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Schoolboy errors

Common mistakes of the newbie naturalist, and how to avoid them! Test yourself: there are six common mistakes listed here. How many did you already know about?

1. This is a scientific name: Homo sapiens. Loads of people would call it a “Latin name” and many scientific names are derived from Latin. However, because scientific names may be derived from other languages both ancient (Greek, Sanskrit) and modern, then you are showing your ignorance by calling them Latin names.

2. A scientific name has two words, e.g. Pterostichus madidus. The first word is the name of the genus, Pterostichus in this case, and the second word is the specific name, madidus in this case. The generic name is always spelt with an initial capital letter, and the specific name is never spelt with a capital letter. Ok, so the rules were different a long time ago but specific names are never spelt with a capital letter nowadays. Journalists, for some unfathomable reason, will routinely capitalise all the specific names in any article!

3. If you are the sort of person who likes to insert foreign words into your writing, to add a certain je ne sais quoi, then you may be familiar with the convention of italicising foreign-language words. When writing names, only names of genus rank and below are considered to be foreign-language words and italicised: thus Amniota, Diapsida, Archosauromorpha, Archosauria, Dinosauria, Theropoda, Coelurosauria, Tyrannosauroidea, Tyrannosauridae, Tyrannosaurinae: Tyrannosaurus rex. Italicising names other than genus, subgenus, species, subspecies (and other infraspecific taxa like varieties) is probably the single best way to get the experts to snigger at you!

4. The names of taxonomic groups of genus-level rank and above should be given an initial capital letter. So one of the commonest British beetles is Amischa analis, a member of the order Coleoptera, family Staphylinidae and subfamily Aleocharinae. But once you anglicise those taxonomic names, they are no longer proper nouns: Amischa analis is an aleocharine staphylinid, and one of the commonest British coleopterans.

5. If you have seen a single unidentified species of the genus Hypericum (St John’s-worts), you could write it down as Hypericum sp. If you’d seen two or more species, then you’d write Hypericum spp. In other words, the abbreviation of species (singular) is “sp.” and the abbreviation of species (plural) is “spp.”. So, the abbreviation for one or more species is “sp(p).”. Obviously the same applies to subspecies, so you can have “subsp.”, “subspp.” or “subsp(p).”, although it is a varied world we live in and many people use “ssp.”, “sspp.” and “ssp(p).” instead! Simple!

6. A few words that have transferred straight from Latin into English retain their original Latin singular and plural endings, which catch a lot of people out. So, you can have one larva or many larvae, one pupa or many pupae (both feminine nouns), one ovum or many ova (a neuter noun), or (and I can only think of a bird example) one pullus or many pulli (a masculine noun).

Is all this just pointless pedantry, designed by the experts to fortify their positions of authority and repel the advances of unwelcome beginners? Or are these conventions worth understanding and following so that you can communicate clearly and accurately with your fellow naturalists? Maybe a bit of both!

When to go beetling?

In 20 years of beetling, I have done most of it in April, May, June, July and August. In fact, I think of this as “the field season”. And if I count up the number of beetle records I’ve made by month, May, June, July and August are the top months.

So, for beetle survey work, when you want to maximise the number of records you can make for each day’s fieldwork, May, June, July and August are the best months, especially May.

But there’s more to beetling than survey work. What would be the best time of year for me to go out and get a beetle tick? Over the 20 years, most of my ticks have come from May, June and July. But that’s largely thanks to a massive amount of recording in those months.

Surprisingly, when I’ve gone beetling in October, November, December and January it’s been much better for ticks. And August has been the worst month. A beetle found in November is over three times more likely to be a tick for me than one found in August!

Compared to most other branches of entomology, one of the great things about being a coleopterist is that it is a genuinely year-round activity. Admittedly, winter beetling tends to be pretty grubby work: tussocking, and sieving through compost heaps, manure, wood-chip piles and flood debris. But I’m obviously going to have to man up and do a lot more of that sort of beetling in my next 20 years as a coleopterist.

Sieving wood-chip at Dinton Pastures, with Tony Allen and Andrew Duff.

Sieving manure at Denham Marsh Wood with Tony Allen.

20 years of beetling: a good start

One of the best things about beetling for me is that I can never be bored: there are always new beetles to be seen and always more to learn. It’s also one of the worst things about beetling: there will always be loads of beetles I haven’t managed to see and loads of things I should know but don’t!

In twenty years of beetling in Britain and Ireland, I’ve made 33,453 records of beetles, from 525 different 10-km squares and on average seen a new beetle every 3.3 days. So it doesn’t feel like I’ve been mucking about at it! But take a look at this graph:

There are two really surprising things about this graph. Firstly, I’ve only seen just over half the British and Irish beetle fauna (the red line marks the half-way point). And secondly, my list has grown in pretty much a straight line for 20 years and I’m still seeing new beetles at about the same rate as when I started. Clearly I am still on the steep beginners’ part of the learning curve with no sign that I’m approaching the broad, sunlit plateau of being a beetle expert!

It just shows what a big job it is to get to know all the British and Irish beetles. I once had the chance to pick the brains of veteran coleopterist Alex Williams during a car journey and got onto the subject of aleocharine staphylinids and the many obstacles that have to be overcome to be able to identify this group. I was looking for advice, or at least sympathy! But Alex’s simple yet profound response was “Well, we wouldn’t be coleopterists if we didn’t enjoy a challenge!”.

Alex is right. Coleoptera is a big, challenging group, guaranteed to last a lifetime and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I’m glad that it is getting easier to identify beetles. And anyone taking up the challenge of beetles now should be able to hit the half-way mark in much quicker time.

20 years of beetling

Twenty years ago to the day, on Sunday 26th January 1992, I became a coleopterist! I was birding at Dungeness but turned over a stone and collected my first beetle. I was steeling myself for hours at the microscope, poring over victorian textbooks and baffling anatomical diagrams. But actually I just took it into work and showed it to Brian Eversham, my boss at the time, who instantly identified it as Agonum albipes with just a glance! Until then, I really admired the sort of birders who could call a flyover Richard’s Pipit, and I hadn’t realised that the sort of field ID skills that birders have could be applied to beetles. Keying things out at the microscope and working with museum collections is a big part of getting to know the beetles but a lot of species can be identified in the field. Some can even be identified in flight! My beetling career took off straight away and I have never stopped.

I’ve got all my beetle records from the first twenty years in a MapMate database: I suspect very few other coleopterists have been in that position. So I’ve taken the opportunity to look back at the records and do a bit of analysis. I’ll be giving a talk about the results at Coleopterists’ Day next weekend so I won’t spoil the talk by revealing them here now. But for a taster, here’s a map of all the 10-km squares where I’ve recorded beetles in the last 20 years.

My beetle records - 1992 to 2012.