Busy Beetles

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Biology In Elementary Schools is a Saint Michael's College student project from a course that ran between 2007 and 2010 and fully described in this book chapter. The student-created resources have been preserved here for posterity. Link under 'toolbox' for printer-friendly versions of the exercises. Click on handouts to print full resolution versions. Please see Wikieducator's disclaimer, our safety statement, and the Creative Commons licensing in English and in legalese.

Student worthiness

Tried once and worked well

Primary biological content area covered

  • observing the behavior of a common insect
  • hypothesize results and carry out an experiment
  • understand the relationship between strength and body size
  • explore how humans are similar and different from other living organisms


Materials Required for Teacher's Use:

  • Waxed Dental Floss
  • Tape
  • Timer

Materials Required for Each Student Group:

  • Bess Beetles
  • Scale
  • Pennies
  • Plastic "Sled"
  • Calculator

Materials Each Individual Student Would Need:

  • Data Sheet
  • Ruler
  • Pencil


Each student should receive one handout each prior to the activity, depending if they are placed in group 'A' or 'B'. Both handouts also serve as a student response sheet for data to be recorded after the activity is completed (prior to plotting it on the class graph).

Description of activity

Students will either

1) observe how much weight a beetle can pull/how fast by choosing the amount of pennies added to the beetle's sled


2) observe how effective beetles are when pulling a sled of pennies across different surfaces (either smooth or rough)

Figure 3. Diagram showing how to prepare the beetle

Lesson plan

Pre-activity Preparation

  • Two large "class graph" outlines should be made previous to the activity: one depicting "How Many Pennies Beetles Can Pull" (for activity A) and one depicting "How Beetles Travel on Different Surfaces" (for activity B)
  • Teacher may choose to tie floss around beetle's abdomen prior to the activity in order to save time

The best way to pick up a beetle is to use two fingers placed gently on either side of the body. The beetle can then be placed on an open palm.
Be gentle as you attach the string to the beetle. Have one person tie a knot on the string, but do not tighten. Have another person hold the beetle while the string is slipped over the beetle's head to its thorax (middle section) and gently pull the knot secure. Attach a plastic sled to the other end of the string. The beetle may squeak while you do this. See Figure 3.

  • For our activity, we made a styrofoam "track" (see Figure 5) to help guide the beetles and keep them from going off-track. This made the activity run much smoother with the students.


  • After separating students into 2 small groups (group A and group B), explain the two different activities they will take part in. Pass out worksheets accordingly (see Figure 1 and 2).
  • Be sure to explain this activity does not harm the beetles in any way, nor will the beetles bite or hurt the students.
  • Pass the beetle around so that all students in each group can get a close look - tell students to be gentle.
  • Gather all students together and ask them to weigh the plastic sled. Have students record the mass of the sled on their worksheet.
  • Have students place a beetle in the sled and weigh it. Tell them to subtract the two to get the mass of the beetle, and record the mass on their worksheet.
  • Have students weigh a penny and record the mass on their worksheet.
  • Have students measure the length of the beetle and record the length on their worksheet.

Instructions for Group A:

  1. Have students select a beetle to use for their experiment
  2. Have students add 3 pennies to their beetle's sled and gently place their beetle on the starting line of the styrofoam "track" 
  3. Have students place their ruler on the side of the track (see Figure 8).
  4. When the signal is given, have students let their beetle go and observe how far it travels in 10 seconds
  5. Have students record this length (in centimeters) on their worksheet
  6. Tell students to create a hypothesis of how many pennies their beetle can pull when keeping in mind distance and time (limit them to a total of 10 pennies).
  7. Have them record this number on their worksheet and add the amount to their sled. Have students repeat steps 3-5

Instructions for Group B:

  1. Have students select a beetle to use for their experiment
  2. Have students add 3 pennies to their beetle's sled and gently place their beetle on the starting line of the styrofoam "track"
  3. Have students place their ruler on the side of the track (see Figure 8).
  4. When the signal is given, have students let their beetle go and observe how far it travels in 10 seconds
  5. Have students record this length (in centimeters) on their worksheet
  6. Tell students to create a hypothesis of whether their beetle will pull its weight faster on the styrofoam surface or the smooth table surface
  7. Have them record this hypothesis on their worksheet and switch surfaces. Have students repeat steps 4-5

Post-activity and Discussion

  • Gather both groups together and discuss the results of their experiment
  • Students can then graph their results on either graph A or B depending upon what group they were in

Potential pitfalls

Occasionally some of the beetles were not the most cooperative of specimens. Because they have a mind of their own they seem to sometimes deviate from a straight course which was easy to fix just by giving them a slight nudge with your finger to put them back on route. To have the best results with this experiment use fresh beetles who will give you a more entertaining experiment, and have students keep in mind it is not always the biggest beetles who are the strongest.

It is important to stress the fact that the beetles are not hurt in this experiment. Many of the students were concerned for the beetles and feared mistreatment.

Math connections

Students weigh and record measurements such as mass and length on their worksheets. They are then expected to use this data in order to make predictions in their experiments. Students also work together in creating a class graph depicting their data as a whole.

Vermont Grade 4 Standard M4: 25 "Organizes and displays data using line plots, bar graphs, tally charts and frequency charts, or tables to answer" AND Vermont Grade 3 Standard M3: 25 "Identifies or describes representations or elements of representations that best display a given set of data, Organizes and displays data using bar graphs or tables to answer question related to the data"

Literature connections

Fleming, Denise. Beetle Bop. Singapore: Harcourt Books, 2007.

If working with a younger crowd of students, this book would be good to read after they participate in this experiment. Students will learn about different types of beetles and their properties.

Connections to educational standards

GLE: S(3-4):2: Students demonstrate their understanding of the scientific method by predicting and hypothesizing

GLE: S(3-4):5: Students demonstrate their ability to represent data by organizing a collection of data into a table or a graph template.

S3-4:4 Students demonstrate their ability to conduct experiments by referring to and following a detailed plan for an investigation and clearly describing evidence and quantifying observations with appropriate units and recording data at various points during an investigation by reporting what actually happens, even when data conflicts with expectations.

Next steps

Once the activity is completed, students can start to learn about beetles and their properties. They can compare beetle strength to human strength and compare different body parts (leading into a study of the human body, perhaps). If enough time is available, it may also be a good idea for students to continue the experiment using different variables (example being students testing how effective beetles are at pulling the sleds on different inclines).


Justine - This activity was a hit when tried with 4th grade students. Most students were very interested in experimenting with live specimens and enjoyed learning about their parts and how they worked. Some students were apprehensive due to the fact they thought it was cruel to make beetles pull so much weight, so it is important for the instructor to tell them this activity does not hurt the beetles. This activity ran also ran very smoothly when it came to the time constraint. When only allotted 25 minutes, it was clear that making the class graphs ahead of time was a good idea. Tying the floss around the beetles and attaching the sleds ahead of time also made the activity run much smoother. If tried by a teacher with more time for this activity, however, I would recommend letting the students prepare the beetles themselves so they can have an even more hands-on experience. Another concern: Students at this age level had a hard time subtracting decimals in order to find the weight of the beetle without the plastic sled (one teacher told our group they hadn't learned this yet). Using a scale that does this calculation for them may be helpful for younger grades.

Meaghan – The students were very engaged in this experiment. They liked to handle the beetles and watch them pull the carts. The experiment itself is a little risky because you are dealing with live bugs. You have to be aware of the life expectancy of the bugs because if they are dying, they’re not very active and won’t be able to pull as much or as quickly. Because it’s the beetles that really keep the student’s interest if they’re not really moving the students will be much less likely to be engaged. Adjustments on the spot also had to be made for some of the tests. For example, there was one beetle you would only walk away from the wall while all the other ones were moving towards the wall. We had to start that beetle at the other end in order for the students to see how far it would really move. Because we were working with beetles some of the students were a little concerned for the beetles when they saw the sleds attached to them. After explaining to the students that it doesn’t hurt the beetles they were a little less hesitant, but its important to make sure that the students know this. It is important to make sure that you have everything set up ahead of time. That way the beetles are all set to go and when it comes time to make the graph all the students have to do is plot their findings. It makes things go a whole lot smoother when it is all done before hand.

Neil - This experiment was very successful. The Students really enjoyed how involved this experiment was. Doing an experiment with live bugs was something the students were not used to and that is what made it so exiting. Though some of the students did not want to touch the bugs, this experiment still offered them something to keep them engaged. Another concern of some of the students was that it hurt the beetles when they pulled the pennies, but it is important to stress to them that the beetles are not harmed in this experiment. As the experiment went on the beetles began to become more tired and not able to pull as much or as far as they could in the begging of the experiment. To make up for this fresh beetles should be used. I would highly recommend this to any teachers working with lower grade levels.

Images and Videos

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Citations and links

Are You Stronger Than An Insect Cornell Science Inquiry Partnerships