Books about insects

Bug lover's bookshelf

There is little authoritative or exhaustive about the following list of books.  They are simply resources I have found useful, with brief explanations about what I like about each of them.

Field GuidesGardening and Pest ControlFor Kids (and Adults) Insect PhotographyFor Serious Study

Field Guides for Identification

A Field Guide to Common Texas Insects by Bastiaan M. Drees & John A. Jackman. 1998. 360 pp. Field Guide Series, Gulf Publishing Company, Houston. If you live in Texas this photographic guide to some of the more common insects will be useful time and again.  Each insect includes a short description of it’s characters, life cycle, habits and pest status.

Kaufman Focus Guides: Butterflies of North America by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman. 2003. 384 pp. Possibly the best field guide to butterflies for the U.S. Profusely illustrated with range maps and digitally enhanced images of butterflies enhanced to show key identification characters. This field guide sets a new standard for insect field guides. Highly recommended for committed butterfly watchers and collectors.

Kaufman Focus Guides: Field Guide to Insects of North America by Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman. 2007. 392 pp. A nicely designed field guide to some of the most observable insects in the U.S. Organized by identifiable types of insects, the guide does a nice job of balancing detail with usability.  Digitally cropped images of insects are sometimes on the small size, but this book still makes for one of the better field guides for casual to serious bug-watchers.

A Field Guide to Butterflies of Texas by Raymond W. Neck. 1996. 323 pp. Field Guide Series, Gulf Publishing Company, Houston. Describes or illustrates through photographs the 444 most common of the butterflies of Texas. A great addition to the library of butterfly gardeners as well as butterfly watchers.

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner. 2005. Princeton Field Guides, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 512 pp. The most comprehensive field guide to caterpillars yet published in the U.S. Beautiful photos of both adults and caterpillars of macrolepidopteran moths and butterflies. A must-have reference with lots of useful information for the serious naturalist and entomologist alike.

Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, Dale F. Schweitzer, J. Bolling Sullivan and Richard C. Reardon. 2011. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. 576 pp. I thought that Caterpillars of Eastern North America was pretty thorough until this book came out and realized how many species there were to know from just one moth family group.  The Noctuid moths constitute the most diverse Lepidoptera family, and in this guide they are covered along with three other related families now called owlet moths.  Another beautiful guide from David Wagner and colleagues, with stunning photography.  Alas, not a Texas guide, but still quite useful in helping identify moth caterpillars in the eastern half of the U.S.

Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America by
Thomas J. Allen, James P. Brock and Jeffrey Glassberg. 2005. Oxford University Press, USA. 240 pp. When it rains it pours. After many years with few references to caterpillars, this book and the Wagner book both appeared in 2005. This volume focuses almost exclusively on butterfly larvae, which make up far less than half of all caterpillars; but it is well done and will be useful for butterfly gardeners and those wishing to supplement their knowledge of the lesser known life stages of butterflies.

Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States by John C. Abbott. 2005. 360 pp., Princeton University Press. An excellent and authoritative guide to one of the most popular (and photogenic) groups of insects. This is a scholarly treatment, but still worth sitting on your field guide shelf, especially if you live in Texas or adjoining states.

A Field Guide to Texas Spiders and Scorpions by John A. Jackman. 1997. pp. Field Guide Series, Gulf Publishing Company, Houston. Learn about some of the least appreciated, least loved, yet most interesting crawling critters in Texas. The only photographic guide to spiders of Texas.

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders by L. Milne & M. Milne. 1980. 989 pp. Alfred A. Knopf New York. Beautifully illustrated with high quality color photos, this is a nice reference for some of the more distinctive and common insect species. Although limited in its coverage, this reference is a nice addition to a secondary school library that already contains some of the more basic field guides listed below.

Golden Nature Guides Series. H.S. Zim, Editor. This excellent series of nature guides is appropriate for older children (Grade 6 and up) as well as educators. Based on color illustrations, important insects are referenced and described. These should be some of the first books purchased for a classroom reference shelf, because of their good content and reasonable price. Relevant volumes include: Butterflies and Moths, Insect Pests, Insects, Pond Life, Spiders and Their Kin.  The book Spiders and their Kin is a must-have reference for anyone interested in spiders and arachnids.

Peterson Field Guides. R.T. Peterson, Editor. These guides are indispensable for college students, educators, extension personnel, and professional pest control operators. They include both black and white and color illustrations and descriptions usually based on family and species identification. The general insect field guide is one of the best references for quick identification of insects to family, the most important classification for most practical entomological problem solving. Relevant volumes include: Butterflies, Insects of America North of Mexico, Beetles, and Moths.

Peterson First Guides®. Series of simplified guides to a variety of organisms, including insects. The Caterpillar guide should be of special interest, illustrating and grouping common North American caterpillars by easily seen characteristics. The Insects volume is ideal for children making a first insect collection.

Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Insects by R.H. Arnett Jr. & R.L. Jacques, Jr. 1981. 512 pp. Simon & Schuster, New York. Like the Audubon Field Guide, this book is based on very nice color photos of some of the more striking, though not necessarily common, insects. It makes a nice addition a library that already contains the more general Golden or Peterson field guides.

