Friday 10 January 2014

Malaising stuff

I am always amazed by the amount of rubbish appearing on shop shelves at Christmas; an annual bloom of crap. Where does it all go after it has been unwrapped and politely chuckled at? No wonder the retailers are working up a sweat every year, we are all running out of cupboard space.
   But this year, Secret Santa did good... I discovered a secondary use for my Xmas-tat in the form of a new invertebrate sample test-tube stand. So ta very muchly, whoever you were!

Wasp tequila slammer, anyone?

Back to our Malaise Trap: Gatwick Greenspace Partnership (GGP) helped install this tent-like apparatus last July in a small open area in the Land East of the Railway Line. This is an energy-saving way of collecting invertebrate samples because despite their fantastic physiology, refined adaptations and resilience, insects are actually pretty dumb. When meeting this in the field, the insect hits a central wall of fabric and instinctively flies upwards, being directed into a funnel at the apex then eventually dropping down into a collecting pot at the top. 

Assembling a malaise trap - People and Wildlife Officer Kev and volunteer Eloise from GGP

It might look gruesome and destructive, but we collect this way in just one small area for one season, minimising any impact on the local invertebrate populations. Some mini-beasts need to be very closely examined to determine the particular species and identification can involve pulling apart teeny-tiny genitalia, comparing the diverse shapes and structures under a microscope while referring to technical books. For the time being I'm passing that work onto someone else, instead just sorting these guys into orders such as flies (Diptera), bees and wasps (Hymenoptera) and beetles (Coleoptera), then from there into smaller groups such as families.

Collecting pot from the malaise trap. This haul was in the peak of summer after just one day

A pitfall trap - these were sunk into the ground nearby to target the trundling invertebrates

Natural history is a subject open to absolutely anyone with an inquiring mind, and entomology has an increasingly accessible side through online resources for identification such as iSpot, plus your local wildlife and conservation groups. You could perhaps start with the larger, more obvious things such as bees or butterflies, carefully collecting them into pots without causing them harm. Take a look, snap photos on your macro setting or test yourself online. Work away at that over a couple of seasons, getting to know the species which occur locally. Then you might decide you need more of a challenge, moving onto things requiring as closer look such as beetles and spiders. 

1 down, only 19 to go...

Invertebrate diversity is mind-blowingly huge, so getting to know the different species is an ongoing journey with always more to discover. Even if you don't know what it is you are looking at, its still bloody fascinating. As an entomologist from the NHM put it on Radio 4 the other day: its not rocket science, but it is value science! 
   There are some brilliant blogs out there with excellent macro photography of the small and unique, such as the very readable The Lyons DenMark Telfer's Blog and particularly the Cabinet of Curiosities for a window into that under appreciated part of our world.

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