Saturday 10 September saw the first of the new schedule of Curious Entomologist workshops. As in the previous incarnations, the rationale was simple:
- Convince people that insects are worth studying,
- Show them how to find insects,
- Show them how to kill, preserve, mount, and label sample insects in a basic collection.
And I think it all went off very well. A small select group of attendees came along to the Dacres Wood visitor centre near Forest Hill and after a short introduction and enthusiastic arm-waving we set off into the local nature reserve.
After a fair bit of thrashing about in the undergrowth using sweep nets and beating trays we returned with our samples to the laboratory. As far as I’m concerned, any room containing a desk, and possibly a microscope, is a laboratory. But as I explained, one of the beauties of entomological science 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.
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. Nevertheless I managed to arrange the wings of a caddis fly surprisingly neatly; of course I couldn’t find any acid-free tracing paper so I just used cut strips of grease-proof paper from the kitchen drawer as the pinned braces to hold the wings in place.
And just as on other occasions some interesting things turned up. Perhaps the most unusual was the wasp nest beetle, Metoecus paradoxus. After the female lays a batch of eggs on a section of rotten wood or tree trunk, the tiny active larvae (triungulins) grab onto any passing insect. Their aim is to hitch a lift on a social wasp landing to chew the wood into paper pulp. On returning to her nest the triungulins move into the brood combs to devour the wasp grubs. The beetle is seemingly quite widespread in England (and Wales?), but is scarce and seldom recorded probably because it is very secretive.
All this augurs well for the series of workshops organized through London Borough of Lewisham’s Environmental Department. Next up are Beckenham Place Park (24 September) and Devonshire Road Nature Reserve (1 October).
Curious entomologist handouts:
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 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:
Some of these companies also sell microscopes, otherwise there are:
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.
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.
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.