Observation, identification & recording of invertebrates

I am a self-professed invertophile. I absolutely adore the myriad forms of insects and other spineless creatures. They are the most diverse and abundant group of organisms on earth, they can be found in every habitat imaginable, they have evolved some of the most complex forms, lifestyles and behaviours, and they are responsible for maintaining essential ecosystem functions and systems. How could one not be utterly awed by them?

Nemopoda nitidula an ant-mimicking fly from the ensign fly family Sepsidae.

I grew up in South Africa and lived on the outskirts of a small town in KwaZulu-Natal. I played on the edge of wilderness and ‘civilisation’ where the veldt and acacia scrub met our mowed lawn and meticulously weeded flower borders. The garden was surrounded by a low wall built from great chunks of blue-grey and rust-coloured igneous rocks (which were displaced by the flower beds) and poured concrete. I travelled in a circuit along these walls and around the garden marvelling at all the life that was to be found here: Citrus Swallowtail butterflies and their peculiarly pungent caterpillars that were resident in our lemon tree; ants that magically appeared around every dropped crumb; checkered yellow and black blister beetles which I knew not to touch; the iridescent snap of a dragonfly’s wings as it hawked overhead. I also kept my share of ‘pets’ that wandered too close to the house and ended up living in jam jars with holes punched through the lid. As I grew older the farther I wandered from the borders described by the walls, drawn further and further away by the towering curiosities that rose out of the earth and teemed with thousands of milky-white termites. I watched trapdoor spiders snatch up prey, ran with solifugids and scampered from scorpions. I carefully turned over logs and rocks and watched centipedes and beetles scurry from the light. I listened to the susurrus hiss of grasshoppers, and when those turned to the chirps of crickets I knew that it was time to head home for dinner. My childhood summers were glorious and almost every day was filled with LIFE.

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is a long-distance migrant with each journey from tropical Africa to Europe taking up to six generations to complete.

Now, much later in life and living in London, I still find the presence of wild animals very rewarding. And still, none more so than the invertebrates. They are perhaps not as abundant or as large as those of my youth, but they are all around us even if we need to look a little harder. I now have a number of local patches where I go to observe invertebrates. All within a comfortable walking distance of my apartment and all quite different from one another: a local park, a cemetery and urban nature reserve, a city farm, a medicine garden and community space, and a brownfield site. So far this year I have recorded many species new to these sites, several new to the borough and new to me!

Although I understand that not everyone shares my passion for the myriad creatures that surround us and that some people can be downright hostile towards them; I can’t help but feel that they’re missing out on something quite incredible. And to that point I’ve been thinking a lot about observing and recording invertebrates recently – specifically about how people might get started with it.

How to get involved

There are many ways in which you can become involved with observing, identifying and recording invertebrates. Here, I will specifically discuss casual recording – by this I mean randomly walking through a space of your choosing and observing invertebrates in situ. There are no formalised procedures, no sampling methodologies, just you in nature. I think that this is a great way to become familiar with the variety of life out there. Having said that, you will find a few items incredibly useful for helping you along your new voyage of insect discovery: 

  • Comfortable walking shoes, 
  • A good introductory or general field guide, 
  • A camera (a phone camera will most often work well enough),
  • A GPS or phone that can give you location coordinates, 
  • A notebook and pen/pencil, 
  • A 10x magnification hand lens.

I will follow this blog post up with another about different invertebrate sampling methods in the future. 

A note on some of the field guides that are available: the Collins Complete Guide to British Insects by Michael Chinery, though by no means complete, is a decent place to start as it covers many of the more common species (>1,500) and was in fact my first field guide. I then moved on to Paul Brock’s A Comprehensive Guide to Insects of Britain and Ireland which, though not comprehensive, goes somewhat further than Chinery, covering more species (2,300) and also includes some of the rarer insects. Most recently (2021) Brock has published Britain’s Insects with WILDGuides which focuses on more popular groups and species. This is an interesting publication with some excellent entries and photography, but covers a reduced number of species (1,653). I own and regularly use all of these but also more specialist guides to various groups of insects. However, when starting out, I would recommend that you get one of these to use in the field and will point out some of the excellent online resources and forums that are also available. Please note that these books are available through other bookshops and online sellers, I have linked to NHBS as they actively support conservation.

