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Insect Website Title

Specimen Handling Procedures:

Insect Identification

There are over 1 million described insects and related arthropods. Many entomologists estimate another several million more exist. Because of this, identification of a particular species can be quite difficult. However, when insects are collected in and around the home it is often very important to identify them. Some insects are beneficial or only occasional invaders of the home. Under these situations no pest control efforts need to be implemented. Others can be serious pests, and for these some type of control is desired. Many times, pests are collected from situations where the damage they cause is obvious, such as grain beetles in cereal or ants invading a kitchen. Other times, pests are attracted to lights and it is necessary to try to find the damage they have caused. This is best illustrated by termites who feed behind walls and are easily overlooked until reproductives fly to lights at certain times of the year.

Insects can be very difficult to identify for several more reasons.

First, there are so many different kinds of insects that it is impossible for anyone to know them all.

Second, many insects are small and difficult to see. For small pests, it may be necessary to use microscopes or other means of magnification in order to observe them. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to this equipment.

Third, some insects have life stages that look remarkably different from one another, so it may be possible to easily identify one stage but not another. For instance, a fly adult is easily recognized by most people, but not many would recognize a fly maggot. Click on example below.

Life Cycle


There is some basic equipment that is used by entomologists for collecting specimens. Two types of nets are used to catch insects. A sweep or beating net, made of a heavy cloth bag, is used to beat or sweep foliage for collecting insects that remain on plants, and an aerial or butterfly net is used to catch flying or jumping insects such as flies, wasps, bees, butterflies, moths or grasshoppers. Small insects can be collected using a cotton swab or a camel's hair brush dipped in alcohol. Most home gardeners, however, use a glass jar or baggy to scoop the specimen into and then seal them quickly. It is a good idea to record facts about the specimens when collecting. This information may prove important in determining what species it is. If possible, collect more than one specimen of its kind, particularly if they are ants or termites or some other pest which can be obtained in high numbers with relative ease. But don't jam insects into the container or otherwise force them since damaged specimens are always more difficult to identify. If the specimen is mutilated, find a better sample to send.


After the insects are collected, flying insects must be quickly killed to prevent them from damaging themselves by beating their wings against the walls of their container. Most insects can be killed by placing them in a container with 70% alcohol (common rubbing alcohol works just fine.) Beetles, true bugs, bees, wasps, and ants can be preserved in this fashion. Spiders and aquatic insects can be preserved in alcohol too. Most larvae, especially white grubs and caterpillars, should be first killed in boiling water and then placed in alcohol to prevent darkening of the tissues. This procedure involves dropping the living larva into the boiling water and then allowing it to remain until the water cools. After removing the specimen from the water, pat it with a paper towel to remove excess water, and finally transfer the larva into alcohol.

Some insects like Asian cockroaches, butterflies, and moths can be identified best from dry specimens. Kill them by freezing. Carefully place dead butterflies or moths within a layer of wax paper to protect their delicate wings. Then place them within an envelope. Galls and damaged plant material can be carefully wrapped in soft tissue. Do not apply scotch tape directly to a specimen or crush the insect before putting it in an envelope or plastic baggy.


There are several ways to identify insects in and around the home:

1. Do it yourself - If the insect is a common pest, you can compare the specimen with the color pictures or line drawings in a reference document. To confirm your identification, you could then read about the type of damage the insect causes, find the damage, and then compare the two.

2. Use your local County Extension office - In some cases, you may need to have the specimen identified by a specialist. There are various Insect Identification Laboratories where you can have difficult specimens identified by experts. A form should be filled out and taken to your County Extension office* that will supply you with additional materials for submission of samples. The techniques by which insects are collected, preserved, and submitted ensures that a proper identification will occur in a timely manner.

3. Use my service - Fill out the "Help Request Form" and submit to me by printing a copy and mail to "Jim Hammond, 2370 Fremali Lane, Mt. Vernon, WA 98273" and enclose $10 for processing (if specimen submitted). If you provide only insect information, I can not be as reliable in my identification as I can be if you send me an insect specimen. Be sure the insect is killed before shipment, however, so you don't inadvertently spread pests from one area to another.

Materials for Submission of Samples

Help Request Form (Insect Identification).

A properly addressed mailing tube, if you must ship it.

A container, if the specimen is to be preserved in alcohol.

A zip lock bag (baggy) or envelope for dry specimens; wrap in wax paper, if moths, etc.

Submitting Samples

Fill out the appropriate form with the necessary information, but also include as much information as possible. Write in pencil or with a permanent ink that will resist smearing; in case the form gets wet. This way there is always legible information. As added insurance, place the information sheet within a zip lock bag. The bag will protect the paperwork from damage if the container breaks or if alcohol leaks out. Place your specimens in the vial and fill with an alcohol solution. The alcohol preserves the insect so it will not decay. Screw the container cap on tightly, because many times the alcohol leaks out during shipment and the specimen is destroyed upon arrival. Place the zip lock bag or container and the insect specimen inside a mailing tube, if it is to be shipped. Be sure that your name and address appears on any forms and on the insect container. Ship or deliver samples to the local County Extension office* or me as quickly as possible.


The County Extension office* or I will identify the specimen or notify the sender about its status within two weeks. The results and the appropriate recommendations will be written on the Form. A copy of the report will be sent to the name which appears on the Form. When necessary, the sample will be forwarded to another specialist. Depending upon the sample and where it will need to be routed, additional time for identification by the specialist may be required.

* For example, for Skagit County, Washington, the address is (look in your local phone directory for your area):

Skagit County Cooperative Extension

Washington State University

220 E. College Way

Mt. Vernon, WA 98273

ph. 360-428-4270

Last edited: 11/12/98 01:00 AM



The help provided by the author of this site is the best scientific based information, about which he is aware, but gardening is not an exact science due to the many unpredictable elements involved so the results can not be guaranteed. E-mail feedback is therefor invited to keep the author aware of successes and failures. Also let me know if you are the author of anything that appears to be illegally incorporated in violation of your copyrights.