Tips for identifying insects, spiders

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People who create a backyard wildlife habitat are usually interested in what will come to live in it. It’s not over once the plans are drawn up, beds are dug, native plants are planted, and a new bird feeder is hanging from a tree limb. Every day becomes a new page in their mental log of what’s happening “out there.” When they’re “parenting” a whole new ecosystem, every animal in it becomes “somebody.”

Some of these people surprise themselves by becoming interested in more than birds and squirrels, but all manner of critters — even insects and spiders. You may be one of them! If you’re observing your yard closely, you’re noticing that insects and spiders are everywhere: in the air, in shrubs, on flowers, clinging to the side of your house, hanging from the porch ceiling, floating on water, shuffling under yard debris or moving in and out of the ground.

If you’ve already tried, you’ve found that identifying insects and spiders (spiders aren’t the same as insects) is tough. It requires real expertise to determine the exact species of most of them. With more than 100,000 insects and 3,000 spiders in North America alone, determining the name of an individual specimen is daunting.

Tip 1: The good news is that with only two or three hours of study you’ll know how to narrow the field down to the various “orders” into which insects are classified. If you can do that, it’s only a matter of whether you want to push further, to pin down the exact name of a species. In other words, once you know the insect you’re looking at is in the beetles order, Coleoptera, you won’t waste time looking in the other 29 orders of insects. What a time savings! 

Familiarity is the key. The more you read and the more you study photos, the better you’ll get at narrowing the field. 

Tip 2: Numerous websites can help you with identification. Insect field guides and your local library are invaluable resources, too.

Tip 3: It’s a good idea to snap a digital picture of an insect that interests you. That way, you can refer to it again and again. That also will allow you to make use of the most valuable resources of all: the experts at www.bugguide.net and other sites like it. Upload the image of your mystery insect, and, voilà, they’ll help you identify it.**

Tip 4: To help you get started, each of the insects listed on the right side of this page is a link to its order and general physical characteristics. Time spent learning about different orders is well spent. Some insects are obvious, and some just seem obvious. 

What is an order?
You may be wondering where “order” fits into scientific classification (taxonomy), and you’ll see where as you read further below. 

Scientific classification concerns the grouping of insects (and all other living things) into batches of similar organisms. The system is complicated and seems to undergo challenges and upheavals routinely, particularly as new technological capabilities, like DNA analysis, have come along. Not only that, but new insect species are being added all the time to the current catalog of over one million species. Fortunately, we laypeople can ignore the rocking and roiling and arguments between experts, except to be aware that an insect’s classification is subject to change.

How it works
Here’s an example of how scientific classification works, using a single insect species, Coccinella septempunctata, a lady beetle. Its classification, as with all other insects, starts in a broad category that includes all animals, based on characteristics they have in common. Then it drills down in increasingly specific terms until no other insect group on earth matches the precise physical description of Coccinella septempunctata.

Most insects are inconspicuous and go completely unnoticed by us. Of interest only to experts, they don’t have a common name. Coccinella septempunctata has been given one, though: It’s the Seven-spotted Lady Beetle shown at the top of this page. This species (despite being called a “lady” beetle, consists of males, too) is widespread in North America and there’s a good chance it visits your own backyard wildlife habitat. 

Scientific classification
Coccinella septempunctata and the characteristics that placed it at each level:

Classification level of Coccinella septempunctata Name Characteristics of this level
     
Domain Eukaryote Cells with membrane-bound nucleus = humans, plants, etc.
Kingdom Animalia Multi-cellular, must eat for energy
Phylum Arthropoda  Hard exoskeleton, segmented body, jointed limbs
Subphylum Hexapoda Six legs
Class Insecta 3 distinct body regions, two antennae, compound eyes
Subclass Pterygota Winged insects
Order   Coleoptera Beetles  
Suborder Polyphaga Rove, scarab, leaf beetles, other kinds 
Superfamily Cucujoidea Flower, flat bark, lady beetles
Family  Coccinellidae Lady beetles
Genus Coccinella  
Species septempunctata (Genus and species are always displayed in italics.)

 

*Top photo: Gilles Gonthier / Flickr; (cc by 2.0)
**For other animals: Study the animal’s appearance as much as possible and write down what you saw, while it’s still fresh in your mind. It’s even better if you can quickly snap a digital photo. With or without a photo, turn to one of your field guides, go online to sites dedicated to the identification of animals, call your local City Naturalist, or contact your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Email can be a wonderful tool – many experts will let you email your photo to them for a quick ID.

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