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Things just keep on getting better

It’s really good to see people like my friends Sharon and Emily going out into the field to photograph beetles, because it demonstrates a new perspective regarding what we do, which is to say, a new way to satisfy our fascination for these powerfully fascinating insects. In reality neither of these very worthy people have done anything new because people have been photographing insects in the field for many decades, admittedly with very mixed, and usually with very bad results, but it has been going on. The difference with Sharon and Emily is that they have used modern technology i.e. digital cameras and all the rest of it, to produce really outstanding results. Of course just about anybody with the money, determination, dedication and skill can do this; take a look at facebook to see just how common such behaviour has become, and I mention these two people only because they are rather good at it. There is a wider issue here but first I must digress.

The 1970s were a really good time to study insects, especially if, like me, you were an affluent teenager with a motorbike and so could nip down from London to visit a famous entomological equipment supplier in Kent to see what specimens were available to add to the collection. It was also good because it was the last time when insects were really common, i.e. before things turned bad towards the end of the decade. Anyway, part of what was offered by unmentioned entomological supplier was a range of equipment and chemicals intended to preserve bird’s eggs. Because in those days plenty of children collected bird’s eggs and plenty of them kept on doing so as they became adults and had the money to pursue the hobby further by travelling the length and breadth of the country collecting said eggs. This may seem a strange way to carry on by modern standards, and of course it has stopped and is now frowned upon (and probably illegal) and anyway the equipment is no longer available. By today’s standards it seems quite barbaric, but at the time did it seem any worse than going out with a killing jar and collecting butterflies? Or getting a moth trap and making a moth collection? But today’s standards are very different and bird’s eggs are off the menu. We still kill insects for collections but now it’s in the name of science rather than just for the fun of making a collection (yeah, right!) And most kids are more interested in wasting their time at digital persuits anyway. But my point is that things change, partly as a result of what we find acceptable and partly as a result of what can be done with the available technology. Nowadays we need no killing jars or cabinets or microscopes to get really great results, just lots of enthusiasm, a good digital camera and a bunch of people with the same interests who can put names to beetles.

Such progress is admirable but it’s not confined to cameras. Many of the older Royal Society Handbooks covering various families of beetles are available gratis online, these include keys which are illustrated with either line-drawings or habitus drawings, in other words they are typical old-school keys, similar to those of Joy but perhaps more detailed and refined, and the more recent of these included really good habitus pictures which sometimes looked convincing and sometimes did not, and they did not always have the correct number of antennal segments, but that’s another story. These keys often required a good knowledge of beetle morphology and even so generally left the user with little confidence of their conclusions, indeed some of these keys were notoriously vague, to the point of being useless, even with a reference collection. But that’s how things were done for many decades, and beyond this if a new species came along it was hardly ever obvious, except to the expert (who probably had no use for the keys anyway), what was going on. But, beyond being sometimes completely useless, these works often had a sort of charm that was hard to resist, and I’m thinking here of Lindroth’s carabid volume, which was really good except for the main key being very difficult because it was printed with enough of the couplets in the wrong order as to render it useless to anybody who really needed it. Compare these early works with some of today’s breath-taking volumes in the same series, or with the recent Field Studies Council volumes (think carabids, water beetles, weevils and histerids). Our modern beetlers are spoilt indeed. So now, with a decent microscope and a few of these modern works you could hardly go wrong. And that last statement is serious, at least for many of the species, because if all else fails specimens can often be picture matched, and with an experience eye this applies to even pretty obscure stuff.

All this means that today’s beetlers do not need to make a collection and gain expert knowledge of morphology and keys in order to enjoy the subject. And keeping a digital collection of the species seen in the field is, I daresay, just as satisfying as making a physical collection, and it is also very simple to share the results. To us very nerdy beetlers it will never substitute for a ‘real’ collection, but in terms of popularizing the subject it is unparalleled because it is obvious how to find the right camera and the right places to use it. Not so obvious what equipment and books to get hold of in order to make a collection, or how to learn the right techniques of field work. So, if the modern digital naturalist is anything to go by, entomology seems to be in safe hands.

But there is another, and more serious, aspect to this. Technology is never static, and there is no more telling aspect of this than molecular genetics. Not so very long ago it took a long time to sequence a genome, it also involved tons of equipment, a lot of work and was very expensive. And not so long ago we were not really sure of what the results might mean or how they might be applied. Now, thanks to some incredible advances in technology, sequencing is very fast (and it will get a lot faster) and the results are becoming meaningful. We can rarely see things beyond the limits of our human lifespan, but all this technology has been refined within decades rather than life-spans, and I can imagine that eventually we will be using little black box sequencers at home or even in the field to identify, as well as to find out a great deal more about our specimens. This might sound far-fetched but imagine trying to explain about digital technology to somebody in the 1970s, that unlimited numbers of photographs could be taken in the field, and of a quality to outshine anything they could imagine with even the best equipment of the time. That would be a hard sell. But that was only 50 years ago. So I will keep an eye on Amazon and as soon as the little black box sequencers become available I will have one.

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