Tag Archives: Collecting insects

Curiouser and curiouser

The new schedule of Curious Entomologist workshops continues, and Saturday 24 September 2016 saw us in the faded grandeur which is the mansion house at Beckenham Place Park.

The portico frontage of John Cator's grand house in Beckenham Place Park.

The portico frontage of John Cator’s grand house in Beckenham Place Park. Arrival by coach and horses no longer obligatory.

As in the previous incarnations, the rationale was simple:

  1. Convince people that insects are worth studying,
  2. Show them how to find insects,
  3. Show them how to kill, preserve, mount, and label sample insects in a basic collection.

After the usual short introduction we set off into the park.

Back in the house the ‘laboratory’ was set up in the grand board room. Despite the formal elegance of the Georgian mansion, the natural light wasn’t perfect, but we made do with small desk lights and built-in microscope lights.

It seems so obvious to me, as an entomologist, that some insects have to be killed in order to identify them, but this is still an issue that some people find at odds with the credo of nature conservation and the wider appreciation of wildlife. In an earlier blog on my collection of ladybirds I tried to discuss just why entomologists still need to kill and keep dry dusty museum specimens.

One of the most important reasons for studying insects (apart from their astonishing abundance, their mind-numbing diversity and their total dominance of the middle portion of virtually all terrestrial food-webs) is that you really do not need any expensive technical paraphernalia to get going.  At the bottom of this blog, one of the hand-outs is a crib-type sheet offering easy and cheap domestic alternatives to what might otherwise be expensive specialist equipment and materials.

This is my portable laboratory. It contains everything I need: hand lens, pins, gum, fine paint-brushes, card, mounting strips, tweezers.

This is my portable laboratory. It contains everything I need: hand lens, pins, gum, fine paint-brushes, card, mounting strips, tweezers.

In the high-ceilinged room the aura of hushed concentration was emphasized as everyone set to work pinning and carding. This is the fiddly bit. I’d picked out an old travel box fitted with setting boards. I must admit that I never use these nowadays; in fact I have to put my hands up in the air and admit, straight out, that my setting is rather slapdash. If I can get a pin through it, or can tease out a few legs and the odd antenna onto the gummed card, then I’m happy.

As usual, plenty of unusual and odd things turned up. Here’s just a selection of species. All of these are under 6mm long, and virtually impossible, even for a specialist in any of the groups, to firmly identify in the field. I particularly liked the shiny black parasitoid Psylus. Choose your statistic here, but there are claims that one in five of all species on the planet is a parasitoid wasp. They are hugely numerous and diverse in the UK, but sorely under-studied and under-recorded. I’ve got several specimens of this genus, and I’m tentatively happy with my identifications using a translation of an old Russian key. But have a look at the National Biodiversity Network database and it lists only 20 records split amongst the eight UK species. This is nothing to do with the insects’ true rarity, just the rarity of people studying the group.

The final workshop this year is a full-house at Devonshire Road Nature Reserve (1 October).

Curious entomologist handouts:

Easy equipment and materials

Easy equipment and materials

List of entry-level books to get started.

List of entry-level books to get started.

Setting styles and data labels

Setting styles and data labels


And a few useful links:

The basics of collecting, pinning, carding, labelling and curating a collection are pretty well covered in plenty of books, a few sources are available on-line, especially in the USA:

This is from the University of Arkansas

And this from the University of Minnesota.

This rather quaint book, How to make an insect collection, is nevertheless very useful.


Much equipment can be home-made. Here is a list of easy and cheap alternatives to many expensive items. When starting out, entomological pins are important, finer, better quality and corrosion-resistant compared to sewing pins. A good hand lens (x 10 magnification is fine) will also be a great help. Here’s a guide to getting a lens. However, for a full range of everything from micro-pins to research-quality microscopes, there are several commercial suppliers including:

Watkins and Doncaster

Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies

B&S Entomological Services

Some of these companies also sell microscopes, otherwise there are:

Brunel Microscopes

And GX Optical

To start, a stereomicroscope may seem a bit of a luxury, but cheap models are available for around £80. The most important point is low magnification rather than high: x10 or x20. A stereo-scope with swiveling turret, allowing you to swap easily between x10 and x30 is perfect, starting at £100-£150. A zoom microscope giving a range of about x10 to x45 is a delight from £350. Here’s a brief guide to buying a budget stereomicroscope.

