How and Where to Request a Bug Identification

Boy looking at a bug.
Getty Images/The Image Bank/Adrian Weinbrecht

There are lots of insect enthusiasts, both professional and amateur, on social media today, and based on my own experience, most of them are probably getting inundated with bug identification requests. Let's take a look at the appropriate steps that should be taken.

How to Submit a Bug Identification Request

First things first. There are, by most expert accounts, several million kinds of bugs living on our planet. If you send me a photo of a bug you found in Thailand, there's a good chance I won't know what it is, beyond the basics ("Looks like a sphinx moth caterpillar."). Find the expert in your own area, if possible.

If you want a bug identified, you will need to provide either the bug itself or several good photos of the bug you encountered. It's very difficult (and sometimes impossible) to identify insects or spiders from photographs, even good ones.

Bug photos should be:

  • Taken close-up (macro photos).
  • Clear, not blurry.
  • Well-lit.
  • Taken from different angles: dorsal view, side view, ventral view if possible.
  • Taken with something in the photo to provide scale and size of the insect.

Accurate bug identification may require the expert to get a good look at the subject's feet and legs, antennae, eyes, wings, and mouthparts. Try to get as much detail as possible. If you can, place something in the frame of the photo to give some perspective regarding the size of the bug – a coin, a ruler, or grid paper (and please report the size of the grid) all work well. People often overestimate the size of bugs they see, especially if they are phobic, so having an objective measurement is helpful.

It's also important to provide as much information as you can about where you found the mystery bug. Include specifics on the geographic location and habitat, as well as the time of year when you caught or photographed it. If you don't mention where and when you found the bug, you probably won't even get a reply.

  • A good insect identification request: "Can you identify this insect I photographed in Trenton, NJ, in June? It was on an oak tree in my backyard and appeared to be eating the leaves. It was about a half-inch long."
  • A poor insect identification request: "Can you tell me what this is?"

Now that you have good photographs and a detailed description of where and when you found your mystery insect, here's where you can go to have it identified.

3 Places to Get Mystery Bugs Identified

If you need an insect, spider, or another bug from North America identified, here are three excellent resources available to you.

What's That Bug?

Daniel Marlos, known to his loyal fans as "The Bugman," has been identifying mystery insects for people since the 1990s. After responding to bug ID requests for an online magazine in the early years of the Internet, Daniel launched his own website called "What's That Bug?" in 2002. He's identified well over 15,000 mystery insects from all over the world for readers. And if Daniel doesn't know what your mystery insect is, he knows how to reach the right expert to get your answer.

Daniel can't respond to every ID request, but when he does, he provides a short natural history of the bug in question. I've often been able to identify insects just by using the search feature on the What's That Bug? website, by entering a short description ("large black and white beetle with long antennae," for example). His site also features a sidebar menu where he's grouped previous ID's by type, so if you know you have a bumblebee but aren't sure which one, you can try looking at his past bumblebee identifications for a match.

Bugguide

Anyone who has even a remote interest in insects knows about Bugguide, and most of those insect enthusiasts are registered members on this crowdsourced, online field guide to North American arthropods. The Bugguide website is hosted by Iowa State University's Department of Entomology.

Bugguide posts a disclaimer: "Dedicated naturalists volunteer their time and resources here to provide this service. We strive to provide accurate information, but we are mostly just amateurs attempting to make sense of a diverse natural world." These naturalists may be volunteers, but I can tell you from my experience using Bugguide for many years that they are some of the most knowledgeable arthropod enthusiasts on the planet.

Cooperative Extension

Cooperative Extension was created in 1914 by the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which provided government funding for a partnership between the US Department of Agriculture, state governments, and land-grant colleges and universities. Cooperative Extension exists to educate the public about agriculture and natural resources.

Cooperative Extension provides research-based information about insects, spiders, and other arthropods to the public. Most counties in the U.S. have a Cooperative Extension office that you can call or visit if you have questions about bugs. If you have a bug-related concern or question, I highly recommend that you contact your local Extension office. Their staff knows the insects and spiders specific to your area, as well as the right way to address pest problems in your region.