Quite often you will see the signs of insect damage in your garden well before you see the insect itself and there are times that more than one insect species may be responsible for the damage. Proper identification is very important because you don't want to kill off any beneficial insects but at the same time you want to control or kill off harmful insects. In reality my goal in the garden is to control rather than kill off harmful insects for the most parts. Insects attract toads, lady bugs, birds and bats that all help to keep the insect population in balance. Quite often harmful insects attract beneficial insects as well so there is always striving for a balance in the garden. Here are a few tips to help you when identifying insects in your garden:
- dawn/dusk - These are two very important times to be checking your garden for insect problems. In the early morning hours the air is cool so insects like the Japanese Beetle are sluggish making them easier to manually remove for identification. Simply knock them into a container with a little soapy water that will kill them but leave features intact for picture taking.
- fly traps or insect traps - These are yellow coated sticky cards that can be attached to a stake or similar in the garden. Their sole purpose is to trap insects to the bright yellow colour. Once the insect hits the trap it becomes stuck and dies. These traps are an ideal tool for identifying the insect population in your garden.
- camera - A digital camera is a must for helping to identify insects. Set the camera to the meta setting for clear close-ups and take several shots. If possible take a short video clip. You can then download your camera to your computer to use the pictures on gardening blogs, forums and Twitter to get help with the identification. Quite often someone will be able to identify within a very short period of time. Another option is to leave the pictures on your camera and show it to the staff at your local nursery who will more than likely be able to identify the insect immediately.
- immobilization - Once you have taken pictures of what plants the insects are on and how they move it is time to immobilize if possible. The easiest way is to use a trap of some type (eg. soapy water in a pail, fly traps). Immobilization allows you to get pictures of the insect with greater detail. That detail becomes important when trying to identify insects.
- scale - It is common practice to include some familiar item like a penny in the photo to give whoever is helping you identify the insect a sense of the size of the insect. Including a scale guide when the insect is alive may be difficult depending on the insect however once immobilized it is quite easy to include a scale guide when photographing.
- include any notes of interest - Like all animals insects display certain behaviours. For example gnats may swarm so if you notice tiny insects swarming especially during periods of wet weather it gives you a clue that perhaps you are dealing with gnats.
- take pictures of the actual plant damage - It is very important to take pictures of the actual plant damage. A leaf cutter or beetle will leave tell tale signs of damage that are very different from a sap sucking insect like aphids or spider mites. Some damage could actually be the early signs of a plant disease such as blight but you think it is insect damage. Soil nutritional deficiencies in the early stages can even mimic insect damage. More experienced gardeners will recognize the type of damage immediately so showing the staff at your local nursery a picture of the damage will likely give you an instant answer.
- check spider webs - If you spot a spider web in your garden pay close attention and take pictures of what insects are in it. That's a good indication as to what that particular spider is preying on and it wouldn't be in your garden if the prey wasn't there.