Naming insects

Identifying insects can be tricky. There are now upwards of 200 years of complex entomological monographs and identification guides. Although on-line help is becoming available, much of what we know about insects is still hidden away in books and journals and finding the right identification key for the right insect can be a daunting task. Before launching into book-buying, perhaps the easiest path is to see whether particular groups of insects appeal to the individual more than others. At least by specializing in limited insect orders you can narrow your field of search for identification answers.

There is no point in trying to get a comprehensive list of British insect books together. So many of them are highly technical or complex, enough to baffle even the relative expert. As someone develops an interest in particular groups, they will come across further references to increasingly obscure and arcane papers published in scientific journals; they may also decide to invest in expensive modern monographs or even more expensive antiquarian books.

So here is a list of books that I think might be useful to the novice British entomologist. It is, I admit, a personal list, and it’s just a taster.

Picture books are a start, but they often fail to indicate just how many ‘similar’ species (virtually identical to the naked eye) are not illustrated. I always recommend Collins guide to the Insects of Britain and Western Europe by Michael Chinery, as a good starter because it has so many excellent pictures. It appears to be out of print at the moment, but copies are usually to be had on ebay or through second-hand bookshops and websites.

I also recommend iSpot for getting photographs of insects named. This is a great site, run by the Open University and regularly browsed by experts ready to name whatever is posted up. This would also be the place to post a picture of a pinned or carded specimen too.

Beyond the first ‘easy’ species, the best way to get an insect specimen named is to seek help and advice from an expert. And although they may not be open to naming box-loads of specimens sent unsolicited, many entomologists running recording schemes, or studying particular groups of insects, are often more than pleased to receive material, especially from a new source. Just make contact first to see what help might be on offer.

Local museums often have reference collections of insects, donated by local entomologists, and sometimes the museums are also connected with regional recording schemes. They are often more than happy to allow interested visitors behind-the-scenes access to these collections, either to allow visiting experts to re-identify specimens and confirm names, or to allow others to bring in their own specimens for checking. The Natural History Museum has the Angela Marmot Centre for UK Biodiversity, set up specifically to encourage people to make their own identifications using the facilities available. Here is my take on the centre, and here is a link to their own website.

Further information

Here, to start, is a series of links to societies, recording schemes and the like. They have links to other sources of help and information too.

Amateur Entomologists’ Society Society for the beginner. Publishes a good series of introductory handbooks to various insect orders. An annual exhibition is held each autumn with large numbers of exhibitor stands selling books and equipment, new and secondhand.

Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society Excellent website covering this natural grouping of stinging, but fascinating, insects.

Biological Records Centre, Recording Schemes List Contact details of each of the very many recording schemes; scroll down to find the insect ones.

British Bugs On-line photographic identification guide.

British Dragonfly Society On-line news, identification and fact sheets and recording details.

British Entomological and Natural History Society The society for the up-and-coming ‘field’ entomologist, running field meetings, advanced identification workshops and publishing some excellent identification guides.

Buglife The Invertebrate Conservation Trust, campaigning for insect conservation.

Butterfly Conservation Campaigning for butterfly and moth conservation.

Dipterists Forum Specialist fly-recording society, but useful website.

Field Studies Council Various publications, field courses and wildlife information.

Koleopterologie German on-line photographic identification gallery for beetles.

National Federation of Biological Recorders Names and addresses of regional and county recording schemes.

Royal Entomological Society For the expert or professional, but a large society which publishes important identification guides (some rather technical). The ‘Useful Links’ section of their website is very extensive and useful.

UK Moths On-line photographic identification guide to moths.

Watford Coleoptera Group Includes an on-line photographic gallery.

Other sources of help are: local natural history societies, local museums (which often have insect collections behind the scenes even if not on show in the exhibit galleries), or perhaps even a friendly local entomologist.

More curious entomologists

Following on from the earlier how to be a curious entomologist workshops covering basic entomological techniques, London Wildlife Trust asked me, in June, to take some of their trainees through a brief introduction to finding insects, making a collection and using identification guides.

There was a time when collecting insects was a common hobby amongst anyone who lived in the countryside. But since far fewer people now live outside cities, and with a certain uneasiness about killing wildlife, what I once took to be an easy introduction to studying nature is now an alien, potentially suspicious, activity carried out by oddball eccentrics. In one of my previous blogs I’ve argued why collecting insects is still vitally important, here’s the link.  These workshops, run erratically and piecemeal as sponsor organizations approach me,  are all part my effort, as a fully paid-up eccentric, to start normalizing entomology again.

