is the very first step in our "3 Steps to Discovering Nature"
concept, but identifying insects can be a real 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 at the right 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 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:
STEP 1: FIGURE OUT THE ORDER
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.
STEP 2: FIGURE OUT THE FAMILY
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?
STEP 3: USE YOUR FIELD GUIDE
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
STEP 4: USE AN INTERNET SEARCH
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:
If you find other useful insect-identification sites, drop me