Identification is the very first step in our "3 Steps to Discovering Nature" concept, but identifying insects can be a challenge. One problem is that so many kinds of insects exist that no convenient, easy-to-carry and easy-to-use field guide is available. There are indeed fieldguides such as those shown below but such publications describe only a small fraction of the insects conceivably to be encountered.
If you own a digital camera you can have your digital pictures of insects identified online at BugGuide.Net.
At the above page register for free, then log in and click on "ID Request." On the resulting page click on "add image," and fill in the information boxes. When you come to the box called "Image" you need to tell BugGuide.Net where your picture is found in your own computer. Click on "Choose" at the right of that box, then navigate the subdirectories or folders of your computer until you find file holding your file. When you finish all the boxes and click on "Submit," in a few seconds your photo will appear at the head of the line of photos needing to be identified, and probably someone, someplace in the world, will let you know your bug's name.
For example, A Field Guide to Insects : America North of Mexico says that about 28,600 species of beetle are found just in North America! (And beetles are just one insect order of around 30!) Compare 28,600 beetle species with the 650 or so species of North American breeding birds! Clearly, the backyard insect-identifier needs to be ingenious and persevering. However, that's OK, since it's fun!
Here's a good general approach to identifying an insect of which you don't have the foggiest notion what its name is:
Assign your discovery to one of the 25-35 insect orders. On our Insect Orders page we see that most insects found in our backyards belong to only ten or so orders -- the Beetle Order, the Wasp & Bee Order, the Fly Order -- so mastering those ten orders is no big deal. Remember that we provide a "Key to the Big Ten Insect Orders." Most good field guides organize their pages so that members of the same order are grouped together, so if you don't know your orders yet just thumb through the fieldguide's pages looking for pictures of insects similar to yours, then work on the hypothesis that your insect belongs to the same order to which the similar insect belongs. We have a page explaining how field guides work.
Figure out which insect family your discovery belongs to. You'll be able to identify many of your discoveries only to family level. However, that's still pretty good. Examples of families are the Froghopper Family, the Fruit Fly Family, the Ladybird Beetle Family, and the Swallowtail Butterfly Family. Well, knowing that you've found a froghopper, a fruit fly, a ladybird beetle or a Swallowtail Butterfly is pretty good, and much better than most people can do. Still, the really curious among us always want to know which froghopper do we have? Which swallowtail butterfly? Which Froghopper?
Look for your insect's illustration in your field guide. Though we know that field guides include pictures of only a small percentage of the species we might conceivably encounter, they do illustrate the most common and conspicuous species. For example, Monarch Butterflies are pretty common in much of North America, so nearly all North American butterfly field guides have a picture of the Monarch, and tell you that Monarchs are Danaus plexippus, members of the Danaidae, or Milkweed Butterfly Family.
Let's say that you've figured out that you have a member of the Narrow-winged Damselfly Family, the Coenagrionidae. Go to a search engine with an Image-Search function, such as Google or Yahoo!, and do a search on the word Coenagrionidae. Then you'll be presented with thumbnail pictures from sites all over the world posting images of species belonging to the Coenagrionidae. If you see a thumbnail looking like your critter, check it out. If you go to the web page holding the photograph, maybe there will be more information about it. After searching on Coenagrionidae, search on "Narrow-winged Damselfly," being sure to place the words within parentheses, or you'll end up with pictures showing everything narrow, everything winged, and everything about damselflies in general!
DON'T FORGET: There are special insect-identification web sites. A number of websites focus on special insect groups or provide online insect collections. Among them are: