Identifying Bugs

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on September 1, 2011

I am an amateur entomologist, or bug geek. One of the things I do regularly is help people identify a bug.  Usually, they want to know how to kill it, but sometimes, they just want to know what it is.  Below are some ways to narrow the possibilities.  Keep in mind that some bugs bite, or sting, so use caution when dealing with an unknown bug.  A pair of tweezers comes in handy, too.

First, “bug” is not used very accurately when we talk about creepy crawlers themselves.  If your critter has six legs, it is an insect.  If it has eight legs, it is probably an anthropoid.  Scorpions, mites, and such fall into this category.  The pesticides that kill insects often do nothing to anthropoids, so the distinction is important.

Within the category of insects, there is a group of critters called “true bugs.”    They have a little armor type shield on their back that identifies them.  Everything else is, I suppose, a “false bug” although that is not a real category.

Some of the other information you will need to identify the bug, true or not, is:

  • what color or colors is it
  • what was it found on (ground, begonia, etc.)
  • the location (city, state)
  • the type of terrain (desert, rain forest, etc.)
  • Is there just one or is there a bunch of them
  • what, if any, noise does it make
  • does it produce an odor you can smell without getting personal

Now, there are some good websites you can look up your critter on. has a lot of pictures and other information to help you identify insects, spiders, and their kin.  It does not, generally speaking give information on control, but once you have the name of the critter you can find that in other places.

If you live in Texas, the Field Guide to Common Texas Insects is very useful.  It has pictures and hints on figuring out the identy of your unidentified creeping crawler.  Again, it does not give control recommendations, just an identification and a few brief notes on the critter.

Sometimes, though, you cannot find the name of your critter anywhere.  Bring it, in a jar and preferably not crushed into dust, to the county Extension office.  They can often identify your critter there.  If not, the extension system has entomologists on staff who spend their days identifying the critters people bring in and telling them how to get rid of the things.

Before you smash that bug, though, remember that the vast majority of insects and anthropoids are beneficial.  Only a few are truly harmful.  So for the most part, leaving them alone is best for all concerned.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Lana from Rug Cleaning Santa Monica September 1, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Ick – I hate bugs! But luckily for them, I’m usually too scared to get close enough to them to do any damage. As long as they don’t bite me, I’m okay for the most part! What are some examples of these “true” bugs, do I even *want* to know?


Stephanie Suesan Smith September 2, 2011 at 7:30 am

True bugs have a little shield on their back. Stink bugs are true bugs, for example.


Ira from Chicago and Suburb September 1, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Are there also poisonous bugs? Do you know how we could identify them? I am sorry I am just fearful of poisonous creatures.


Stephanie Suesan Smith September 2, 2011 at 7:28 am

Many bugs are venomous. However, in most cases the venom is not strong enough to harm humans. It might hurt a lot, though, and if you are allergic to it you could die. Only the black widow, brown widow, and brown recluse are poisonous enough to kill humans in the United States. Other insects and anthropoids hurt, might make you sick, but don’t usually kill. The widow spiders are hairless, shiny, and have an hourglass on their abdomen. If it has fur, it isn’t one of these spiders. The brown recluse is called a fiddle back spider because it has a marking like a fiddle on its back. All these are likely to hide where you can’t see them because they like dark quiet places.So don’t stick your hand in dark places without using a flashlight first.


Christina September 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Hi Stephanie,
I just returned from a camping trip today and this is the perfect place to ask a question that came to mind this trip!
I’m absolutely terrified of spiders, but all my life I’ve been told not to be afraid of daddy-long-legs because, I’m told, ‘They’re not really spiders, because they only have six legs”.
Now, as you noted, insects have six legs, anthropoids have eight.
On my camping trip, however (when I was in unfortunate proximity to many six- and eight-legged creatures) I noted that while many daddy-long-legs did, in fact, only have six legs, a large number of them had the usual spider-count of eight legs.
So my question is, are there two different types of creatures we call daddy-long-legs, and can they be classified as insects or spiders?


Stephanie Suesan Smith September 2, 2011 at 8:26 pm

There are many different species of critter called daddy long legs and the species tend to vary regionally. I can tell you that if it has six legs, it is an insect. However, many insects mimic anthropoids and vice versa. Think about it — what better way to escape being prey than to look like a hunter? So the answer is yes, and it depends on the individual critter in front of you. That is one reason scientists long ago agreed to use Latin names to describe a critter, so everyone knew what was being discussed.


Kayla from Online Furniture Stores Burbank September 13, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Thanks for the guides! I just recently started gardening and I can’t tell which bugs are which – they all just look like something I don’t really want around 🙁


Panama foundation September 17, 2011 at 12:52 am

.Use a field guide to easily identify insect larva…In the world live literally hundreds of thousands of insect species.


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