The mayfly, Ephemera vulgata, though common throughout Europe is in decline. It is thought that this may be due to the pollution of waterways.

How to find invertebrates

  1. Stop. Pick a spot and stand still.
  2. Get your eye in. Let your eyes slowly scan across the vegetation in front of you just below eye-level. Look for movement, see if there are any odd shapes or colours that stand out from the background. Remember many insects can be very well camouflaged so take your time.
  3. Get down low. I tend to crouch a lot, but you could also kneel or sit on the ground. If you’re low down you will be more likely to see ground-dwelling invertebrates. This is why young children make fantastic “bug hunters”.
  4. Listen. Some insects will make noise to attract mates like crickets and grasshoppers, but you can also hear the snap of dragonfly wings, the rustle of grass as something moves through it, and even the munching of leaves.
  5. Move slowly and carefully. Don’t move far, but move a few steps at a time while keeping an eye on where you place your feet. As you move you want to try to avoid disturbing the vegetation as much as possible as invertebrates can be very sensitive to vibrations. Also, beware your shadow as this can frighten off the flightier individuals.
  6. Look for signs of invertebrate presence. Nibbled leaves, cut stems, silk threads, nest holes and the like. Sometimes even tracks in sand can be signs that invertebrates are about; and always keep an eye out for frass (essentially larval poop).
  7. Don’t forget to look up. Remember that many insects can fly. Also, it is definitely worth examining vegetation at or just above head height.
  8. Make notes and/or take photos. This is very useful for your own future reference, but also if you want to report your sightings to any of the recording schemes. I will talk about this in a bit more detail later on, but basic information that is useful is: a photo, the date, species name, number seen, and location.

How to identify invertebrates

I am not going to spend too much time on this in this blog post (perhaps a future post though), apart from saying that if you are having trouble identifying invertebrates from your field guide you can try some of these generalist Facebook groups: Bug spotters UK, Insects and other Invertebrates of Britain and Europe, Insect Identification, and Insect, Spider and other Arthropod Identification. It is also worth having a look at groups which focus on certain taxa like hoverflies or beetles for more specialist advice.
You could also join a local natural history society or national organisations like the Amateur Entomologists’ Society, British Entomological and Natural History Society and Royal Entomological Society and head out into the field with groups of like-minded people with different levels of identification knowledge. There are also often opportunities to improve your ID skills by attending workshops provided by these organisations and I highly recommend the courses offered by the FSC BioLinks project and Tanyptera Trust.

Why record invertebrates?

Through recording wildlife we can determine a number of important data about what animals are found in which habitats. With long-term data we can see if these species change over time and this can help us to understand the drivers of those changes e.g. habitat loss, pollution events, land restoration etc. We can track the movement of species’ distributions in response to large-scale and seasonal effects such as climate change, and we can monitor the conservation status of species in order to identify those most at risk of extinction. Invertebrates are specifically important because it is in their changes that we tend to first detect issues of future conservation concern. I hope that I’ve managed to convince you that this is a worthwhile project to undertake for better understanding these incredible creatures that share the planet with us.

In Britain the recording community is largely voluntary, from people going out into the field to record what’s in their local patch to the experts who verify these records and the county or national recorders who collate it all. There are of course exceptions such as ecologists who might be employed to survey sites for invasive species or for endangered species that might affect construction projects. But for the most part people survey and submit records for their own personal reasons which can be as varied as the number of people involved; whether that’s about wanting to contribute to scientific enquiry, wanting to know more about the wildlife in a local area, or wanting to catch them all…

Lasius brunneus, the Brown Tree Ant has only been recorded from central and southern English counties despite suitable habitat being available across Britain. It is thought that its arboreal and timid nature mean that it is often overlooked and therefore under-recorded.

