Set a couple of blocks back from a busy inner city A-road and tucked up against the back of a Sixth Form School is a little patch of greenspace that is the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. Often overlooked, this volunteer run space offers a little patch of tranquility in the heart of Bethnal Green. I have volunteered here on an ad hoc basis over the year helping with woodland management, pond restoration, turning compost, and whatever else needs attention. This has been a great way to spend a Saturday morning – getting my hands dirty and chatting with other local people who have a stake in the space.
It has also been a perfect place for me to explore my growing interest in invertebrate macro photography and I’m keen to revisit the site again in early 2023 to see what else I can unearth there. There was very little knowledge of the invertebrates living at and using this site with no records submitted to the local environmental records centre. Without any formal recording plan and following the site’s ethos of ‘tread lightly & do no harm’ I have now added 152 invertebrate records across 82 species for the site. And I’m sure this has only scratched the surface.
I was also lucky enough to be invited to spend a few days with some of the site volunteers looking at the different habitat types and the invertebrate assemblage types that are found here. Below are photos taken by the volunteers at these various events.
A series of half-day-long events were organised to explore the invertebrates of Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. Attendance was fantastic and I would like to thank everyone who came along and participated – even those who were a little less keen on our invertebrate neighbours than some others. We looked at nocturnal, pollinating, pond, and leaf litter & soil-dwelling invertebrates. I certainly had a fantastic time and I believe that the volunteers now all have a greater consideration and appreciation for the invertebrate life that is found here. I think this is exemplified by the video below of a Willow Emerald Damselfly (Chalcolestes viridis) captured from the edge of the pond, which was shared in a WhatsApp group by one of the volunteers.
This is a good start. There’s a lot more to be done here in terms of understanding the invertebrate fauna of the site, but there is a willingness, even an eagerness, to do so. I hope that I will be able to support and attend more of these activities over the coming years while we get to know this little urban oasis and all of its many inhabitants better.
To help with this I have now created an iRecord activity where future records from the site can be entered so that they are all kept together and start to build a clearer impression of all the life here as seen and recorded by the people who love and use the site.
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?
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.
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.
How to find invertebrates
Stop. Pick a spot and stand still.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Look forsigns 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).
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.
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.
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…
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:
Weather – the general outlook for the day.
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.
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.
Inspired by Gilbert White (naturalist, ornithologist and author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne) the Selborne Society was formed in 1885 as Britain’s first national conservation organisation. Members of the Society went on to establish pre-eminiment organisations such as the National Trust and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Today, the Society manages Perivale Wood, an 11.6 hectare Local Nature Reserve in Ealing south-west London, where they organise an open day, and a wide range of indoor meetings and field excursions.
I was invited to talk to the Society and members of the public about the biology and ecology of ants. This blog post is a very abbreviated form of that talk with a tiny selection of the slides used to give a bit of an overview. To be honest, I was always a bit uncomfortable with the title of the talk. I knew it would be impossible to cover everything to do with ants, so I focused on some of the areas of ant biology that most interest me.
But what’s so special about ants anyway? Well, ants are everywhere. With over 16,000 extant species found in every terrestrial habitat (apart from the polar regions) they constitute a large proportion of all living biomass. Enormously successful as scavengers, herbivores, granivores, predators and mutualists, ants perform important ecological functions as ecosystem engineers and keystone species. Some species are also highly successful at invading new territories where they can become crop pests or outcompete native species for resources. Their eusocial lifestyles also make them ideal model systems for the study of social evolution.
Part of my fascination with ants comes from the tremendous morphological diversity within and between species. Not only can there be differences between castes within species, but species can range in size from the minuscule Carebara atomus (~1 mm) to the comparatively enormous Dinoponera gigantea (~4 cm). I also have a bit of a soft spot for the myrmecophiles (other invertebrates that live in association with ants) and especially the myrmecomorphs (invertebrates that mimic the appearance and/or behaviours of ants). To share some of the beautifully complex variety of forms in ants and the ant-wannabes I asked the audience to play a game that I call “Ant Bingo!”.
Everyone got into the spirit of it and after discussing some of the characteristic features of ants managed to identify all six ants displayed amongst the other fantastic creatures.
Belonging to the order Hymenoptera, the family Formicidae (what we commonly call ants) emerged in the late Cretaceous (~140 MYA) when they diverged from the Apoidea – spheciform wasps and bees. There are now more than 16,000 species of ants in over 470 genera that we know of – it is thought that there may actually be at least as many species still to be discovered. According to some estimates, there are more than 10 quadrillion individual ants alive at any time.
This variety in form is echoed in the highly complex and variable social structures and life histories that have evolved in different ant species. The numerous ways in which they gather food and create shelters to protect themselves from the elements and potential predators are both fascinating and ingenious. In order to feed the colony, there are ants that harvest honeydew from aphids, some that cultivate elaborate fungus gardens, and others that send out raiding swarms that capture anything too slow to get out of their way. For nest-building, there are ants that use larval silk to weave leaves together in the treetops, those that excavate elaborate underground tunnels, and those that have co-evolved with plants to live within specialized swellings and chambers called domatia which are produced by the plants for the exclusive use of their ant protectors. These examples only briefly touch on a few of the magnificent examples of diverse life strategies found within the ants.
There are many different social structures evident between (and sometimes even within) ant species. There are some with single queen colonies and some with multiple queens – in some cases hundreds of reproductive queens can live in the same nest. Queen number can also vary within a species so that there may be colonies with one or many queen(s). The colonies of some ant species can even persist without any queens; in these instances, worker ants can (rather peculiarly) become fully reproductive if the queen dies. These egg-laying workers are called gamergates. At the other extreme, there are the social parasites, where some species don’t produce a worker caste at all – their eggs will only produce the next generations of queens and males. These parasitic queens are known as inquilines, they take over the nests of closely related species who provide a ready workforce so there is no need to expend energy on creating more workers. And then there are what some people call the “slave-making” ants – these ants will raid other nests and carry the brood away to their own nest. The “slave” ants will then work in their new colony, defend it from attack and can even participate in future raids. This process of kidnapping and imprinting is more accurately referred to as dulosis.
I should also emphasise the fact that these social structures may vary over time depending on what life-stage the colony is at. For example, the number of reproductive queens within a colony may vary depending on whether the colony is experiencing a rapid growth phase such as the establishment of a new colony. At this early period, it can be highly beneficial to have many queens all laying eggs at the same time to quickly produce workers to protect the nest, forage for food and care for the brood. But after a time (once the colony is a bit more established) the need for multiple queens is diminished and what was a co-operative breeding chamber becomes an arena for a battle to the death until only one queen remains.
Ants are, in my view, remarkable animals. They have adapted to fill every conceivable terrestrial niche through evolving incredible morphological adaptations, variable social structures, and a dizzying array of life histories. There are also fantastic opportunities for research with many more species to be discovered and behaviours to describe.
This video clip from the BBC2 documentary Natural World: Attenborough and the Empire of the Ants shows wood ants (Formica sp.) defending their nest: