Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Figuring it out

I love field guides. I started off by borrowing my husband's Peterson's Guide that was given to him by his dad. Then a friend bought me my first flower field guide. I was off to the races after that. I have lots of field guides, and yet I don't have nearly enough. I have at least one field guide for each of the following subjects: butterflies, trees, mammals, wildflowers, birds, owls, reptiles and amphibians, insects, singing insects, tracks and scat, spiders, frogs and toads. I'm sure there's a few I forgot.

In instances where I have multiple field guides on one topic (birds, or wildflowers, for instance), each one serves its own purpose. Some of them are laid out so differently from each other, or contain such different information, that they complement each other nicely.

As much as I love my field guides, I will admit that they can be intimidating, especially when they cover a subject matter with which I am relatively unfamiliar (like anything that's outside of the realm of birds and wildflowers). This has been the case for me this year when trying to identify various spiders and insects. It reminds me of how I was when I first started birding: I would flip through virtually every page to find a bland brown bird that I had gotten a glimpse of for 2.5 seconds, only to find that every brown bird in the field guide looked virtually the same to my "new" birding eyes.

I figure it's frustrating for everyone at some time or another to use field guides, so I thought I would give you a quick run-through of how I narrowed the beetles in my previous post down to blister beetles (and more specifically, oil beetles).

First, I started off with a top-notch field guide to insects. If you spend any amount of time trying to figure out the identity of any kind of insect, BUY THIS BOOK:
One thing that I love about this book is what they call the "Pictorial Table of Contents." It not only lists the major groups of insects covered in the book, but it also gives a small photographic sampling of representatives of said group. Look closely at the shape and size of what is pictured, and you should quickly be on your way to the right portion of the book.

I had a good hunch going in that I was looking at some kind of beetle, and after looking at these quick visual representations of all the groups presented, I flipped with confidence to the beetle section, only to be somewhat daunted by 45 pages of photographs of many, MANY different types of beetles.

Looking at photos and paying attention to the description of the different families narrowed things down even further. For example, I knew that it WASN'T a type of lady beetle, nor was it an aquatic beetle, nor a stag or rhinoceros beetle. (Remember, knowing what something isn't can get you a long way toward what it actually is.) There was a good-sized section devoted to ground beetles, which I thought was a possibility, but none of the body shapes or sizes matched up to what I was seeing. As I got into the last quarter of the beetle section, I came upon the blister beetles. I finally had a visual match. There was mention of foliage feeding. Check. Then the specifics were spelled out for oil beetles, of which there are 21 species across North America: flightless ground-dwelling adults with short wing covers and bloated abdomens. A perfect match to what I was looking at. Oh, and there was mention of that funny kink in the antennae of the males. Bingo! Now, I ventured to guess the specific species as Meloe impressus, based on this guide and also photos shown on bugguide.net, but the jury is still out on the definitive ID of this blister beetle.

My trusty Kaufman guide also lead me to ID this fantastic metallic-looking beetle as a Dogbane beetle, which was found on - you guessed it - a dogbane plant.

So folks, I'd like your feedback. Was this post helpful and/or informative? Would you like to see more posts like this? I do write this blog for me, but I also like to know if what I'm putting out there is striking a chord with anyone else. Please let me know in the comments! Thanks.


rebecca said...

Nice! I have the Kaufman butterfly guide, which is similar, and I'm very pleased with it. Isn't making an ID like that incredibly satisfying?

A.L. Gibson said...

Very nice! Thanks to you I've been able to I.D. a bug that has been bothering for months. Back in April I photographed a rather large, iridescent blue beetle in Conkle's Hollow. After reading your post and seeing the pictures I'm 97% sure it's Meloe impressus! So I'd have to say this post was very helpful!

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

This Kaufman Insect Guide is our family favorite! There are some really funny bits in there too.

Red said...

Great comments on field guides. I have found some great websites for birds. Try Cornell. I know not everybody has super phones that they can take in the field but they are really worth a look.

Heather said...

Rebecca - I might have to add the Kaufman butterfly guide to my collection! And yes, it really does feel good to be able to confirm an ID!

Andrew - Oh my, I'm so excited to help you solve your bug ID quandary. Hooray!

Lynne - Hmm... I haven't come across the funny bits yet, but that's no surprise, being that it's coming from Kenn!

Red - Yes, I use the Cornell website a lot. I feel like I spend my time 50/50 between paper field guides and those that can be found online. My thought is: the more resources available, the better!