Professional Pest Identification:  Tips on Specimen Collection and Photographic Submissions

If you have a pest which you are having difficulty identifying or managing you can seek further assistance from your local Virginia Cooperative Extension or, if necessary, a professional pest management company.  Most if not all, professional pest management businesses will charge a fee for their services so extension agents and specialist are best option if you intend to manage the pest on your own.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension offers citizens with assistance in identifying pests in the following areas: insect identification; weed identification; and plant diseases. Any samples should be submitted through an extension agent and not directly to Virginia Tech. 
In addition to these services, citizens may use pest identification tools on the following websites to help them identify pests:

Virginia Tech’s Insect Identification Lab
Identification of Insects and Mites

Virginia Tech, Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science
Weed Identification Guide
In order to assist an agent or specialist, you should either obtain samples of the pest or take several photographs of the pest.  Below are some tips for specimen collection and photography.

Specimen and photo data collection:

When submitting specimens, be prepared to provide the following information to the extension agent:

  • Your name and address;
  • Date the specimen was collected or photographed;
  • Where was the pest found? Indoors or outdoors; in a certain room; on a specific plant, etc.
  • Severity of infestation (i.e. how many insects; how widespread the disease, etc)
  • Type and extent of damage

Recommendations for specimen preservation:

Insect preservation-
If possible collect multiple samples of the insect.  Save the insect in its entirety.  It is important that the pest expert be able to see all the body parts of the insect.  Try not to detach any body parts or otherwise mutilate the specimen.  Use a rigid, preferably clear, container that can be tightly sealed and not be easily crushed to protect the specimen. 

In some cases, it may be necessary to collect the live insect along with the vegetation, substrate or other material on which it is found.  Specifically, plant pests such as mites, thrips and scales should be left on the vegetation where they are found.  A small portion of the infested vegetation can be removed and preserved for identification.  Likewise, the larval forms of insects will need to be collected along with the material in which it is found in case the agent or specialist wants to allow it to complete its lifecycle.1  When both larval and adult forms of the pest are present collect samples of each for submission but place them in separate containers.  If they are collected apart from the infested material they can be placed into a small leak proof jar or bottle which contains a 70 percent alcohol solution.

Weed preservation-
Try to get the entire plant or samples of leaves, stems, or sections of branches. Place specimens loosely in a large enough plastic bag or container that they will not be easily crushed or damaged.  It is not necessary to wet the leaves or wrap them in wet paper towels or newspaper.  You can place a crumpled wet paper towel in the package underneath the specimen to help prevent drying.

Plant diseases-
For information on submitting specimens of diseased fruits, vegetables or other plant materials view the Submitting Samples section of Virginia Tech’s Plant Disease Clinic website. According the website, samples should be submitted through your local Cooperative Extension office.

Photography of Insects, Weeds or Plant Diseases

While a well preserved specimen is often the best choice for pest identification a clear, a well focused photograph may be sufficient for identification in many situations.  Electronic submission of pest photographs may also provide a quicker identification of the pest.  Below are some tips you can follow when taking photos of pests.

  • Make sure the picture is in focus.  Take several shots of the pest from various angles and distances.  Use the camera’s review and zoom feature to look at the pictures that have been saved to see how crisp and clear the images are when viewed close up.  To get a good focus it is essential to have good lighting.  In some cases, it is best to use a source of indirect lighting other than the camera’s flash when taking close ups or photographing small insects.  Try to take pictures with contrasting backgrounds.

  • Get the entire pest into a couple photos the photo then take several shots of key features.  For insects, key features could include body parts such as the head, antennae or wings using the macro feature of the camera.  If taking a picture of a weed, you could take several shots of the entire plant then take close up shots of the leaves, flowers or fruit.  Again, review the photos for clarity.

  • Either measure the specimen or place an object in the photo alongside the specimen that will provide a size comparison.  It could be a ruler, coin, or other recognizable object that a researcher could use for reference.  (This is may not be necessary for photos of weeds or plant diseases where the size or severity of infestation is obvious based on surrounding plants or vegetation)


  1.  Tips on submitting insects for identification, Michigan State University