Book Review – Insects of the Pacific Northwest

Insects of the Pacific Northwest
Peter and Judy Haggard
Timber Press Inc.
296 pages

Insects of the Pacific Northwest - Peter and Judy Haggard
Insects of the Pacific Northwest – Peter and Judy Haggard

I’ve been fighting a bit of the flu lately which means that I’ve had some time to catch up on my reading and thinking about spring days searching for insects. One of the inspiring field guides that I’ve come across lately is Peter and Judy Haggard’s Insects of the Pacific Northwest. If this book isn’t a cure for the flu, I don’t know what is!

I’m always on the look out for excellent field guides and this is one of the best insect guides I’ve seen in a long time. If you’re blessed to live in the Pacific Northwest, this is the insect field guide that you absolutely must have in your library. If you live outside of the region, it may be enough of an incentive to visit, or perhaps even move here. Haggard’s book is perfectly designed to aid the amateur naturalist in identifying common native insects that are likely to be encountered on a west coast nature ramble.

Insects of the Pacific Northwest definitely has a regional focus. It covers 452 of the 28 000 species of insects found between southwest British Columbia and northern California. It is the narrow focus that makes it so valuable to the west coast naturalist. With this book you don’t have to sort through pages of eastern insects trying to identify a western bug.

The book begins with an introduction that explains how insects are classified and the reasoning behind using scientific names to organize the book. Basic insect structure and life cycles are described as well. The introduction also includes a section on how to find insects, the association between insects and food plants, and some tips on how to encourage insects to visit your own back yard.

Haggard chose to include the most common, easy to photograph (and therefore, easy to see), most distinctive looking, and most interesting insects found in the Pacific Northwest. Difficult species to identify, like mosquitoes and termites, were left out for that reason – they’re hard for the non-specialist to figure out without a key.

Insects that are covered well in other field guides are not covered in as extensive detail. As a result, dragonfly enthusiasts may find this guide a little light. However, there are several excellent field guides devoted specifically to Odonata that can fill that gap. And while the butterflies and moths are well done, British Columbia butterfly lovers will also want to have a copy of Butterflies of British Columbia (Guppy and Shepard) on hand.

Structurally, the book is very well organized. Main pictorial keys allow one to quickly identify a mystery insect to its order. The orders are referenced by both a page number and a colour border that corresponds to the page colour edge of the relevant section. The initial key is simple and not overwhelming – the reader is presented with ten distinct choices.

Each order is organized in a similar way. A short description of the general characteristics of the order (unless it is a fairly common and recognizable order like Lepidoptera – then it is given more space) is followed by another pictorial grid of the different families of insects in the order. Again, the images used in the keys make it easy to identify the insect to family.

Depending on the size of the family and the number of species described, each family section starts with a description. Individual species accounts follow. Again, more noticeable families (like ladybird beetles) are given more space.

The species accounts are quite brief and listed alphabetically by scientific name. Each includes scientific and common name(s), a description of the insect, its size in metric, food sources, where found, and additional interesting facts. Each has an image of the adult stage of the insect. Many have a photo of the female insect and the larval stage as well.

The more than 700 photographs in this book represent over sixteen  years of work by Peter. Many of the larval photos are of insects he raised in order to correctly associate larval stages with adult stages. It’s hard to believe that these images were captured on slide film with a hand held camera. The quality is excellent and make identifying the insects very easy. Of particular interest to me was the section on wasps and wasp galls – I’m going to look at galls in a whole new light while using this book.

In my opinion, the only drawback in this book is the short section on non-insects. There’s a section on spiders and ticks that is fairly well done. For some reason, common invertebrates like snails (but not slugs) and a single species of millipede are also included (but not wood bugs and pill bugs) – it’s as if Peter had a couple of extra photographs that he wanted to include and stuck them in. This last short section really doesn’t fit with the rest of the guide so why include it?

Overall this is a splendid field guide. If you’re thinking about adding another field guide to your library have a look at Insects of the Pacific Northwest. The book is a perfect size to tuck into a backpack without taking up too much room or adding too much weight. The images are exceptional and are sure to inspire you to search for some new insects on the trail this summer!