Beetles of Eastern North America by Arthur V. Evans. 2014. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. 560 pp.  Beetles have always been a challenge for insect identifiers, because of their extreme diversity. Finally we have a beautifully photographed guide to representatives of the important families and genera of U.S. beetles. A great reference for any insect collector needing to identify beetles.

Gardening and Pest Control

Southern Living Garden Problem Solver Steve Bender, editor. 1999. 336 pp. Oxmoor House, Birmingham, AL. This is an excellent resource book for the recognition and control of garden pest problems. Contains excellent discussions of organic vs. conventional pest control approaches to landscape maintenance. Color photos and illustrations of a variety of pest-related problems.

The Ortho Home Gardener’s Problem Solver Michael McKinley (Editor), Ortho Books. Well written and comprehensive guide to landscape problems including insects, diseases and weeds. Color photos and illustrations of 700 pest, disease and cultural plant problems. This book is a condensed version of the popular professional edition of The Ortho Problem Solver available for reading in many hardware and garden centers.

Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw and David Shetlar. 2017. 704 pp. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. This may be the best technical reference and best collections of insect photographs available for North American yard and garden insects. Despite its size, it is relatively easy to use because it is organized by the type of damage caused. Recommended for Master Gardeners and all serious students of landscape and garden bugs.

Butterfly Gardening for the South by Geyata Ajilvsgi.  Taylor Publishing, Dallas, TX.  One of the most detailed, attractive and helpful guides to designing a butterfly garden.  Includes garden plans and descriptions and color photos of both butterflies and key butterfly garden plants.

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy. Timber Press, 2009. Explains how use of native plants and plant diversity in the backyard can sustain wildlife and biodiversity in a rapidly urbanizing environment.

Common Sense Pest Control. William Olkowski, Sheila Daar & Helga Olkowski. 1991. Taunton Press, Newtown, CT. Thorough treatment of the least-toxic approach to pest control. Readers will find many practical suggestions on how to control both structural and landscape pests. A worthwhile book, though some of the control recommendations go to extremes to avoid the use of conventional pesticides.

For Kids (and Adults)

Smithsonian Handbooks. Insects Spiders and Other Terrestrial Arthropods by George C. McGavin. 2002. DK Publishing, Inc. New York. Visually rich introduction to the study of insects for older children and adults. Illustrates and describes 29 common insect orders and some of the most important hexapod families. Excellent reference to become familiar with arthropod orders.

Amazing Bugs by Miranda MacQuitty. 1996. 44 pp. DK Inside Guides. DK Publishing, Inc., New York. A visual exploration of the inside workings of insects. See how insects jump, sing, see, taste and touch, all from a morphological perspective. Highly recommended.

Insect by Laurence Mound. 1990. 64 pp. Eyewitness Book Series. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Eye-catching photographs on white backgrounds make this book attractive and fun to read. Well organized, lively and scientifically sound, this book is appropriate for upper-level primary through adult. Part of the Dorling Kindersley Book Series, several other insect titles are also available.

What Good Are Bugs? Insects in the Web of Life by Gilbert Waldbauer. 2003. 366 pp. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. Good introduction to the value and place of insects in nature, with lots of stories and examples drawn from entomology research.

Insect Photography

The Smaller Majority by Piotr Nasrecki.  2005. 288 pp., Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA. If this doesn’t sound like a photography book, it really is.  Although little text is devoted to the how-to of photography, this book shows how it’s done.  Get this book if you want to see what is possible between a camera and the littler citizens of the planet.  Besides being about the images, it is also a highly readable celebration of the world of arthropods and other creeping things.

John Shaw’s Closeups in Nature by John Shaw. 1987. Amphoto Books. Written in the age of film, this book may be eclipsed by other, new digital photography guides; but Shaw excels in teaching the basics of closeup photography. This was my first introduction to closeup photography and is still worth a careful read.

For Serious Study

Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity by Stephen A. Marshall.  Firefly Books.  A rich trove of natural history information about insects, organized by insect Orders and filled with beautiful photography.  This is a great reference book for the serious naturalist and amateur entomologist.

An Introduction to the Study of Insects. D.J. Borror, C.A. Triplehorn, & N.F. Johnson. 1989. 875 pp. Saunders College Publishing, Philadelphia. The standard college entomology textbook for entomology. Technical, yet accessible to the average educator. Contains keys to all the important North American families of insects and numerous black and white illustrations. A must for all who are seriously interested in the study of insects.

American Insects: A Handbook of the Insects of America North of Mexico by Ross H. Arnett, Jr. 2nd Ed. 2000. CRC Press. 1024 pp. This is a standard reference book for anyone trying to get the big picture of insect diversity in the U.S.  To some extent, this book is being supplanted by online reference keys and photo guides like, but sometimes nothing beats a book, and the value of my copy is enhanced by the penciled in notes taken over the years. More of a catalogue than a field guide, but still very helpful as an aid to learning more about any insect group, its important species, and the numbers of species in a given genus.


Michael Merchant, Ph.D., Professor and Extension Urban Entomologist, Texas AgriLife Extension Service

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