They were here long before humanity. They will be here long after humanity has disappeared from the Earth. No, I’m not talking about obnoxious talk-show hosts; I’m talking about insects, spiders, and their relatives. Most of these creatures are harmless to humans, but some are pests and a few are dangerous. Entomology, the study of insects, is not only fascinating but economically important as well, mainly due to the damage insects cause to crops and buildings. Some insects spread disease. In other parts of the world, they are used for food. We generally spurn insects as food in the U.S.A., although you might encounter the occasional chocolate-covered ant or grasshopper as a novelty. (For more on edible insects, try “The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook,” or “Creepy Crawly Cuisine.”)
As I write this it’s summer, and the loud high-pitched noise in the trees announces the presence of cicadas. Someone from the Midwest (like me) might wonder about the differences between the cicadas here and those found back east. A few days ago I saw a strange-looking bug on the window; was it interested in me, or the garden plants? And that spider in the back yard: is it a problem? Some insects are scary-looking but harmless. The first step is finding out what that insect is, instead of automatically reaching for the insecticide. Having worked for decades in chemistry laboratories, I view application of pesticides as a last resort. Long-lasting synthetic pesticides are often indiscriminate killers that work their way up the food chain and end up in our own bodies. If you do have a severe insect problem, consult a professional. But be wary then, as well; an exterminator doing a poor job can be worse than no exterminator at all.
Recently, after reading Mark Sedenquist’s blog post containing some great pictures of an adult female Black Widow spider, and seeing some interesting insect specimens around the house, I bought some books on insects to help identify them. I also checked out some Internet resources. It turns out that immature female Black Widow spiders are not all black, but have black and white stripes with an additional orange stripe, like the one just visible in the picture here. This one was in a web near a similar-looking smaller spider, possibly a male Black Widow.
I like to feel informed about the world around me and nothing gives me that feeling more than having a few large authoritative books on the shelf. This is part one of a two-part article in which I’ll review several of the books I found. It’s not a complete list but it contains recent books likely to be useful, as well as an older classic. Each of the books discussed is about $20, and readily available from Amazon or your local bookstore.
First, a note about terminology. Insects have six legs. You might be aware that not all insects are really “bugs.” The “true bugs” are a certain type of insect. Most people know that spiders, ticks, and scorpions (with eight legs) are arachnids, not insects. Nevertheless, many books on insects also cover arachnids. Then there are those creatures such as centipedes, with many legs. Centipedes, as well as spiders and insects, are all arthropods (from the Greek, meaning “jointed foot”). Most “insect books” also cover some common arthropods like centipedes which are neither insects nor spiders.
I’ll begin with a book that’s not a field guide, and covers a smaller geographic area than the others. If you’re a beginner and don’t want a field guide just yet, or just want some information on local species, you should get “Insects of the Southwest” by Werner and Olson. The authors are associated with the University of Arizona at Tuscon and the book covers Arizona, New Mexico, the southern parts of Colorado, Utah and Nevada, some of west Texas, southern California, and northern Mexico. The complete title of the book is “Learning and Living with Insects of the Southwest: how to identify helpful, harmful and venomous insects.” The book is divided into sections based on common characteristics, or where you are likely to find the insects, such as “Insects in your House,” “Dwellers in Your Yard and Patio,” “Insects in Garden and Landscape Plants,” “Poisonous and Venomous Creatures,” “Fearsome but Harmless,” “Flashy in the Desert,” and “Crop Insects.” Discussing about 120 species in roughly 150 pages, it also covers spiders and a few other arthropods such as centipedes and pillbugs. This is a book to sit down with and read through, in contrast to the books to be discussed next time, which are field guides. There are about 95 black-and-white drawings in the book. While the drawings are okay, the strength of the book is in the text which is accessible and informative. The authors bring an interesting, personal view to their subjects. Here, you’ll learn that some of the cicadas in Las Vegas could be “Apache cicadas,” Diceroprocta apache, which have a three-year life cycle in contrast to the seventeen-year cicadas (Magicicada) I knew back in Ohio. But there’s no drawing of the Apache cicada.
There is at least one thing that has changed since 1994 when this book was published. Back then, it was still true as the authors state, that “Bed bugs have become an oddity these days, but there was a time when people who traveled encountered them in many hotels.” Actually, bed bug infestations have recently been on the rise in the U.S. and travelers should be aware of the fact that even good hotels can harbor bed bugs. They are not easy to control, but fortunately they are still not common. Bed bugs do not appear to transmit diseases, and are primarily a nuisance except to people who are sensitive to them.
I recommend this book if you want relatively in-depth coverage of the most common species. It’s an excellent first book for the budding entomologist. (Or do they have instars rather than buds? Okay, I apologize for the nerdiness of that joke.)
In part two I discuss three field guides covering insects, spiders, and more, in North America.
More fun with bug identification here: Do you know what a Cotinis mutabilis looks like?