An Easy Guide to Insect Identification

After eight consecutive weeks of quarantine quizzes, I’m taking a break. We may or may not see the return of the quizzes, but for this week, I thought I’d offer a free service to readers who may struggle to identify common – or uncommon – insects and spiders.

I post a lot of insect and spider photos on this blog. The fact that I often provide identification of those creatures – at least to family or order – tends to give people the impression that I have extensive entomological knowledge. Nothing could be further from the truth!

This gorgeous ant is Formica incerta. I was able to identify it via a my own very simple method (see below)

As I’ve told many people, I am an insect enthusiast, not an expert. I like to photograph small creatures and then learn about them. However, before I can dig into their fascinating stories, I first need to know who they are. Through years of practice, I have gradually developed and honed a very simple system of identification. Today, for the first time, I am making that system available to the public – at NO CHARGE.

There are, of course, multiple terrific resources available for the identification of invertebrates. Those include various old school field guides, as well as online resources such as iNaturalist and Bugguide. I see my method as complementary to those other resources, if considerably easier to use. It works for any species of insect, spider, or other invertebrate (and, honestly, with vertebrates and plants too). All you need is a reasonably good photo of whatever it is you’re trying to identify. Then, just follow the simple chart below and identify your bug!

You’re welcome. Stay safe, everyone.

(Thanks to James Trager, the expert who identified Formica incerta for me)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

11 thoughts on “An Easy Guide to Insect Identification

  1. Of course, a similar, utterly useless (but perfectly applicable) algorithm could be made to identify the sedges. They, too, cannot be identified by normal humans.

  2. I’ve enjoyed the quizzes. I even got my husband interested in a couple of them!

    On Mon, May 11, 2020, 2:19 PM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” After eight consecutive weeks of quarantine > quizzes, I’m taking a break. We may or may not see the return of the > quizzes, but for this week, I thought I’d offer a free service to readers > who may struggle to identify common – or uncommon – insects and sp” >

  3. Pingback: A Simple Dichotomous Key to the Sedges | The Prairie Ecologist

  4. Clever and very insightful. But did you know that we are rapidly losing the critical expertise of individuals who can reliably identify insects and spiders? Rapidly. Some creative thinking about a solution is in great need.

    • Adapting facial recognition technologies with a very good photographic ID database I think would help. At least to narrow the field of candidates. I think it is starting to be done.

  5. Whenever I get the inevitable Newbie Prairie Restoration ‘Overwhelm’, your posts seem to know— and bring it back to humorous simplicity! Thank you so much for making ‘All Things Prairie’ more approachable!

  6. I’m replacing all my books of keys with your key. It’ll save me at least one book case worth of space and make my life much easier.

  7. True. If I take a photo of an insect, then I can try to find a matching photo online (that has an identifying name). There’s hope. IF I didn’t take a photo and I didn’t know what I was looking at—well, then I can’t even ask an expert!

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