Tag Archives: reference collection

What to do with the left-overs?

Survey left-overs — there’s no room in the reference collection for everything.

I’ve just delivered a store-box full of left-overs to the Horniman Museum. They can use them in their hands-on spaces, without fear of losing their own valuable or important specimens. They are the remnants of various surveys; they’ve served their purpose, but now they are surplus to requirements.


Every time I visit a site to record insects, I have to make an identification-potential decision for each insect I find. Since the ‘species’ is the currency of most ecological surveys, I have to make a judgement about how realistically I can correctly identify each individual to species level. I can hardly turn in a report claiming to have found “lots of pretty spiders, some hairy flies and a disgusting worm”. Although, that might make for some interesting reading and controversial management suggestions.

There are several different categories along my ease-of-identification spectrum:

  • 1) Large, obvious, distinctive species that I can readily recognize in the field with just a glance.
  • 2) Smaller, more tricky things that I need to examine closely, maybe under a hand lens, but which can then be released.
  • 3) Specimens that need to be collected. They have to be examined under a microscope, and good lighting. They may have to be compared to other specimens in a reference collection.
  • 4) Small fry that I’ve got an idea what family or genus they’re in, but which are known to be awkward, and which I’ll probably have to send off to some specialist, or sit on for years until I have enough to start making a reasonable reference collection.
  • 5) Rejects. No hopers. There’s no point in taking a specimen; it will never get identified.

Despite the thrill of finding a great silver diving beetle, or a purple hairstreak, distinctive and charismatic creatures that can easily be identified in the field, most of the category 1 and 2 insects are common and widespread, fascinating perhaps, but ultimately not very informative about any given habitat because of their ubiquity.

Likewise, at the other end of the scale, the huge numbers of teeny-tiny crawling and squirming things barely visible, all the immatures and nymphs and spiderlings, all the ‘problem’ groups (don’t mention ichneumons) are not worth the effort, I’m on a limited budget and  have limited time. In the interests of propitiousness and convenience, these have to be rejected at the first.

Not surprisingly it is the intermediates which are most useful. These are the unfamiliar, sometimes more awkward, but nevertheless workable insects (mostly small beetles, flies, bugs, bees, wasps and ants), and they can tell us more about a site than any number of bright but common butterflies. But it is these that need the most careful study and identification. They’re the ones that need to be examined under a microscope.

At the end of the season, when I finally get round to identifying things, I can work my way through most of category 3 and some of category 4. Here come the surprises — the rarities and oddities which would have been overlooked but for the presence of a specimen under the microscope.

Now, after years of moderately serious entomology, my reference collection is starting to fill up, and I just don’t have the room to incorporate much more. I still have to collect a specimen to correctly identify it, but I feel guilty about the time and effort spent catching, killing, mounting and examining it. I’m loath to throw it away. So, for now, the Horniman Museum gets them and they pass from scientific study to educational. Natural recycling, I call it.