Identification of Insects

There are an estimated 1 million species of insects, worldwide, which have been identified by entomologists at this time. It also is estimated that there are between 2 and 10 times that many still to be discovered as species, either because they are currently laying in museums uncatalogued, or are still in their environments uninvestigated.

In the United States there are well over 100,000 different kinds, while in tropical countries the vast majority of the diversity exists. There are several dozen different “Orders” of arthropods (beetles, flies, spiders, etc.) and within each of these orders several dozen different families (click beetles, soldier beetles, ground beetles, etc.).

Is it any wonder you aren’t sure what kind of bug just crawled across your lap while you were watching TV?

However, it is very important to determine which specific critter you are dealing with, as the mere presence of a bug in the house is not necessarily an indication that you have a problem. Many times it is simply a bug which has accidentally entered the structure, perhaps following its nocturnal activities or by hitching a ride in the morning paper.

A few examples may show the need for proper identification:

  1. The German Cockroach is a major indoor pest worldwide. A close cousin called the Vaga or Field Roach looks very much like it, but usually stays outside and really is of no significance. If the wrong ID is made extensive efforts may be made to control the wrong pest.
  2. Powderpost Beetles cause major damage to hardwood furniture or floors, while the Flour Beetles, which look very similar, infest food. Again, misidentification may lead you to attempt control for the wrong pest.
  3. The larvae of Syrphid Flies – also called flower flies, hover flies, or bee flies, due to their strong similarity to bees and wasps – look like small, green caterpillars, and when they are seen on ornamental plants it is assumed they must be a bug that eats the plant. On the contrary, these important predators feed voraciously on aphids, and are a great benefit to the plants.
  4. Subterranean Termites are a horrible house guest – no manners at all – and often are detected by the sudden appearance of some of the small, black, winged adults crawling about on the floor. These “reproductives” quickly lose their wings, and now closely resemble some little beneficial beetles called “Rove Beetles”.

If the wrong diagnosis is made, a great deal of time and money may be spent controlling a problem that is not there.

So, how do you go about finding out just what bug you are dealing with? First, no one expects the average person to be able to identify the critters in their house. Even professional entomologists are becoming more and more specialized in their fields, and while most could identify any insect to its general group, few could tell you with certainty the exact species of bug you have if it is outside their specialty.

For instance, my own main interest is the Lepidoptera – butterflies and moths – and I can pretty accurately tell, at a glance, the species of any butterfly in California, and many of the moths as well. However, in many cases, the best I can offer is to tell you what something is not. A moth found flying around in the house may definitely not be a clothes moth or stored foods pest, but exactly which kind it is would take more research. It likely is simply a moth that flew into the house from the outside, where its larvae feed on plants.

So, what are your options, when you find some sort of bug in your yard or house, and want to find out whether or not it could be a problem? One, of course, is to attempt to figure it out on your own, by acquiring a book which pictures and discusses the various kinds of insects. This is possible, but difficult, as most Field Guides are very general, and due to the huge variety of species they only will picture a very few kinds. However, this may be the most fun, and entice you to study the field of Entomology even more.

Other, faster options may be:

  • Pest Management Companies –  these professionals are trained in their fields, and often have experience in identifying the majority of bugs that are commonly found in structures in their area. However, if their identification could lead to expensive treatment methods you might consult a second source, just to be sure.If you choose to consult with, or perhaps even contract for control measures by, a professional pest control company, look for one that is properly licensed and registered by your state’s regulatory agency. Many states now require that the licensed and certified pest control personnel within their jurisdiction acquire that license by taking an extensive exam, and maintain it by attending Continuing Education courses.

    These are the kinds of people you would prefer to deal with when it comes to the application of pest control products in and around your home.

  • County departments of Agriculture or Health – often people with entomology backgrounds or with experience with the pests in your area will work in these agencies, and be able to tell you, with accuracy, what you have.
  • University Extension Service or Farm Advisor offices – also staffed with people who have backgrounds or experience in pest identification. Often they are associated with local organizations of “Master Gardeners”, who also have backgrounds or training in the area of pest identification and control.

Local University Entomology Departments – possibly the best bet, as they are staffed by people with extensive backgrounds in the field of bugs. However, even within this environment, they may not be familiar with the specific little bugs that may infest your food or your structure, and another source could be consulted as well.

Good luck with your efforts. Most of the “bugs” you find in your yard are not pests. They are simply part of Nature, doing their intended purpose in recycling dead things, pollinating, or feeding on other kinds of bugs. We would invite you to examine another of our “BugInfo” sessions, on the role of Beneficial Bugs in our environments and around our homes.

Clearly, insects are a dominating force in Nature, and it benefits us to learn as much about them as we possibly can. They not only control much of the goings-on in nature – pollination, seed dispersal, predation, decomposition – but they can have a huge impact on Human Health as well. Wise decisions are best made by those who understand the subject well.