Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Vice county recorders

Whenever the debate about local recording comes up, the usual answer is that there are VC recorders who should be the links between LERCS and local recorders. Or that the VC recorders can take on verification of records. It makes me wonder whether there is really any understanding of what goes on in many taxonomic groups? Yes, BSBI have VC recorders, so do Butterfly Conservation and perhaps also the National Moth Recording Scheme and possibly British Dragonfly Society. Some Societies such as the YNU and LNU have recorders but in many places there is no Naturalists Union - those societies died years ago in many parts of the country. I know at least one VC moth recorder who has extracted himself and there is no replacement.

So, to explain the situation for Diptera, which is probably pretty similar for BWARS. We have a small network of active hoverfly recorders - until 2011 50% of the data was supplied by just 20 people. Today the proportions are a little better and maybe about 50 people fulfil this role. BUT, for example, in 2017 I generated over 5,000 records - nearly 10% of the total data for the year! Hoverflies are the flagship family of Diptera and so if we have between 20 and 50 really active recorders you can bet it is down below 10 for anything beyond the most popular families!

So, with about 50 really active recorders that does not even equate to one per Vice-County! maybe one to every two VCs. But then there are several clumpings of activity - for example, four of the major contributors to the HRS live within a 30 mile radius of Peterborough, there were three in Dorset (two have effectively retired this year), two in Devon ... There is not an even spread. Of those, the majority have other interests in Diptera and although they are very productive they also contribute to many other Recording Schemes. So, the reality is that there is neither the spread of capacity, nor the numbers who are willing to get involved at a VC level. And as one very capable recorder said to me when I tried to get him to become part of the HRS team 'I like the fieldwork but don't want to become an administrator'.

So, as my offering for today, I think it is time that the shakers and movers in biological recording stopped assuming that there are networks of recorders for all taxa. Most schemes are pretty well 'one-man-bands' or at best a few enthusiasts with a small circle of semi-active contributors. For example, this year, apart from hoverflies, I have collected data for fungus gnats and craneflies - but only by collecting specimens for the Scheme Organiser to ID.  Probably no more than five people in the UK are capable of doing fungus gnats with any competency and most of those will seek advice from the scheme organiser. Craneflies have a few more capable people but I would doubt more than 20 (if that). I also hold on to Pipunculids for David Gibbs, but not that many as they are a pain because the head falls off so easily and makes curation difficult.

There are other popular groups that do have a wider following - I do Sciomyzids, Scathophagids and Larger Brachycera as a matter of course plus a few (not more than a couple of hundred) Tachinids, Dolis and Empids and a scattering of Lauxaniids, Heleomyzids and Sepsids. There are a few other families that I'm building up collections to do in due course but they won't add up to much. And I am one of the more active recorders - most people don't do anything along my lines (I also collect a few beetles for schemes too and have just offered the weevil Scheme my assistance when on safari). Who is going to do the liaison for the several dozens of VCs that I have visited this year? I'll probably have to do it myself because there is nobody!

So, time to start to realise that recording beyond the popular taxa is not awash with VC recorders - it is a very thin spread of people who do the best they can and are finding it increasingly difficult to keep on top of the administrative workload. I know I never expected to find myself giving so many hours to running the HRS and had I known then what I know now I might have opted to keep quiet and do my own thing! Too late now tho'!

Monday, 11 December 2017

On the issue of data verification

My last couple of posts on data verification and LERCS have generated useful threads on the NFBR Facebook group. Writing these entries has been/is a way of generating some thinking and possibly teasing out issues that I hope will get people thinking and maybe get the shakers and movers in NFBR and LERCS to think in a somewhat broader manner.

I'm sure there are plenty of people who are not directly involved in the LERC/NBN network of professionals that are unaware of the relationship between the two, and between them and the recording schemes and vice-versa. That is probably especially true for the many specialist recorders who are mainly interested in their subject area and not in what happens to their records (apart from making them available in as convenient a manner as possible - to them).

I recall in the old ISR days that Pete Kirby once totted up all of the recording schemes that he would have to contact in order to submit his records on a yearly basis. It ran into several dozens (Pete is one of the World's great polymaths). The same holds if you spread your wings and record across many counties - having to split data up and submit directly to each LERC is also a chore that many don't want or find a disincentive to submit data. My own excuse for not submitting data in this way is that it is such a big job that I would rather place my data directly with the NBN - but of course it is unverified! Most of it will be OK but there will be glitches amongst families where I am less familiar.

So that brings me to the issue of how do you verify data at a gross scale? Unless you go through every single record and voucher specimen you can never be quite sure whether the data are trustworthy. And, even when you do, mistakes will occur. So, one needs a screening process based on whether somebody is known to the major specialists in the local area or nationally.

I would split records from a single individual into a hierarchy:
  1. Groups with which they are most familiar and therefore least likely to make mistakes
  2. Groups that they look at intermittently and are more likely to make mistakes
  3. Groups that they rarely look at and probably only note if something has caught their eye (e.g. something charismatic and unusual).
At a gross scale the main problem area is likely to be those groups that they look at only intermittently - these are therefore where I would look to see whether the records fit with what I know about the species' biology, biogeography and phenology. In my own case, I would like to think my Syrphid records are reliable (ish), but I would definitely not accept my Tachinid records unless they are either the very abundant and obvious species; or unless they are supported by a voucher specimen. For families I rarely do much with, I hold fairly extensive voucher series that are being steadily munched by 'the beetle'.

So, where can the LERCS start when they get a set of diaries from a recorder? 

I would start with 'what do we know about this person?' If they are a well-known and respected specialist then the chances are that their records are reliable and can be entered without too much concern provided they don't stray too far from the areas where they have known expertise.

