Field Notes Friday 0024: How Do YOU Identify Bugs?

How do you look up a word you have no idea how to spell? And how do you identify a bug if you have no idea where to start? How do YOU unravel the insect mystery in front of you?

My recent entomological adventure started one lazy summer morning when my husband and I heard a familiar sound: a flying insect trying to get out by buzzing against a closed window. The poor thing was too high for us to help. Hours later in the evening, we found (we presume) the same bug, tuckered out and resting on a houseplant. Easily caught, observed, and then released, it filled my next hours with interest.

However, I feel my research could be more efficient if I knew a few tricks… or tips… or resources… or a little more about entomology. I’m looking for your suggestions.

Here’s what I did this time, and I’m hoping this convinces other novices, teachers and students that you DON’T have to already know everything. You can start from ground zero and still get close to the ‘right’ answer pretty quickly.

  1. Capture carefully. Don’t endanger yourself or the insect. Release when you’re done.
  2. Observe, photograph, and SKETCH. Sketching helps you notice important details you’d miss otherwise, which most amateur-level cameras (like cameraphones) are not powerful or fast enough to capture. This became important in step 6!

    Home Nature Journal

    Home Nature Journal (for more info: http://bit.ly/1oCDhFI )

  3. Mentally compare to what you know. What does its coloring remind you of? Its shape? Don’t worry if you have less-than-basic knowledge. If you’ve thought of a comparison for the bug, you can bet someone else has, too, and it may lead you closer to identification. In this case, the coloring and the shape indicated conflicting answers: the warning coloration resembled wasps/yellowjackets, but those bulbous eyes and tiny antennae reminded me of… could it be… a fly?? I based that inkling on having taken a cursory glance at worksheets like this:

  1. Search for your hunch. I typed “yellow jacket look-alikes” into a search engine and scrolled through photos. Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 12.27.56 PMThe closest photo was from a BLOG, a wonderful find with great information, sending me in a new direction (which I’d never heard of): syrphid flies.

  2. Refine your search. Armed with new info, I Googled “syrphidae”. Again, there’s no magic or secret knowledge here – this was a completely new word to me. I wondered whether it would lead to an ID.
  3. Follow your leads but focus on details. If something looks close, follow it! Learn more about it. (Do you have resources to suggest?) The most informative “syrphidae” image I found was a compilation of species on Wikipedia:

    At this point, the trail seemed to get cold. Two of the closest look-alikes in the image weren’t a match to the pattern on the thorax and the golden accents on the abdomen of the individual I’d seen.

  4. Embrace persistence. Don’t give up on details you’ve noticed! False leads and dead ends are all part of the chase. Just keep going.
  5. Check trusted sources. I’d looked at Wikipedia, and felt I was on the right track with “syrphidae.” I’ve seen BugGuide.net several times in other searches, so decided to try that site. It confirmed I was on the right track at the Family level, but there was a LONG list of species to click through, and no thumbnails – not an easy resource for a novice to use.

    The same was true of a Canadian website. OMG, Ontario!

  6. Focus on your area. That Canadian site gave me an idea. Perhaps my bug was unique to Texas, or at least notable in Texas. I Googled “syrphidae of Texas.” Persistence again paid off, because on the ELEVENTH row of images I found something promising (bottom right). Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 12.32.33 PM Clicking the image led me to THIS page, and a potential identification! Milesia virginiensis, the Flower Fly. (Interestingly, its range is from Canada to Texas. The Canadian site wasn’t far off my trail!)
  7. Ask the experts. You can do this digitally, thanks to iNaturalist. I posted my potential identification and photos and clicked the “ID Please!” button. (I wonder if the iNaturalist community would appreciate the sketch? They seem to be photo-dominated.) Thanks to those who responded, I learned a more full name (Virginia Flower Fly), and that BugGuide has a key I can use next time I find a Syrphid fly.
  8. Be ok with uncertainty. It’s ok to be corrected, it’s ok to be wrong, it’s ok to tell people “I’m pretty sure this is…” Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to be 100% right all the time. You’re always learning, and you set an example to emulate when you admit it.

I’ve found TWO more blogs that seem to validate my ID.

This ID’ing adventure shows that naturalists have an important voice on the internet. Most people haven’t been trained in their local flora and fauna, and they need a guide – even a digital one – when learning about their natural heritage.

So thank you BugEric, Jim McCormac, Pam, and my fellow naturalists on iNaturalist (sambiology and marcello)! You helped me, and now hopefully I’m helping others.

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One thought on “Field Notes Friday 0024: How Do YOU Identify Bugs?

  1. And here’s some useful advice from SamBiology:

    “How to ID bugs… Well, to be completely honest with you, I use google images a LOT. Growing up, I would use lots of bug books, and I think I’ve retained some of the general names of bugs from then — although, I’ll modify my google image search… So I’ll know a bug is a stink bug, then I’ll google the family of stink bugs, and then scroll through the images of stink bugs… Or if it’s a stink bug with weird white spots, I’ll add those words in my search. If I see the weird white spots on the pronotum, I’ll add those words in my search!

    Theeeeen, as you put in your blog, I’ll scroll bugguide — that site is phenomenal. I LOVE that site. I verify insect ID’s with the images on that site. Such a good collaboration of lots of folks to make bugguide as awesome as it it. 🙂

    Yippee! Bugs!”

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