When asked, "What is the best way to introduce science to young children?" Peep Science Adviser, Karen Worth, responded "For young children, science is about active, focused exploration of objects, materials, and events around them. We introduce them to science by offering an environment where there are interesting materials to explore.” Read more here at the "About Peep" section of the “Peep in the Big Wide World” website.

Even if you aren’t interested in the television program, you might find the “recommended books” section useful. For each episode, they have picked two wonderful science-related books for further exploration of that topic. You may also follow the resources link from the website.

If you want to take a look at an example cartoon episode, here is a clip from YouTube.

Overall, I would say that "Peep in the Big Wide World" is one of those rare television shows for children that is able to teach science in a humorous and entertaining way.

More Resources:

"Peep in the Big Wide World" is available on DVD.

You might want to pick up some of the books for preschoolers based on the series. These books are not word-for-word rehashes to the television programs, but stand on their own. Two-year-old children seem to find them particularly fascinating.

PEEP Who’s Hiding? By Laura Gates Galvin.

Quack’s Masterpiece by Laura Gates Galvin.

Discovery Travel Pack by Laura Gates Galvin.

What’s That Sound? By Laura Gates Galvin.

A Very Good Smell By Laura Gates Galvin.

Animals and Nature Activity Book By Laura Gates Galvin.

Chirp’s Colors By Laura Gates Galvin. This one comes with a magnetic Chirp character to move around.

Please let me know if you find this information useful.