First set up your laboratory.

First set up your laboratory.

Over the years I’ve accumulated half a dozen simple stereomicroscopes. Starting at about x10 magnification, these were perfect for learning how to set beetles, gluing them onto offcuts of white card. Some came with their own in-built lights, for the others I had a selection of cheap desktop lights. All set.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 18.49.36

Next head out into Devonshire Road Nature Reserve in Lewisham. The combination of small classroom space and wildlife site was perfect.

I’ve also accumulated a selection of nets and beating trays. It was glorious weather, so finding the insects was easy. Entomologists are so thin on the ground, that I still marvel when I see anyone else using a net. Here were six others. A gaggle?

The old climb-in-with-them technique of collecting flies.

The old climb-in-with-them technique of collecting flies.

Lots of interesting things turned up, including the scarce flower beetle Mordellochroa abdominalis, ringlets applenty, lesser stag beetles Dorcus parallelipipedus, the recently arrived hollyhock weevil, Rhopalapion longirostre, and this scarce picture-winged fly, Acinia corniculata.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 18.50.01

Acinia corniculata.

This is listed as an endangered species, red data book category 1, and I first found it only about 250 metres away at the Honor Oak Covered Reservoir about 15 years ago. It lays its eggs in the flower heads of knapweed, a common enough plant, but obviously needs something more. It may be turning up more regularly now, but is still scarce. Two specimens found close together in a thick bundle of knapweed showed that there was a breeding colony here.

Back in the makeshift laboratory there was carding, pinning and setting.

It all looks very professional.

It all looks very professional.

With only a few mishaps.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 18.50.40

Pin the wasp, not the thumb. PIN THE WASP, NOT THE THUMB.

We did find a live female stag beetle in the log pile, but these bits of a male found nearby were added to the collection.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 18.50.58

This must have been a very diminutive male when it was alive.

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 18.51.12

The small sample collection.

All in all, a successful event.

Why do I have a collection of ladybirds?

The thing which, in most people’s eyes, defines me as an entomologist is not my comical antics with a sweep net, my morbid curiosity of animal droppings and carrion, or my excessive enthusiasm for tiny biting specks of obviously malignant animated matter living in their children’s hair — it is the fact that I have an insect collection. In an era of ultra-sleek cameras, optically pure macro-lenses, high-resolution digital images and the wonderfully interactive labyrinth of the internet, a series of stiff dry insect bodies pinned into a small wooden box seems not a little archaic.

If people see the contents of a glass-topped drawer or an open store-box, laid out beside a microscope on my kitchen table, responses to it are varied. At the one end of the curiosity scale (usually voiced by children), there is: “Wow, did you kill all these yourself?” At the other end (usually from their parents, squinting at the tiny specks of nothingness which are chalcidid wasps or seed weevils) is: “Wow, how on Earth do you find these things?” This is a polite interest, but I often get the feeling there is also a hidden suspicion: “He kills the things he claims to love?!”.

There are, of course, the well-rehearsed arguments — the sheer unimaginable numbers of insects hidden all around us, their prodigious fecundity, and the mathematical impossibility of entomologists doing any harm by collecting a few specimens, even a lot of specimens maybe. When I spoke to some novice potential entomologists last year I tried to dumbfound them with a rough calculation I did on the back of a proverbial envelope*: more insects were killed in the building of the 2012 London Olympics, than have been collected and killed by all the entomologists in the world, who have ever lived, ever.

It’s a statistic to get people thinking, at least, but there is still some unease at the idea of a ‘collection’. For what is a collection if not a vainglorious display of prize trophies? It’s here I have to start making the other familiar claims about not being able to identify tiny insects unless a specimen can be minutely examined — often individual bristles on individual legs. My stock statistic is that I reckon on something like 1500 British insects being easily identified from a photograph; but since there are over 25, 000 species here, it means that nearly 95% of UK insects need confirmation under the microscope. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that plenty have various colour forms, males and females differ, and all have very different larvae and nymphs too. Sometimes the distinctions are so fine that a large series of specimens from various localities, found over many years, often have to be compared to identify them firmly.

The trouble is that the physical presence of the ‘collection’, with its neatly aligned rows of carefully mounted insects and painstakingly presented labels and headings, is still very much a hang-over from the past — a past where collecting something for the sake of it, to own it, to savour it, and to display it proudly and overtly, was a perfectly acceptable scientific procedure.

