I’ve just come back from the second “curious entomologist” workshop, this one held in the classroom at Devonshire Road Nature Reserve in Honor Oak. For useful links, lists of equipment and suppliers, and further suggestions on how to start making an insect collection go to the first report and scroll down. These workshops are funded by The London Borough of Lewisham’s Rivers and People Project.
How to be a curious entomologist
The title of these seminar workshops came, by way of flattery, from a book by Simon Barnes — How to be a bad birdwatcher. His proposal was that you do not have to be a great expert, or travel the world to exotic places, or own an eye-wateringly expensive pair of binoculars, to enjoy watching birds; you just have to look, and they will be there. He argued that no other group of animals was so amenable to being seen, as birds. Gazing out of the kitchen window of a winter’s morning, you are unlikely to see a mammal (even a grey squirrel) or a reptile, or an amphibian. But you will see birds. They are everywhere, and the fascination got from watching birds can be taken from their everyday behaviour, feeding, singing, flying, perching.
Even more so, insects are always there to be observed. No matter the season, or the weather, insects are so bewilderingly diverse and so mind-numbingly numerous, that you can always find them. And even more so than birds, they are strange beyond belief, bizarre verging on the mythical and, even under a simple hand lens, breath-takingly beautiful.
So why curious? I like this word and have applied it myself often enough. I’ve taken it from a 17th century apothecary and naturalist, James Petiver. Petiver is credited with coining the first English names for many of our butterflies. A few of his original names are still in use today (brimstone, for example), a few have changed, but are still recognizable (golden brown double streak is now brown hairstreak), but one stands out as the most intriguing of the lot.
In a list of newly acquired specimens published between 1702 and 1706 he describes (and later illustrates) Albin’s Hampstead Eye, “where it was caught by this curious person, and is the only one I have yet seen.” Eleazar Albin, like many entomologists today, may have cut a strange figure as he strode across the Heath with his insect net, muttering Latin names under his breath, but Petiver’s use of the word ‘curious’ is not to suggest some odd eccentric, but someone whose study of wildlife is fuelled by curiosity.
For most people, myself included, interest in the natural world is still fuelled by curiosity — the need to look, to discover, to find out things about the animals and plants we see all around us.
Today bird-watching is, perhaps, the most widespread manifestation of that curiosity, but it was not always so. In the past, the study of birds could really only be pursued by those from a wealthy background — the clergy, landed gentry, aristocracy. They had two things well out of the reach of the general public — guns, and the land on which to shoot their quarry. Entomology, on the other hand, was a much more egalitarian interest; insects could be studied by anyone, and often required little more than home-made equipment and a wander on the local common land.
We are very lucky that we have a proud tradition of amateur insect study in Britain. This ‘citizen science’ as it might now be termed, has given us a wealth of knowledge about British insects, their distribution, their ecology, their life histories.
It all started with insect collecting, but has now moved to collecting insects. There is a subtle, but important, difference here. Insect collecting, a bit like stamp collecting, was simply the amassing of pretty specimens for the sake of ‘getting the set’, making aesthetically pleasing displays, or even a competition to get more than other collectors. Many of these large collections, created by wealthy gentlemen, now repose in the natural history museums of the world, and although we might frown at their almost fanatical zeal nowadays, the specimens they accumulated still tell us much of what we know about these insects. Modern scientists and researchers continue to examine insect specimens collected centuries ago, and they continue to add new specimens to these collections.
Collecting insects, taking a few sample specimens for identification purposes, is the only way to study the vast majority of insects around the world. In Britain we have roughly 25,000 species. Of these perhaps 1500 can be easily identified from a photograph. That leaves 94% of British species where a photograph is little help. Added to this are larval or immature stages, different colour variations, sexual differences, local geographical races. Quite often the differences between species are minute — particular arrangements of individual bristles on individual legs, subtle distinctions in body sculpture and ornament, fine differences in the proportions of antennal segments, or barely perceptible variations in body shape. Even experts who specialize in particular small groups of insects are often pushed to identify specimens unless they can be examined under a microscope.
The reasons for collecting insects may have changed, but the techniques used are still the same as a century or two ago. Books written during the explosion of Victorian empire-expansion on how to collect and preserve everything from dried seeds to whale skeletons are remarkably similar to manuals still issued today. Thankfully, collecting and preserving insects is a relatively easy process. Insects, covered in a tough exoskeleton (hard armour-like shell) made of chitin, keep for many hundreds of years by the simple action of drying them, either on a pin, or glued to a card.
During these workshops we will be practising some straightforward techniques
— Finding insects
— Collecting insects
— Killing insect specimens
— Pinning, setting, mounting and carding specimens
— Labelling specimens
The specimens collected will form the basis for a resident collection at the centre, to be added to piecemeal as and when local workers find time or inclination. It does not matter if they remain unseen for years, or decades. Eventually a time will come when a local entomologist will look through them, and extract some of the records.
There may be marvels or mysteries hidden. The lone specimen of Albin’s Hampstead Eye, Hipparchia hampstedensis, the butterfly that Pettiver had seen only one of, and which had been parroted through 200 years of British butterfly books, was rediscovered in the Natural History Museum at the end of the 19th century. It turned out to be a specimen of the meadow argus, Junonia villida, a common enough butterfly, but only in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and a few Pacific islands. It would have been impossible for a live specimen to get to Hampstead, even brought back in foreign cargo; these were the days of sail and its native haunts were half a year’s journey away. The curious Albin had somehow mixed up his specimens. But at least his ‘Eye’ specimen was still there to be examined.
Making a collection of insects is not a trivial act or vainglorious pursuit, it is a practical and perfectly acceptable way of keeping records of insects, records that can be examined and re-examined again and again. Having the specimen, to look at under a microscope, is still the only way to correctly and certainly identify most insects.