The bug on the window screen was big. Really big, more than an inch long. It looked like it was clad in body armor, because essentially it was. A crescent of spikes ran along the center of its upper back. And a fang as long as its head folded under its mouth like a switchblade. I didn’t know what it was, but I was not getting near it.
It was wise that I didn’t. After taking a few photos and searching online, I identified this bad boy. It was a wheel bug, Arilus cristatus, a member of the assassin bug family. It’s don’t-touch-me vibe isn’t by accident. This insect is notorious for using its fang to inflict a painful bite on anyone or anything that handles or disturbs it.
But this story isn’t actually about the wheel bug. It’s about how I found out it was a wheel bug.
Way back in pre-internet days, a gardener’s bookshelf groaned under the weight of ID guides: trees, weeds, birds, animals, and of course, insects. There were pocket guides and huge encyclopedia-like books. Determining which bug you were looking for meant flipping through lots of pages. And before digital cameras, taking a photo wasn’t immediately helpful, since you had to wait for the film to be developed.
Now it’s easy. I googled “how to ID a bug,” and the site insectidentification.org came up. Nicknamed BugFinder, it’s a cinch to use. Silhouettes of insect shapes help narrow categories. Then I chose the insect’s primary and secondary colors, and my state, and it brought up the possibilities.
But BugFinder isn’t the only ID site by a long shot. There are websites, apps, image galleries, Facebooks pages, Twitter accounts (one is @BugQuestions), even a reddit page (r/whatsthisbug).
Another easy way to ID bugs is to use an app on your phone, such as iNaturalist or Insect Identification. Simply take a photo and upload it to the app, which will check its database and provide the closest match(es). You can also reverse image a photo.
Ask an Entomologist (Askentomologists.com) answers questions about insects. BugGuide.net goes deep in the weeds on insect sightings, and allows people to post photos.
Here’s what to do when trying to identify a bug:
First things first: take a photo if you can. Take a few from different angles, if possible, and zoom in. A video, especially if the bug is moving, can be helpful, too.
When trying to determine what kind of insect you are looking at, pay attention to:
The shape – Long and narrow, broad, bulky, in segments or entire.
The colors – What’s the insect’s primary color and where on its body is that? What are the secondary colors and where are they?
Number of legs – Insects have six, spiders, which are technically not insects but arachnids, have eight.
Wings, no wings or can’t tell – Whether a bug has wings or not narrows down the possibilities immediately.
Its mouth – Insects eat in one of two ways: they either bite and chew (think ant) or pierce and suck (think mosquito).
How it’s moving/what it’s doing – Does it crawl, burrow, fly, hover? Does it move fast or slow? Is it eating?
Where you saw it – On or in the ground, in the water, on a plant (what kind of plant?), under a rock or log, on an object.
When you saw it – Daytime, nighttime, dusk, dawn.
When in doubt, don’t touch an insect. While the majority are harmless, some – like my wheel bug – can bite or sting. And it’s easy to accidently injure an insect when handling it. Take a photo instead.
Learning how to identify insects is a valuable tool for any gardener. Knowing what’s visiting our plants helps to determine whether it’s friend or foe, eating or pollinating, looking for a mate, or just hanging out. It lets us decide whether to encourage or discourage an insect. It helps avoid being bitten or stung. And if all those reasons aren’t enough, learning about insects and their habits is just plain fascinating.
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