The Stream Doctor

April 4th, 2005

Email YOUR Questions directly to the Stream Doctor. This is your opportunity to get an experts professional opinion on anything stream related.

Q. I would like to know the best reference book for identifying primarily eastern species of stream insects, preferably one that gives scientific names and good color photos.

A. That's a pretty tall order. Most taxonomic texts contain keys to identify the insects and include their scientific names - usually, at least, family and genus. Not all reference works contain identifying keys to species because, in many cases, we still do not have enough information to separate all specimens to this level; this is especially so for the immature nymphs and larvae. Adults have been identified to species. However, most of these publications do not contain color photos - at least not to all genera or species.

You must also remember that any reference book will not be complete in terms of addressing all species of all stream insects. There are over 1000 species of aquatic and semi-aquatic beetles, over 3,500 species of dipterans (midges, true flies), over 700 species of mayflies, over 500 species of stoneflies, and over 1,350 species of caddisflies in North America. That's a lot of bugs to describe, let alone photograph. Individual streams commonly contain around 200 different species of insects and Upper Three River Run in So. Carolina contains over 500 species.

The point of this discourse is to help you realize that whatever book I suggest will have its pros and cons in terms of your request. One book might be better than another in terms of actual keys and identifications, but another might be better for photographs. Also, some references contain broad, but less detailed information on many insect groups whereas another that emphasizes a particular group, such as caddisflies, will have more detail. So, with all the above cop-outs and caveats, I would suggest the following as the best all-around references - and note that except for Peckarsky's book, they are NOT restricted to eastern streams.

Peckarsky, B.L., P.R. Fraissinet, M.A. Penton, and D.J. Conklin, Jr. 1990. Freshwater macroinvertebrates of northeastern North America. Comstock Publ./Cornell Press.

Pros: Broad coverage of organisms; eastern region.

Cons: Insects only identified to generic level; no color photos.

McCafferty, W.P. 1981. Aquatic entomology. Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

Pros: Many color plates; broad coverage; much good information.

Cons: Insect keys only go to family level.

Merritt, R.W. and K.W. Cummins (eds.). 1996. An introduction to the aquatic insects of North America, 3rd. ed. Kendall/Hunt Publ. Co.

Pros: Very good coverage; much technical information.

Cons: Insects keyed to generic level; no color.

A new edition of this book is in the works.

Schwiebert, E. 1973. Nymphs, a complete guide to naturals and imitations. Winchester Press.

Pros: Nice color plates; lot of fishing information.

Cons: Badly out of date; not regional.

In summary, if your main interest is in insect identification, I'd recommend Peckarsky et al. or Merritt and Cummins. If you want color and more general information, I'd pick McCafferty. ~ Bert

If you have a question, please feel free to contact me.
~ C. E. (Bert) Cushing, aka Streamdoctor
105 W. Cherokee Dr.
Estes Park, CO 80517
Phone: 970-577-1584

The 'Stream Doctor' is a retired professional stream ecologist and author, now living in the West and spending way too much time fly-fishing. You are invited to submit questions relating to anything stream related directly to him for use in this Q & A Feature at

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