Recording invertebrates (other than butterflies & moths) can be a tricky business because so many groups require very specialist knowledge or equipment. But there are many that even a novice could attempt in the field with a pair of binoculars and/or a net. For the purposes of this mini-article I will just concentrate on groups that I consider accessible to the majority of naturalists.
NOTE: General insect guides (such as the Collins series) are excellent for personal interest but I would not recommend that you use them for recording. They are not comprehensive and they often leave out very similar species, which renders the records fairly unreliable and biassed towards the few species covered in the book.
Dragonflies & damselflies
The dragonflies & damselflies are probably one of the most obvious insect groups and the easiest for novices to identify using nothing more than a pair of close-focusing binoculars.
Sites like Moor Copse nature reserve, the Thames footpath and Dinton Pastures provide excellent locations to observe dragonflies & damselflies and in fact the whole area is criss-crossed by many streams and rivers so there are lots of places to record.
Book: “The Field Guide to the Dragonflies & Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland” by Steve Brooks (illustrated by Richard Lewington)
Plant galls are a relatively overlooked field of study but they can tell you a lot about the world around you without even seeing the invertebrates that cause them. In fact it is even possible to add dozens of species to your list in mid-winter by looking at dead leaves and twigs.
The group is especially well-suited to botanists who already have the skills to identify the host plants and spot any unusual growths on the stems or foliage. The current identification guide is exceptionally easy to use and once you have identified the host plant you are led through a very simple key with lots of drawings.
Galls can be caused by wasps, flies and even mites so it is possible to discover lots of very interesting species without being an “expert” in any of those groups.
Book: British Plant Galls by Redfern, Shirley & Bloxham.
Ladybirds are a familiar sight in most gardens and also hit the news recently with the arrival of the asian Harlequin Ladybird.
Unlike most other beetles, identifying ladybirds is very simple and you can contribute directly to national schemes that will help us plot the spread of the Harlequin ladybird and its effect on other species.
Book: “Naturalists’ Handbook 10: Ladybirds” by Michael Majerus & Peter Kearns.
Grasshoppers & crickets
This is another interesting and very accessible group – in fact the only group that can be identified using their songs and without even seeing them. The only slight problem with this order is that they are around as nymphs for most of the year and these can be difficult to identify.
They like warm habitats like grassy fields or woodland edges so Moor Copse and Hartslock nature reserves are good places to go looking for them in our area. But practically any roadside verge will turn-up some species, like Roesel’s bush-cricket and the Field grasshopper.
Book: “Grasshoppers & allied insects of Great Britain and Ireland” by Marshall & Hayes.
Bees, wasps and ants are a notoriously difficult order for novices to identify because there are many very similar species; the keys are often difficult ot use and out of date; and they nearly all need to be examined under a fairly powerful microscope.
That aside, the bumblebees can provide a very nice introduction to the group because most of them can be identified in the field with nothing more than a net, glass tube and a hand lens. In fact many of the commoner ones can be identified on the wing, without any need to capture them.
Bumblebees have recently come to prominence because a new and very distinctive species (called Bombus hypnorum) has landed on our shores and recording schemes are very interested to receive records of them to plot their spread. There are two local records so far – one of which was from my back garden in Tilehurst on 2nd June 2009!
Book: “Naturalists’ Handbooks #6: Bumblebees” by Prys-Jones & Corbet.
Lacewings, Scorpion flies & Alder flies
These insects are incredibly common in the countryside but I bet most people overlook them, thinking that there is only one species or that they are really hard to identify. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are quite a few species and with the aid of a net, a small box and a handlens most people could make very real contributions to our knowledge of their distribution.
Scorpion flies are insect-carrion feeders and are my particular favourite because they can be identified very easily with a hand lens; there are only 4 species; and most are very common in shrubby borders and hedges.
Book: “A key to the adults of British lacewings and their allies” by Colin W. Plant.
Slugs & Snails
Love them or loathe them everyone has slugs & snails in their gardens and you only have to turn over a log or a rock out in the countryside to see one. The group covers large species, such as the Roman Snail, right down to tiny little things that live in the soil and whose shells measure a few millimeters.
Many species can be identified easily with the aid of a handlens but some of the slugs are a little bit frustrating and must be disected – but they can be avoided with experience!
Check out the Evolution megalab website where they are running a very simple recording scheme for the common, garden brown-lipped snails.
A few intriduced species have been spreading through southern England in recent years. In my garden in Tilehurst I have noticed a sudden influx of Hygromia cinctella, a quite distinctive ‘foliage snail’ characterized by the white-keeled shell.
Book: “A field guide to the Land Snails of Britain and north-west Europe” by Kerney & Cameron. This has been the standard work for many many years and still provides an excellent and quite comprehensive work on the subject.
Two-winged flies (the order Diptera) are one of the largest groups of insects in Britain – numbering just under 7000 species – and second only to the bees, wasps and ants (the order Hymenoptera). For this reason they are quite a tricky group for novices to get in to and most need the use of a microscope to confirm identifications.
However, if you have a good camera and can get very close-up photographs it is possible to post pictures on web forums like diptera.info and experts will do their best to narrow it down and give you a name.
Site: http://diptera.info/ is a great forum which allows registered users to submit photos of flies and solicit identifications from experts all around the world.
This is one of the first families that most people try because they are so familiar in our gardens. They are reasonably easy to identify but you do have to be careful and know your limitations. The main book on hoverflies has lovely colour plates but they are designed to be used a confirmatory pictures – the identifcation is supposed to be made using the keys otherwise it is very easy to overlook small but important features.
Book: “British Hoverflies” by Alan Stubbs & Steven Falk.
Soldier flies etc.
This is another relatively easy group if you want to dip your toe into Diptera. The main book covers bee flies, soldier flies, robber flies and snipe flies and most are identifiable using a net, clear plastic box and a hand lens.
Book: “British Soldierflies and their allies” by Alan Stubbs & Martin Drake.
I hope this little guide has inspired you to get out into the countryside and record invertebrates. Even if you decide just to record Oak galls in your local patch of wood you will be adding really valuable records to the national picture.
Just remember to note down: the full name of your invertebrate, the location where you saw it, the O/S grid reference for the site, the date you saw it and any notes (eg. host plant or behavioral observations).