Identifying Insects & Other Creepy-crawlies

As every wildlife gardener knows, there’s seldom any shortage of insects and other creepy-crawlies to spot in the garden, which means that there’s usually plenty for the amateur naturalist to see, even on the dullest of days.

However, apart from the instantly recognisable ones, such as ladybirds, woodlice and earthworms, it’s not always easy to identify exactly what you’re looking at. Although the variety of invertebrates in the world is enormous – and the staggering number of insect species alone account for more than three-quarters of all animals on the planet – with a little careful observation, it shouldn’t be too difficult to work out at least what general kind of bug it is.

Legs, Bodies and Wings

A good look at your bug’s body should give you plenty of clues – and it’s worth learning the key things to look for.

  • Wings – only insects have wings, so if your bug does, you know instantly what kind of creature it is; however, do be aware that not all insects have wings – springtails and many kinds of ants for example, don’t, while beetles hide theirs under hard wing cases when they’re not in use.
  • Legs – count up the legs on your creepy-crawly; six legs makes it an insect, eight makes it a spider or a mite, while more legs than you can count quickly on a long thin body tells you that you’re dealing with a millipede or centipede. It’s not an entirely fool-proof method, since invertebrates do seem to lose their legs fairly easily – so you might just come across a six-legged spider once in a long while – but it’s a pretty good guide on the whole.
  • Body – this can be a really great help in identifying bugs; insects have three clear parts to their bodies, while spiders have only two. Body shape is often also the quickest way to tell centipedes from millipedes – centipedes have flexible and fairly flattened, ribbon-like bodies, while millipede bodies are more rounded and appear stiffer.
  • Antennae – with the notable exception of spiders and their relatives, many kinds of bugs have antennae and they can often be a useful distinguishing feature. Butterflies, for instance, have antennae which end in a club-shaped swelling, while those of moths don’t, often having a feathery appearance; centipedes have very long ones that curve around them, but millipedes only have very short ones.

A Good Guide

It’s hard to over state the value of a good guidebook when it comes to putting names to the invertebrate visitors in your garden. If you have the opportunity, try to examine a few and see for yourself which one suits you best – though these days, with fewer local bookshops on the high street, it’s not always an easy thing to do.

Look out for a book that has clear illustrations – ideally photos – and good descriptions of both adult and larvae too, if possible, and gives other useful bits of information such as usual food plants or whereabouts in the country you’re likely to see them.

If you can’t get to flick through a few possible books first-hand, it’s worth asking around to see if anyone you know who shares your interest has a favourite guide, trying the local wildlife trust for some advice or reading any reviews if you end up using an on-line book store.

The Naturalist’s Notepad

As the old Victorian naturalists knew, a good notepad is an essential tool; make a few notes or scribble down a quick sketch while the bug’s in front of you and you’ll find it much easier to remember details accurately when you do come to sit down with your guidebook. It needn’t be anything particularly elaborate; a simple notebook and pencil that fits easily into a pocket is ideal – and used wisely it’ll be worth its weight in gold when it comes to jogging your memory.

A well planned and planted wildlife garden will attract huge numbers of insects and their allies over the course of the year. The more of these fascinating visitors you can identify, the more you’ll get out of the whole wildlife gardening experience – so it’s definitely worth the effort of learning how to recognise at least some of them on sight.

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