Each intern in the Nature Academy internship program at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum chooses a summer project to research and report on. The project culminates in a poster displayed in Matthaei’s public indoor spaces. Interns also write a blog post about their project concept or the research they’ve conducted.
“Insects are not pests to me. They are symbols of diversity, gems of novelty, a magical kingdom open to anyone who takes the time to look.” —Kenn Kaufman
Is it an insect? Insects are distinguished by having six legs, three distinct body regions, and antennae. (Photo © Berkley Biokeys.)
Or maybe an arachnid. Arachnids are commonly distinguished by having eight legs, two body parts, and jaw-like structures called chelicerae. (Photo vectorstock.com.)
Or is it a butterfly larva, like this giant swallowtail (Papilio chresphontes) larva on the prowl with its distinctive markings and its forked osmeterium (defensive organ) extended?
Identifying insects is no easy task, especially while they’re busy pollinating hundreds to thousands of flowers each day. Throughout my internship, I’ve been exposed to a variety of invasive plants found here at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. Consequently, I was curious to find out what types of insects were pollinating these noxious plants. For my summer internship project, I decided to observe and photograph which pollinators were visiting invasive plants commonly found in the natural areas here.
As I started my observations, my appreciation for the large variety of insects pollinating these plants began to grow. Thus, I needed to enhance my insect identification skills. With hundreds of thousands of various insect species, this skill doesn’t come easy, but I hope with this guide you are able to learn the basics of insect identification.
What to Look For: Identifying Insects 101
What is it really? An insect? An arachnid?
When identifying an unknown arthropod, it’s important to know what organismal class it belongs to. If it’s an insect it’ll have six legs, three distinct body regions, and one pair of antennae, with the exception of larval stages. Arachnids, on the other hand, have eight legs and two body parts, and they do not have antennae or wings present. Although I found a variety of arthropods on invasive plants, insects are the primary pollinators of the natural world.
Is it an adult? Nymph? Larval or pupal stage?
Insects typically hatch from eggs and then follow one of three development patterns; Complete metamorphosis, partial metamorphosis, or simple metamorphosis. Thus, when you are observing an insect you must be aware of its life stage to properly identify it.
Are there any distinct characteristics?
While color may be the first thing we notice about an insect, it’s not always the most effective identification clue. Structure, on the other hand, is a very distinctive feature to notice on an unknown insect. Structures such as wing number, size of antennae, or other variations of features help determine the group to which an insect belongs .
Where did you find it? How does it behave?
Habitat can significantly narrow down what type of insect you’ve found. Some insects are exclusively found in aquatic environments, while some are primarily found on certain plants (e.g. milkweed beetles on common milkweed). Additionally, an insect’s behavior can indicate what type of insect it is. For example, a bee that is burrowing into dead wood can be assumed to be some sort of carpenter bee (Xylocopa.)
Have fun with it!
With some estimates putting the number of insect species on the planet at 30 million, it’s difficult to identify an unknown insect down to the species. There are hundreds of different resources to use to help you identify common insects. My favorite sources to use are Kaufman’s Field Guide to Insects of North America and bugguide.net. So don’t be afraid to get outside, grab a hand lens, and start finding some new critters!
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) have an easily recognizable black, orange, and white pattern. This monarch butterfly was found on a bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) in the prairie at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. (Photo Jennifer Zavalnitskaya.)
This four-toothed mason wasp, found pollinating a wild parsnip flower, is easily distinguished by its yellow bands and blue, iridescent colored wings. (Photo by Jennifer Zavalnitskaya.)
Certain insects such as this red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) are identified by their host plant, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca.)
Jennifer Zavalnitskaya, Commerce Township, Michigan, is a natural areas Intern this summer. She just graduated with bachelor’s in biology and a minor in environmental studies. She’s excited to learn more about restoration techniques and how we can work to create a healthy ecosystem filled with Michigan’s native flora and fauna. Jennifer’s internship was made possible by gifts from the Matthaei family in memory of Mildred Hague Matthaei.