One of the questions I am most frequently asked is, what is the reason for an amateur to study natural history? Surely you can’t contribute anything useful without a professional qualification, or being affiliated with a university or museum? Hasn’t it all been discovered already anyway?
In fact natural history has always been the domain of the amateur, and the vast majority of what we know about life on this planet has been discovered by people who were not paid for their efforts and received no formal scientific education. This summer has produced, for me, a couple of good examples of how amateurs can contribute to knowledge, and why we should continue to encourage others to take part in our activities and develop their skills.
When I started moth trapping in 2008, I wasn’t desperately interested in moths, but rather in all the other things that were attracted to light, the so-called ‘by-catch’, and primarily beetles. For example the carrion beetle Nicrophorus humator is a common visitor, which gets flicked away with a stick – you definitely don’t want to handle one of these or your hands will stink for hours, and soap won’t help. I’ve also had Curculio glandium, several Aphodius, Harpalus rufipes, and a few water beetles.
It hasn’t been a good year for moths and the trap has been empty on many nights, but on the 2nd of June it was warm (for Warrington!) and I went out to check things around 10 pm. There were a few Diptera and not much else, then I saw a small beetle, cylindrical, about 6 mm long, which I didn’t recognise at all, sitting on the crossbar directly under the bulb. If it had been anywhere else I probably wouldn’t have seen it. So it got potted and I brought it inside.
A few minutes scanning the Internet (using the Kerbtier website, www.kerbtier.de which is well laid-out for this) brought me to Ernobius (Anobiidae) for which my only key was Joy. The first couplet says ‘Th. strongly angled in middle of sides… so that hind margin is narrower than front margin… parvicollis Surrey, vr. This fitted my specimen perfectly but finding a rare Surrey beetle in my back yard was a bit unexpected, so it was off to the Manchester Museum a few days later, where Dmitri Loganov showed me his single British specimen of angusticollis (the name had changed) and some European specimens which were sufficient to convince me that I was on the right track. Don Stenhouse sent me a copy of the Ernobius key from Fruede Harde and Lohse which confirmed the antennal pattern (the sequence of long and short segments in the antennae are characteristic in many Anobiidae).
The potential rarity of this insect meant that I had to get a full verification, so it was sent to Howard Mendel at the Natural History Museum who dissected its genitalia (fortunately it was male) and confirmed that it was angusticollis. Even the NHM only have a single British specimen! There are only 5 records, all from Surrey, on the NBN Gateway. So we have a beetle that is rare even in its single southern habitat – and it turns up in my back garden in Warrington! What’s going on? Like all good research it raises more questions than it answers, but one thing is for sure, it would never have been found without amateur effort.
The second discovery happened last weekend (the 22nd July) when I had dropped in to Rocksavage nature reserve for a casual field session while Andy was doing some management work. I had taken suction samples from a number of areas, and rather than sort them in a tray, I had simply dumped the lot into an extractor – a wire basket suspended over a bucket – to see what would fall through. A few ground beetles appeared but nothing significant, and I was about to empty the lot out when I noticed a bright green insect walking along the top of the bucket. “Hmm, that’s a bush cricket”, I thought, and as I knew absolutely bugger all about Orthoptera, I potted it, showed it to Andy, and took it home for a closer look.
The FSC Orthoptera card keyed it out easily as a speckled bush cricket, which had no Cheshire records on rECOrd and only southern UK records on NBN. Andy phoned Paul Hill, who has been recording Orthoptera in Cheshire for years, who confirmed that it was a speckled bush cricket, and the first record for Cheshire. It has been recorded in South Staffordshire, and thus appears to be moving slowly northwards – probably due to global warming. Changes in distribution of this type are one of the most useful things that the amateur can contribute, and clearly show how warming is changing the distribution of species in the UK. As Rocksavage is in North Cheshire, it is likely that there are other sites for this insect in Cheshire and it’s now up to us to get out there and find them!
(Of course the other question that the public keep asking me is if naturalists are people who take their trousers off in fields… No wonder the professionals coined the term ecologist…)