How to record invertebrates

Recording invertebrates is a two-step process. The first step is what information is kept in your field notebook. I tend to record a bit more information here than I will need for submitting to the recorders/recording societies.

On a new page in my field notebook I always start with this information:

  • Date
  • Weather – the general outlook for the day.
  • Site name
  • Site notes – you may want to specify habitat type(s) or whether there has been any site management or disturbance since your last visit etc.
  • Casual recording – or specify which sampling method was used.

I then start searching for invertebrates and record them each like this:

  • Species name – if known, otherwise genus or family and update it later.
  • Male / Female / Mixed – if you can tell, it isn’t always possible.
  • Life stage – adult, larva, nymph, pupa, etc.
  • Identified by – this is if someone else has helped you with an ID.
  • Number – you need to decide on the scale you want to use here, I tend to include all individuals within 102 metres, but you can extend this to 1002 m or 12 km if you want to include a whole site.
  • Coordinates – I normally get latitude and longitude from my phone using either Google Maps or Apple Maps in decimal format.
  • Photo number – if using a camera that records this information.
  • Notes – any significant interactions or interesting behaviours.

And that’s it! 

The second step is to submit your records and there are a few different ways in which you can do this. For the most part I use the online recording website iRecord which a large number of verifiers and recorders use. For more information about how iRecord works take a look at this blog post and video produced by Keiron Derek Brown.

Alternatively you can manage your own database in Excel and provide these records to the national recording scheme or relevant recorder directly via email if that’s what they would prefer.

This is the first observation of the endangered picture-winged fly Tephritis praecox in Tower Hamlets and only the second record in Middlesex since 2016.

The more you look…

I have lived in Tower Hamlets for 10 years and in the last few months I have been incredibly fortunate to find three endangered insect species in some of my local patches. This is because I have spent more time looking and got lucky. This is what makes casual recording so exciting for me, you just never know what might turn up.

Oberea oculata, the critically endangered and very scarce, Eyed Longhorn Beetle. I was able to add a new site to the previously known distribution of this species.

Author: Gino Brignoli

PhD student with the London NERC DTP. Previously ant genomics and evolution Research Assistant at Queen Mary University of London. With a keen interest in ecology and entomology, I have volunteered with the Lepidoptera department and Soil Biodiversity Group at the Natural History Museum, and on the Thorn to Orchid and Water for Wildlife projects with London Wildlife Trust.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Considering Birds

My continuing adventures in the natural world

More Than A Dodo

Oxford University Museum of Natural History Blog

David Zelený

Mind snapshots

DEBrief

Blog of the Division of Environmental Biology, NSF

How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)

A workingmumscholar's journey through her PhD and beyond

Germán Orizaola

Evolutionary Ecology in Extreme Environments

The Kenyan Camper

A travel blog about my adventures (mostly) camping in Kenya.

From Plants to Birds

Posts of plants, insects, birds and their interactions + other random ecological or biological thoughts

Tattersall Lab (TEMP)

Thermoregulatory, Evolutionary, Metabolic Physiology

Reconciling human livelihood needs and nature conservation

DAAD-Quality Network Biodiversity Kenya (2016-2019)

Reflections on Papers Past

Revisiting old papers in ecology and evolution through interviews with their authors

Kenya Bird Map Blog

A blog for sharing information, updates and tips relating to the Kenya Bird Map project

Kenya Birding

Bird Watching in Magical Kenya

British Ecological Society - Tropical Ecology Group Special Interest Group

British Ecological Society - Tropical Ecology Group Special Interest Group

Royal Society of Biology blog

A unified voice for biology

%d bloggers like this: