Reviews of Insect Guides

I use a lot of insect guides to try and sort out what the things are that we find in the yard. Some are obviously more useful than others. Several really excellent ones have become available just since around 2004 or so, and I honestly don’t know if these pages I’m writing would even be possible with just the resources that were available back when I was a kid. This page is in progress, I will be adding more to it as time goes by.

1. Online
The online BugGuide is the guide I use most frequently, as it is not only pretty comprehensive, but it is also a work-in-progress that gets steadily more comprehensive over time. The organization is pretty good, and it has the excellent feature that if you have a photograph of something to be identified, you can just post it on the site and if somebody recognizes it they will let you know. The downside is that it is, perhaps, a bit too comprehensive, so identifying insects from northern Michigan requires wading through all the possibilities from further south and out west. One of the more useful ways to use it is to give a couple of descriptive search terms, and then page through all of the thumbnail images that come up. Although, this can get rather tedious if you have a slowish internet connection.

Still, in some ways a regular book-form guide is convenient, as a book allows you to riffle through quickly without having any particular search terms in mind. So, here are some of my favorite insect books:

2. General Field Guide
If you only want to own one insect field guide, and you live in North America, the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America (Kaufman Field Guides)is a good one to get. While it can’t possibly cover everything, it has representatives of most of the insect families that one is likely to see, and is a good source for getting a starting point and a few search terms to get into BugGuide for a more in-depth look. It uses actual photographs of the insects, and it has a lot of them. It only has a line of description about each insect, but once you use this to get a name it then becomes easy to find more information about it online if you want it.

3. Group-Specific and Region-Specific Guides
There are so many insects that, if you want to identify anything more precisely than the family level, you pretty much have to find guides that only talk about specific groups of insects. Like, for example, caterpillars. This one is great if you live in North America east of the Mississippi: Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David Wagner. This is by far the best guide to general caterpillars that I’ve ever seen, with excellent photographs and full-page descriptions of a lot of species. I use it a lot.

But, it turns out that even restricting things to caterpillars would make a fully comprehensive book impossibly unwieldy. So, Wagner and his colleagues Dale Schweitzer, J. Bolling Sullivan, and Richard Rearden made a really comprehensive guide to one of the most common types of caterpillars – the owlet moth caterpillars.
Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America is a great book, since in my experience about two-thirds of the caterpillars one is likely to find in North America will be owlet caterpillars. These include most of the caterpillars that you are likely to find in your garden, like the many species of cutworms. It’s also a huge book, so it is the sort of thing you bring the caterpillars to, and not the kind that you stick in your pocket or backpack and carry in the field.

Of course, you don’t just find caterpillars. Most of them turn to moths. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America (Peterson Field Guides), by David Beadle and Seabrook Leckie, is just the thing for when you are trying to identify the moths that, say, come to your porch light and windows at night. By “Northeastern”, they mean approximately north of Georgia and east of the Rockies, so this guide actually covers a lot of North America. It is well-laid-out, too. The moth pictures are all on the right-hand side, which makes it easy to flip through the book looking for pictures that match this moth one has just found.

One Response leave one →
  1. Carole permalink
    November 30, 2016

    Thanks for the recommendations. We’ve moved to a new condo where they leave the lights on and I find interesting moths in the morning.

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