Before going into the field consult the introductory sections of a field guide. These sections will help you know what to look for. You may find eggs or egg cases, immature individuals in various stages of development, individuals transforming from immatures to adults (e.g cocoons, pupae, emergence), and adults (the most familiar stage). You will come across examples of different behavior. In addition you may find shed skins or other evidence of activity (e.g. galls, leaf mines). Consulting the field guides will also help you understand their limitations. Most plant feeding insects do their damage during the juvenile stage - the adult stage is solely for reproduction. While many guides describe the juvenile stage, they seldom provide pictures, making identification difficult or uncertain.
Check out the area you are interested in, without a group tagging along behind you. This will allow you the freedom to explore without feeling that you have to move on before you are ready or that you are loosing your audience. You will need this time to determine what is around and what you can incorporate into your own program. Perform this checkout at the same time of day as the walk you are planning preferably as close in time as possible. Insect populations can fluctuate enormously over short time periods. Populations are influenced by the time of day, temperature, sunlight, moisture level, wind, season, etc. An active patch of sunlit flowers on a warm afternoon may be relatively quiet during the cooler early morning hours particularly if the patch is shaded. The spider web that stood out in the dappled sunlight may be missed if the sun is in the wrong place. Until you are familiar with the area from an invertebrate standpoint investigative walks should be a regular activity. Whenever possible, I also explore my route quickly just prior to my walk. Basically I look for four things. First I look for things that are relatively fixed since I can always use these. Some insects feed only on certain plants or groups of plants. Although they may be hidden, these insects will be present regardless of the weather. Aphids are a good example, drawing other insects like ants who farm them or ladybugs who eat them. As the season progresses, the web-building spiders become more evident. Structures, like cocoons, and damage, like plant galls, can all be pointed out. Second I check out the dominant plants to determine what I have a good chance of finding along the route. Some insects like to hide in plants even preferring certain species. At the Center Tree Crickets and Green Lynx Spiders often hide in the telegraph weeds. Third I look at the habitats that are unique or rare in my environment. For instance, a tree in a meadow would create a locally unique micro-climate. Forth I look for what is new or fresh. Where is the new growth? Where is the floral energy? Fresh flowers will draw butterflies, bees, wasps, flies, beetles and other creatures.
While exploring, keep in mind that many of the species are small and/or well camouflaged. It is necessary to poke around, to inspect closely. A small magnifier may be necessary to help you separate the wildlife from the vegetation. Finding insects is an exercise in observation and patience, extended exploration of a small area is often more rewarding that a quick glance.
Don't be upset if you can't identify everything - neither can I. It is good to know the names of some of the species that you encounter but these names are not needed in order to explain their roles. People on the ``Bug Walks'' are surprised by how much there is, even in relatively poor habitats, when you take the time to look and how small much of that life is. (In many cases, I think they are also surprised by their own excitement!)
It is not hard to include bugs in an interpretive walk if you do some homework and fieldwork first. Since bug watching is time consuming and can cause the group to fan out or become defocused, I recommend that you limit your stops to one or two selected areas, unless your emphasis is solely on bugs. The conditions during your walk will determine the best spots. Larger groups will need examples that are more obvious and less transient than smaller groups.
Enjoy. (P.S. My friend and I explored his favorite trails and found a number of species I had never seen before.)
Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)