How to Identify a Bug or Beetle by Sight

Written by jessica kolifrath
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How to Identify a Bug or Beetle by Sight
All beetles share the same basic body shape, but can vary wildly in colouration and size. (beetle. image by mdb from

Identifying insects can be a challenge even for practised entomologists. With over 28,000 species of beetles in the United States alone, according to Backyard Nature, identifying a backyard beetle or bug takes lots of practice and a good field guide.

Insects come in a few basic types, so you should be able to identify the order and family of an insect by learning the distinguishing features of each.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Insect field guide
  • Magnifying glass

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  1. 1

    Examine the insect for wings. The experts at Backyard Nature say that if the wings are visible when the insect is at rest, its order is probably either Lepidoptera or Diptera. If it has two pairs of visible wings, you will need to examine the body to determine the insect's order.

  2. 2

    Look at the insect's body. An insect with two pairs of wings and a thin waist is a wasp, or member of the order Hymenoptera; if it doesn't have a thin waist, it's a member of the order Homoptera.

    The experts at Tree of Life say that beetles and other members of the order Coleoptera feature three distinct body sections, comprising the head, the thorax and the abdomen.

  3. 3

    Count the number of legs and check their shape. According to Dr. Floyd G. Werner, author of "Learning About and Living With Insects of the Southwest," spiders and other members of the Arachnid group have eight jointed legs. Grasshoppers and members of the order Orthoptera have large and sharply bent back legs. Diplopoda (millipedes) and Chilopoda (centipedes) have many small legs on both sides of their bodies.

  4. 4

    Use an insect field guide to determine the insect's family and species. Given the wide variety of insect families and species, it's nearly impossible to identify an insect by sight alone, according to the Backyard Nature website. However, recognising the insect's order makes it much easier to find the insect in your guide.

  5. 5

    Search for the insect by body type, colour, and size using an online insect identification website such as Bug Guide, or North American Insects and Spiders (see resources). Once you positively identify a specimen, you should be able to identify it by sight the next time you see it.

Tips and warnings

  • If possible, collect the insect for close examination in a clear glass container. This will allow you to take your time comparing the specimen to photos in a field guide or website.
  • Do not handle a spider with bare hands if you are unsure of its ability to bite. While few North American spiders have enough venom to cause serious damage to a human, all spider bites can be painful and prone to infection.

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