Once I got into butterfly gardening, I quickly became enthralled by the many other fascinating insects that I saw in my garden.
This fascination lead to an insect photography hobby.
Once you start noticing insects, you’ll want to identify them and learn more about their lives and habits. To do this, you need a great field guide.
There are four main insect field guides for North America. I have also included the new National Geographic Pocket Guide to insects, too.
1) Kaufman Field Guide To Insects of North America (Eric Eaton & Kenn Kaufman)
Unlike every other book on this page, the Kaufman field guide isolates each species depicted onto a white background, grouping similar insects together on the page for quick comparison, without any extraneous background elements. As a field guide, it’s useful for narrowing down an ID.
I’m not sure that doing this makes the insects easier to ID, but it does allow for more species to be featured while keeping the guide compact.
Pros: The most comprehensive guide to insects with the most species and illustrations of any guide on this page. This book is the perfect size and weight to bring into the field.
Cons: Very limited info on spiders (just one page) and non-insect arthropods.
# of Species Covered: Not specified, but well over 1500 (my estimate).
# of Illustrations: 2,350 (digitally-enhanced photographs)
Avg. Amazon.com Rating: 94% give it 4+ stars (68% 5 stars).
2) National Wildlife Federation Field Guide To Insects and Spiders of North America (Arthur V. Evans)
This National Wildlife Federation field guide (1 of 4 in a series that also includes birds, trees, and wildflowers) is perhaps one of the most comprehensive guides on insects, second only to the Kaufman guide. It features more spiders and other arachnids than the Kaufman guide. Photography is beautiful and makes the insects easier to identify. Size, range info, and a brief blurb about each insect is adjacent to every photograph.
The book is the the fattest of the guides on this page. It also features a waterproof cover.
Pros: Features the most spiders and non-insect arthropods than any other field guide on this page. Stunning photography.
Cons: A bit thick and not the most ergonomic to use.
# of Species Covered: 940+
# of Illustrations: 1600 (photographs)
Avg. Amazon.com Rating: 96% give it 4+ stars (77% 5 stars).
3) National Audubon Society Field Guide To Insects & Spiders
This Audubon guide to insects and spiders has been around since 1980. In typical Audubon field guide form, it features all of the color photographs of insect and spider species in the front of the book, with descriptions in the back. This means that you end up doing a lot of flipping back and forth. It also means that there is more room for additional details about the insects featured that other guides leave out due to space constraints.
You can also get the Audubon Field Guide To Insects as an app (iOS and Android devices).
Pros: Includes spiders. More in-depth information on each insect featured.
Cons: Photography is dated, and I’m not a fan of Audubon’s field guide layout. Also, fewer insect species featured than other books.
# of Species Covered: 600+ (with notes on 250 additional species)
# of Illustrations: 702 (photographs)
Avg. Amazon.com Rating: 86% give it 4+ stars (68% 5 stars).
4) Peterson Field Guides – Insects (Donald J. Borror & Richard E. White)
This Peterson Field Guide is a classic (published in 1970), so it is the oldest guide on this page. It is also the most technical, relying more on detailed line drawings of distinguishing features for most insects described in the book. It’s more geared for entomologists and those who are serious about studying insects in hand, or under a microscope.
Unlike most recent field guides that feature over a thousand color photographs, the Peterson guide is mostly black-and-white inside with only 142 color paintings of select species.
Pros: In-depth information for more advance insect study.
Cons: Very limited color images of insects.
# of Species Covered:
# of Illustrations: 1442 (1300 line drawings, 142 color paintings)
Published: 1970 (Second edition in 1998).
Avg. Amazon.com Rating: 76% give it 4+ stars (58% 5 stars).
5) National Geographic Pocket Guide Insects of North America (Arthur V. Evans)
As the most recently published book on this page, the National Geographic Pocket Guide to Insects of North America is really a beginner’s field guide. It only features 182 of the most commonly found insects, and includes representatives of each insect order, as well as a few examples of spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and isopods.
Pros: Compact. A decent introduction.
Cons: Way too basic, and not nearly comprehensive enough. You will quickly outgrow this field guide.
# of Species Covered: 160
# of Illustrations: Includes color photos of each species.
Avg. Amazon.com Rating: 3 stars.
Which One To Choose…
I highly recommend getting at least two of the above field guides, and my top two picks are the Kaufman guide and the National Wildlife Federation guide. I have all five, however, as well as an ever expanding library of insect-related books.
Regional Insect Field Guides
A great option is to pick up an insect field guide that covers your specific region within North America.
Northeast USA: For me, my go-to field guide is Insects of New England & New York by Tom Murray. This book features over 1250 species that live in my area, complete with photographs of each species and brief notes. The book is the absolute perfect size and weight to take anywhere.
Pacific Northwest: Insects of the Pacific Northwest by Peter and Judy Haggard features 450 species of common insects (and some non-insect invertebrates) with 600 photographs.
Colorado: Field Guide to Colorado Insects by Whitney Cranshaw is an introductory guide to common insects in Colorado.
California: There are quite a few books for species found in California, as well specific guides for bees, butterflies, and spiders.
Hawaii: Hawaiian Insects and Their Kin by Francis G. Howarth and William P. Mull features 200 photographs of Hawaii’s most interesting insects and spiders. It’s a bit of a classic book published in 1992.
Did I miss a book that should be included in the lists above? Let me know by sharing a comment below!