There are millions of species of insects which are roaming the world presently. There are those which have been discovered and those yet to be discovered. There are those which are harmful and those which are totally harmless. A lot of them can be identified just by looking at them, insects like houseflies, spiders, fleas, wasps, bees and so on.
However, there are insects which are similar and difficult to tell apart, like yellow jackets and hornets. There are also insects which would be completely unfamiliar to you; you probably have never seen them before. If you have an avid interest in insects or if you just encounter them somewhere, how do you successfully identify what you are looking at?
The first step in insect identification is by looking at the body. A typical insect has a body which is divided into three parts: the head, the thorax, and the abdomen. The head consists of the compound eyes, the mouthparts, and the antennas. The thorax consists of just the wings if the insect has wings and the legs. The abdomen does not have any distinguishing feature but makes up the hind part of the body.
This fact can further inform you if you are looking at a fully mature insect or not. An immature dragonfly may look like a mosquito to the untrained eye due to its small body and skinny long legs but a close examination would reveal that the three body parts are not fully formed.
Another example is wasps. A hornet and a yellow jacket look alike in everything except the color. A yellow jacket has a black and yellow striped body but a hornet has ivory and black markings.
Is it an insect or not? Every crawling and creeping tiny creature is not necessarily an insect. Insects are arthropods and most, if not all, insects have six legs, are usually winged and have only two eyes which are compound in nature. And to crown it all, they have antennas. A spider is normally termed an insect or arthropod but this is not strictly true. They are arachnids. They may be the same size and have similar body structures from afar but on a closer look, they differ significantly. They have no wings, they do not have antennas and they have eight legs with eight eyes, two of which are usually more visible than others. So if you are wondering if you are looking for a spider or just a look-alike insect, you could check the number of legs to be sure.
Knowing the time of the day in which a particular insect operates is another way to easily identify an insect. A lot of them like wasps, bees, and houseflies are very active during the heat of the day. Some others carry out most of their activities late at night or very early in the morning, insects such as mosquitoes, though they have the tendency to be agile at all times if there is a breeding ground close by. Yet another group of insects is most functional only at night, insects like moths. However, there are some which remain active at all times, insects such as fleas, ticks, and mites. As long as there is a prey, they can come out at any time of the day.
Where insects live, that is, their habitat is yet another sure way to identify one. All insects do not have one natural habitat. For example, you would naturally and easily find bees and butterflies in flower gardens but it would be unnatural to find houseflies flying about in such a garden unless there is an offensive smell there. Now, in such a case, the presence of houseflies would inform you of a dead and decaying thing in your garden so you can get rid of it. Houseflies follow smells but usually awful ones. Though there is the tendency to find them in almost all places, the likeliest are places where dead and decaying things are easily found. They follow foul smells.
Fleas can be found on the bodies of furry or feathery animals and even though they can be found in other places, it is rare. Dragonflies and mosquitoes thrive mostly where there is water but mosquitoes can also be found anywhere, including heavily wooded areas.
How they live and feed can equally inform you of what you are dealing with. Almost all types of insects live and work alone but wasps, ants, and bees have colonies. Ants are very orderly and have the habit of storing food for winter, a trait which few other insect types have. Again, some wasps and bees, like the yellow jackets and the giant slayers, build their nests under the ground while others build above ground. Some underground bees can be mistaken for underground wasps but can be told apart by what they eat. While wasps paralyze preys and feed on them, bees would feed on nectar and pollen. They could not be more different.
It is important to note that every bug can be termed an insect but not all insects can be called bugs, not at all. Most insects in the insect family can fly and so can bugs, for the most part, even though some are wingless. For example, a beetle has two pairs of wings. The outer pair is hard, to protect the inner one. Insects also have four different mouthparts: the chewing mouthpart, the sucking mouthpart, the sponging mouthpart and the piercing-sucking mouth part. A bug usually has a piercing-sucking mouthpart so that puts it within the insect family. For proper bug identification, therefore, you have to look out for those hard exterior wings that are hardly used and the piercing-sucking mouthpart which is peculiar to them. However, if you classify a bug under the insect family, you would not be far from the truth.
The most important underlining factor in all of these is patience, especially when you are treading uncharted territory. If you know absolutely nothing about the insect in question, you may need to simply observe it for a while and then make researchers with the information you have garnered by just watching it. Time is essential in identifying an insect and if you are in a hurry, you may miss vital things that would help you along the way. If you already know the particular advantages an insect has in the ecosystem, it would go a long way in making the process easier.