The summer insect season is upon us here in temperate North America, and with it comes the need for good identification guides.
Before I begin, a cautionary note. We have so many species on our continent that were we to create a bird-type guide that listed all the insects, with their ranges and identifying characteristics, the full set would span at least 30 volumes. Any book small enough to carry into the field necessarily omits more than 95% of the relevant animals. Insect guides are understandably neurotic and overwhelmed compared to the corresponding bird and plant guides, and it’s worth remembering that guides represent the author’s judgment about which species are the most likely to be encountered. With no guarantee, of course, that the mysterious bug in your hand is common. Proper identification to species normally requires examination of a preserved specimen under high magnification with reference to the original taxonomic literature.
Having said all that though, let’s throw caution to the wind. Here is my completely biased opinion* of the most prominent North American insect guides.
Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. The Kaufman guide was only published in the last couple years, but in that short period has become the first book I consult. The reason is simple. This guide, written by Eric Eaton and Kenn Kaufman, makes no bones about being strictly an identification tool. The pages are packed with stylized photos, stripped from their habitats and laid out next to each other for easier identification. By skimping on the amount of text provided for each species, Eaton & Kaufman cover a broader array of species than competing guides- more than twice the number as the NWF guide, in fact. An insect is more likely to show up in the pages of this guide than any other. Of course, the lack of accompanying biological detail is frustrating, but that’s the price of achieving both the smallest size and the greatest coverage. Highly recommended.
National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. This handsome volume, authored by Art Evans, stands out for the depth of information provided for the illustrated species. The photographs- many taken by the author- depict animals in their habitat, and the guide is among the most aesthetically pleasing books on the market. The inevitable trade-off of providing more text per species is that fewer species are covered. The NWF guide is not as likely to lead the reader to an identified insect as is the Kaufman guide, but the natural history detail in the text is much more satisfying for those insects that are included. Highly recommended.
National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders. Decades out of date, riddled with creative misidentifications, and arranged in an utterly nonsensical manner, this book will provide hours of surreal amusement. Some bugs are included with the beetles. There are moths in the wasps, and flies in the bees, except for the ones placed with the ticks. Or spiders. In the book’s defense, the faux-leather binding is flexible and durable in the field, perhaps the most field-worthy of the lot, so you’ll be able to abuse this book for years and still be able to misidentify your insects just as easily as when it was new. My advice? Don’t bother. Not recommended.
Peterson’s A Field Guide to Insects. Peterson’s is the grandaddy of insect guides, now several decades past the original printing and slipping out of date, and digestable only by the already entomologically literate. The vocabulary is technical, some of the characters arcane, and the illustrations are based on preserved specimens rather than live insects. Non-specialists may lack the technical chops to properly use this guide. Or is it another sign that today’s kids just aren’t as smart as they used to be? But I digress. For the persistent naturalist, the Peterson’s Guide offers the best hope for identifying rare and unusual insects short of consulting the original taxonomic monographs. It’s a rigorous, professional, and satisfying guide. If you’ve already passed Ent 101, that is. Recommended only for more advanced users.
*disclaimer: The Kaufman and the NWF guide both licensed images from myrmecos.net in exchange for fistfuls of cash.