Where do I begin?

Anyone entering a field they are unfamiliar with is faced with the question, "where do I begin?". When that field is bugs, a good starting place is a field guide.

There are a number of field guides for insects. Each guide contains information on classification, life cycles, and places to look that can provide a framework on which to organize the information in the book. Unlike guides for mammals or birds however, one is immediately aware how limited insect guides are. There is no way to do justice to the world of insects, estimated at about 30,000 species in California alone. Many species have not yet been described and many other remain to be discovered.

The best that one can hope for is a guide which has a representative sample of the families one is likely to encounter. While wide-ranging general guides, like the "Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders", are very useful, many of the species illustrated may not be found locally.

There are two general field guides appropriate for our area. One is California Insects by Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue. This book provides a good overview of California's insect fauna, covering about 600 species. Reliance mostly on line drawings rather than photographs allows a variety of species to be portrayed, and keeps the book's cost in field guide range. The other book, Insects of the Los Angeles Basin by Charles Hogue, relies on photographs and is accordingly more expensive (and harder to find). His selection was based on species that he was most often asked about in his position as Curator of Entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and so is particularly useful. Fortunately, Hogue did not restrict his book entirely to insects. It was here that I learned about the House Hoppers, shrimp-like crustaceans, that someone brought me from Poway, and the Arrow-headed Flatworm that a friend saw in San Diego. (I saw one in Encinitas this January.)

In most areas, the easiest insects to study are the butterflies because the field guides are fairly complete, and reliable field identifications are possible for many species. John Garth and J. Tilden's California Butterflies has color drawings of most species. Since I always wonder how well the artist has been able to represent the colors, I prefer photographs, but even here conditions can influence the final result. Last year, the Common Butterflies of California by Bob Stewart was published. While Stewart's text is rather limited, the full page color photographs are beautiful.

Recently guides for the dragonflies and damselflies have become available for some areas. Guides for aquatic insects often appear among the fishing literature. For other orders, you will usually need to look beyond existing field guides. As a good starting point, you might want to check the references Hogue provides in his book.

Spider material is extremely limited. While a few common spiders are shown in the Audubon guide and Hogue's book, these guides barely scratch the surface. The Golden Guide to the Spiders and Their Kin by Levi and Levi is a good inexpensive pocket book. Even though the color drawings presented represent spiders from around the world, it is still very useful. Without it, I never would have identified the Gray Wall Spider, a small jumping spider found on the outside walls at the Nature Center. The black and white line drawing in B. Kasten's book How to know the spiders doesn't even come close. (For those interested, UC Riverside offers a spider identification course through its extension department.)

Learn about the fascinating little creatures flying and crawling around you. Pick up a field guide -- today.

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Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)
Chula Vista Nature Center, 1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910-1201