Bugging out with Your Camera Phone

We get quite a few requests to identify a pest or diagnose a problem from a digital photo. Emailing a photo of a pest sample rather than finding a container, catching it and bringing it into our office can help you:

  1. Identify your pest.
  2. Contribute to the body of science by logging your sample in a larger data base like iNaturalist.
  3. Save considerable time and money… because not all bugs are pests that you need to control!

A good photo is one that is in focus, one which includes identifying physical characters of the pest. This can be as simple as the overall shape or as detailed as the presence or absence of wings, hairs, pits, segments or clubs on a specific body part. With spider identification, it is helpful to count the number of eyes and note the eye arrangement in order to positively identify the family.

Tips on using your camera phone:

  1. Turn off the flash.
  2. Do NOT zoom in. It changes the resolution of the picture. Let the viewer zoom in on a high-quality photo.
  3. Do not shoot the specimen in the shadow.
  4. Get close, but not out of focus. Tap your screen to adjust the focus on your specimen.
  5. Take bursts or multiple shots of moving specimens. You’ll have more photos to choose from.
  6. Record a short video if necessary.
  7. Use a macro lens designed for cell phones. You can purchase one online on Amazon or pick one up in places where they sell cell phone accessories. (One thing to keep in mind is how it will fit your phone. How does it attach to the phone? Will it fit over the camera properly? Can it be used with or only without your protective phone case?)

Tips on taking pictures of bugs:

  1. Dead bugs are easier to photograph than live, moving ones.
  2. If you want to kill a specimen, put it in the freezer. Do not smash it.
  3. Place specimen on contrasting background.
  4. Include something of a known dimension in the photo for scale. (A ruler or coin is best, NOT a finger, hand, or foot).
  5. It is better to have more pictures than too few.
  6. If you can’t get a picture of the critter, feel free to send a picture of damage or signs of a pest such as frass (poop), holes, shed skins (exoskeleton), or any other signs of infestation.
  7. Do NOT send photos of skin lesions, rashes or bites as everyone has their own immune system and reacts differently to a stimulus. Nobody can identify an organism based on a skin reaction.
Carpenter ant damage
Galleries in wood and coarse sawdust appear to be evidence of a long-term carpenter ant infestation. (Photo: J. Green)

Even if the photo isn’t the greatest quality, the information you can provide about the pest and the damage can help.

The first step to solving your pest problems at home is to identify the pest. With good pictures and keen observation, you may be able to identify specimens yourself using identification keys and field guides from reputable authors (look for websites that end with .edu or .org).

If you have a photo of your specimen:

Websites: Ask an entomologist  and iNaturalist ALSO get the free app for your cell phone!

Twitter: For spider ID, especially if you want to know if it is a brown recluse spider, tweet @RecluseOrNot

Facebook Groups: Entomology, Insect Identification, and Caterpillar Identification in North America just to name a few good ones

Nebraska Resources: Email a your local extension office; Garden specimens from April to August email Backyard Farmer (email: BYF at UNL dot edu) and to help take better picture to submit to Backyard Farmer Show watch this video.

Argiope spider
Yellow Garden Spider (Photo: J. Green)

If you are in need of pest control or extermination of a pest, please contact a local Pest Management Professional.

Note: If you do hire a professional or need to bring your sample to the Extension office or a diagnostic lab, find an acceptable container (with a lid or seal) to safely transport your specimen. Try your best to keep the specimen intact without wading it up in tissue paper or sticking it to tape.

Jody Green
Extension Urban Entomologist at Nebraska Extension
Jody Green is the extension urban entomologist working in the UNL Lancaster County Extension Office. She specializes in structural, household, and health-related insect pests.
Jody Green on LinkedinJody Green on Twitter

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.