For nearly half a century, though, there has been a formal published code for collecting. It appeared at a time when butterfly collecting began to be viewed with mistrust, (and egg-collecting became the criminal activity of a rogue underclass). Just over 10 years ago I was pleased to be involved with reviewing it, and if I may make so bold, my greatest contribution was to get its title changed to a ‘Code for Collecting Insects’ where previously it had been a code for ‘insect collecting’.

Here is a subtle, but fundamental difference. One, like stamp collecting, or egg collecting, is all about making that private, often secretive, vanity-stoking display to show off magnificent captures. The other emphasizes the workaday need to maintain an ordered and accessible scientific reference collection to aid and support identification, and to advance entomology further. This is why a collection is necessary.

So why do I have a collection of ladybirds? Intuitively, they fall into the group of 1500 UK species which can more or less reliably be identified from a photograph, and surely they can all be firmly named under a hand lens in the field. Except, as any entomologist will agree, things are never quite this easy.

Firstly, there are the ‘other’ ladybirds. These are the remaining 25 small (2.5 mm) to tiny (1 mm) non-brightly-spotted beetles in the family, which include the sometimes notorious genera Scymnus and Nephus, which can fox even the most experienced eye. There are the ridiculous number of confusingly different colour forms and fluctuating spot patterns of several very common species. Occasionally I’ve found something that just looked ‘a bit odd’ in the field; maybe I hoped they would prove to be something new. And I’ve also accumulated dead specimens from traps, which would otherwise simply be discarded.

All these are good enough reasons, but the honest truth is that I have a ladybird collection because sometimes I need a prominent display of obvious and familiar insects that I can show off.

Ladybirds to the left, 'others' to the right.

Ladybirds to the left, ‘others’ to the right.

Although they would do just as well, I don’t have any butterflies, or moths, or dragonflies. A bunch of 8-year-olds might be enthusiastically scandalized by a display of sombre dung beetles, or fascinated by a box of pretty glittering rubytail wasps, but they can’t relate to them in the way that they can to the spotty, domed, brightly coloured beetles they all know so well. Looking at ladybirds, with their strong colour schemes and easy spot-number names, children can get an immediate understanding of such basic concepts as: species, genus, variation and rarity. The display collection (as opposed to the reference collection) still does have a place.

And I admit, I do still collect the occasional ladybird. Is this a bad thing?


* My calculations went something like this. The Olympic park in East London is 2.5 km2, that’s 2.5 x 106 m2, so with a nominal insect density of 1000/m2 we would get 2.5 x 109 (two and a half billion) insects destroyed. This is roughly forty times the size of the Natural History Museum’s insect holdings (60 million specimens). The museum has the largest collection (by a long way) anywhere in the world, so 40 of them ought to be enough to equate to world-wide entomological activity during, say, the last 200 years. I hope I’ve built enough latitude into the equation: actually insects are often quoted at densities over 10,000/m2, and I did not take into account any of the other Olympic venues around the country.

Look what they found

The How to be a Curious Entomologist workshops were set up to teach people how to make an insect collection — simply, with easy, cheap, often home-made equipment. But why, in this day and age of electronic wizardly, high-spec digital cameras, email and internet should you need a collection? Because only about 5% of UK insect species can be definitively identified from a photo. Large moths, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and a few others are unmistakable. But that leaves 95% which can only be firmly named by looking at obscure characters under a microscope — often individual bristles on individual legs.

I recently undertook a reconnaissance survey visit to a small local nature reserve. It was late in the season, but I was told there were quite a few invertebrate records on file, collected over several years of casual observation. These would, no doubt, be useful. What I got was a list of common garden butterflies and bumblebees. The reserve warden was slightly disappointed when I all but dismissed them as useless. The trouble is they were all obvious common species that could be found in almost any garden in London. They gave no insight into the special habitat or distinct insect community of the site. If I had only been handed a scruffy box full of badly pinned and awkwardly carded insect specimens, oh how different it would have been.

Late-in-the-season finds from Ladywell Fields.

After three curious workshops, we now have three prospective insect collections. They can be added to, piecemeal, over many years if need be. But whenever it comes to finding out what occurs on one of these sites, at least the incoming surveyor will have a starting point. And I know there are some gems in there.

