I contend that birders today are better overall naturalists than birders 20 years ago. Birders today are often proficient at identifying dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies that go whizzing by as we have our binoculars at the ready. A plethora of field guides to various insect groups has facilitated this welcome growth in the expertise of birders in other groups of animals. Butterflies through the Binoculars and Dragonflies of the Binoculars played the role of the first Peterson guide, opening up new challenges for field identification.

In today’s column, I want to review three remarkable guides to three groups of insects. All are published by Princeton University Press, which has a strong dedication to books on natural history.

The first is Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson. This guide covers all 336 species of the order Odonata found in eastern North America. Maine has 158 species of odonates: 47 damselflies and 111 dragonflies.

Like most field guides, the Paulson guide begins with a brief overview of odonate biology and then covers the morphological features that are used in field identification.

The bulk of the book is the species accounts. Paulson provides a map, at least one color photograph, and text giving a description of each species, the features used for identification, habitat and flight season.

Field identification of some odonates is easy. The widow skimmer and twelve-spotted skimmer can be recognized with the naked eye. Others require a closer look through binoculars, and some are so similar that capture and examination with a hand lens may be necessary to clinch an identification. Paulson’s book provides the guidance to become a proficient odonatologist.

If 158 species of odonates seem overwhelming, how about bumble bees? Paul Williams and colleagues have written a guide called Bumble Bees of North America. Bumble bees are common insects but not that diverse. Only 46 species are found in North America and only 20 in Maine.

The authors provide a nice overview of bumble bee biology in the first part of the book. The life cycle of cuckoo bumble bees is particularly fascinating. Like their namesakes, cuckoo bumble bees dupe other species of bumble bees into providing for their own young.

Each species is discussed in turn with a list of hand characteristics (most of which can be easily discerned from a photograph) and microscopic characteristics. A range map and photographs are provided. The abdomen banding is important in identification and can vary among queens, workers and males. A clever diagram showing the range of variation for each type is very useful.

Bumble bees are important pollinators, particularly early in the spring. These insects also pollinate many woodland and high mountain flowers. Sadly, bumble bee numbers are declining. Learning to identify bumble bees is the first step in monitoring the status of these fascinating creatures.

Insects are far and away the most diverse group of animals on earth. Within the insects, beetles are the most diverse order with 400,000 species described. Weevils, with 60,000 species, are the most diverse family of beetles. Identification of beetles to species is daunting to say the least.

But learning to recognize beetle families is an achievable and satisfying goal. Attaining that goal can be accomplished with Arthur Evans’ Beetles of Eastern North America. A weighty tome, this book is a pleasure to hold and behold. Each family of eastern North American beetles has a description of the diagnostic features of each family. Then the author provides a number of examples of species in that family, each with a superb color portrait. The pictures are truly stunning.

Add in an excellent introduction on finding beetles, general beetle biology, rearing beetles and starting a beetle collection, and you have a marvelous resource for the study of the Coleoptera.

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College and perches in South China. He welcomes reader comments and questions at:

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