The identifying bit of entomology is often what takes the time, and I just don’t have the time to work thoroughly through all of the collections we made, but here, at least, is a taster of some of the more unusual things that turned up.

Brachycarinus tigrinus Schiller, a small pale speckled ground bug (family Rhopalidae). This distinctive bug is a recent colonist to Britain, and was first found here in 2003, in Battersea Park, central London (by some chap called Jones, apparently). It has since been found in several brownfield localities in Essex and London, but is still very rare and confined to a narrow belt of localities in the Thames Gateway. It was almost the very first insect collected at the Deptford Creekside workshop, 30 June 2012.

Chaetostomella cylindrica, a very small pale picture-winged fly (family Tephritidae). Breeding in the heads of various thistles, and especially knapweed, this is a fairly widespread fly, occuring through most of Britain and Ireland, it is nevertheless not common, and I don’t come across it every day. Two specimens were collected during the Ladywell Fields workshop, 13.x.2012.

Cordylura albipes Fallén, a small black and white dung fly (family Scathophagidae). Much more secretive than the common yellow dungfly, Scathophaga stercoraria, and more rarely seen. No doubt feeding in the plentiful dog dung in Ladywell Fields, where it was found 13.x.2012.

Icterica westermanni (Meigen), a small orange picture-winged fly (family Tephritidae). This nationally scarce fly is known from an area south-east of a line from The Wash, to Gloucester to Weymouth. It breeds in the heads of ragwort, Senecio species. Despite its widespread and common foodplant it remains very elusive. This was one of the rare insect species highlighted by Buglife when it challenged proposed legislation to make ragwort a notifiable noxious weed. One was found by general sweeping at the Devonshire Road workshop, 29 July 2012.

Olibrus flavicornis (Sturm), a minute black flower beetle (family Phalacridae). According to the beetle review (1992), this beetle was considered to have red data book status ‘K’ — rare but insufficiently known. It can only be distinguished from others in the genus by microscopic examination of the microsculpture of the wing-cases. At the time it had not been seen since it was recorded in 1950 from Camber on the East Sussex coast. However, it is now known to occur, often in large numbers, on brownfield sites in London and the Thames Estuary. It is still very confined, geographically, and unknown away from this narrow region. It is usually found on autumn hawkbit Leontodon autumnalis, and possibly other similar plants. The larvae are thought to develop in the flower heads, while the adults feed on pollen. Several were found at the Deptford Creekside workshop, 30 June 2012.

Omalus aeneus (Fabricius), a very small metalic blue and green cuckoo wasp (family Chrysididae). One of the rubytails, so called because many are brilliantly red coloured, but not this one. Rubytails are cleptoparasitoids, or cuckoo wasps, laying their eggs in the nests of other wasp species; the hatching grub then devours the host egg and the food stores laid in for it. This one is known to parasitize various common species, but it is very local itself; it is more or less restricted to Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and Devon. One specimen was found during the Devonshire Road workshop, 29.vii.2012.

Pantilius tunicatus (Linnaeus), a large reddish brown and green capsid bug (family Miridae). Found on hazel, birch and alder, this handsome and distinctive bug is fairly widespread in southern England, but not common. Several were found in Sue Godfrey Nature Park, during the Deptford Crossfields Bioblitz, 15.ix.2012.

Rhyzobius chrysomeloides (Herbst), a minute black and pink ladybird (family Coccinellidae). This tiny beetle is extremely similar to a very common species, R. litura (Fabricius), and its occurrence in Britain was only recognized in 2000 when it was found in several Surrey localities. It is probable that this is a recent arrival in Britain and its spread has so far been monitored in Surrey, Kent, Middlesex, Berkshire, Hampshire and Sussex. One was beaten from some hawthorn hedging at the Ladywell Fields workshop, 13.x.2012.

Stictopleurus punctatonervosus (Goeze), a medium-sized brown leaf bug, family Rhopalidae. At the time of the national review of British Hemiptera, in 1992, this species was regarded as being extinct in Britain. It had been recorded from only two localities here, the last in 1870. It has now successfully recolonized Britain since it was recorded in Essex in 1997 and has now become a species typical of the dry, well-drained and sparsely vegetated brownfield sites in and around urban London, Thames Estuary and beyond. Specimens were found at the Deptford Crossfields bioblitz, 15.ix.2012 and at the Ladywell Fields workshop, 13.x.2012.

Not a bad start.