But, if they are an unknown entity then you perhaps need to check further before entering records. If you don't know them, do the shakers and movers in the groups they mainly covered know them and have a feel for their reliability? For example, I have on several occasions happened across people who I did not know but had heard of - in the field making snap identifications on species that cannot be done without microscopic examination. They produce lots of data and a LERC might think they were a real expert, but in reality a great deal of their data is junk!

One of the critical issues with data is that the entries made by the recorder might have been fine at the time they made their record, but the taxonomy has moved on - but were they aware of it? If they worked in isolation, were unknown to other specialists and never corresponded with others then I would raise a big question-mark? If their records were made before a major split and they died before that split occurred, you cannot be at all sure what they actually recorded. Some very simple early validation is therefore possible - are the data taxonomically up to date? If not, seek the advice of recording scheme organisers.

So, the next question must be - it is fine to have volunteers entering data - very necessary, but before those data are passed to the volunteer for entering (or paid staff member), somebody needs to evaluate the likely reliability of the data and the problems that might be encountered. The older the data, the more likely it is to have glitches, either because the taxonomy has moved on, or because the keys were more challenging and open to misinterpretation. As such, these data should be flagged as requiring verification BEFORE being made publicly available.

Thus, we hit the usual problem - there is a vast backlog of data to assimilate, and a very small number of people who can make a reliable judgment as to the veracity of the records, so there is a need to establish screening and prioritisation. Digitising data from a national figure must take priority over the scrappy notebooks of somebody who was unknown, worked alone and may or may not have produced reliable records. If in doubt, contact the national schemes to see what they know about somebody and whether they can point to potential problem areas.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

In praise of the Local Environmental Records Centres

Yesterday's post elicited quite an interesting thread concerning LERCS and their role in biological recording. It reminds me of the debate than ensued after Natural England cut its funding for LERCS in favour of more centralised data management. I felt at the time that, whilst NE had some good points about the need for LERCS to put data onto the NBN, they had completely missed the point about what LERCS are about and the role they play in assembling data. I fear that this extends further because the NBN is the user interface for most biological recording and is at arms length from the actual contributors of data.

Those who read my posts will have realised a long while ago that my approach is more about data contributors than data users and yesterday's responses convince me more than ever that the focus is too heavily on how data can be accessed and used. That is understandable in many ways - the NBN would not have been funded had there not been a demand for data. BUT, once the infrastructure is in place it is necessary to think about how it is populated and supplied.

The NBN is, undoubtedly an asset to all users including the recording community so let us not think that there are specific sectoral interests at work. We all need and use it. Those who use the NBN but not the LERCS do not see what goes into the regional element of biological recording. If you are a keen naturalist and not inclined towards a specific recording scheme where is your natural community? You can of course sit on your own and upload your data onto iRecord. I suspect that is not terribly rewarding because you may wait months or years to see your data verified, and perhaps even longer before it is put to good use. Also, do you interact with a human being, let alone somebody with whom you can share your passion? Simple answer NO - it is a machine and you are simply one of the suppliers of material with which to make sausages!

Getting involved with a LERC is a different matter - they are the focus for a community, provide a centre for all sorts of activities and help to create the social interaction that the majority of human beings need. We are a naturally social animal that is increasingly living in isolation, so LERCS are an important social asset. That is BEFORE they start to assemble data, run programmes and interact with planning authorities and developers.

Without the LERCS I wonder if there would be anything like the data that currently exist - probably not! I was reminded that there is a whole generation of recorders who are getting a bit old but still have extensive notebooks that need transcribing - so where a LERC facilitates this, there is a long-term and extensive social gain. Those that run courses provide another valuable conduit for recording schemes to grow skills across the country - the HRS has done this in many places and is heavily reliant upon the LERCS for this facilitation.

We should also stop and think - if there were no LERCS, would we, the Recording Scheme oragnisers, be bombarded by consultants wanting information? I guess there is a risk and jolly well hope that never happens. I for one have no desire to add that job to the role of scheme organiser! So, for me, the LERCS are an essential part of the infrastructure.

My big worry is not the LERCS but who they use to verify data. There seem to be sizeable Diptera datasets - but who is supplying the data - there are relatively few active Dipterists in Dipterists Forum and although I do know of a few who are not members, it begs the question that if you are an active Dipterist and don't engage with DF are you really making the best use of the communal skill to verify your own work? We all need an element of peer-review and learn a great deal from each other. Or, are the data being verified? Clearly some is not, and quality control is quite patchy. I'm not volunteering to do more - there is enough for me to do already!

But that brings us back to the perennial question - there is a lot of focus on the users of data and organisers of data but precious little appreciation of where the data come from and what makes recorders tick. The NBN is simply a vehicle for disseminating data, whilst LERCS are there in part to motivate the boots on the ground (as are Recording Schemes).

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Should unverified data be placed on the NBN?

In previous posts I have drawn attention to the problem of 'dodgy' records on the NBN. It is an issue that vexes some and is of little concern to others, but I wonder whether it has really been properly thought out.

A recent thread on the NBN Facebook page allowed commentators to observe that there seemed to be greater emphasis on data users than on data providers by the NBN. Whether that is true or not I cannot be sure, but there is an issue if the data providers start to feel that way! I think that part of the problem is that there is a growing dichotomy between the 'professionals' in the biodiversity data industry and the technical specialists, most of whom do so on a voluntary basis.

So, lets start by asking a few questions:

What experience do you need to be a LERC data manager?
Well, I guess the highest priority must be an ability to manage data - i.e. understand the nuts and bolts of RECORDER 6 and be able to drive it to produce the reports that clients need. You probably need to be good with people - to get your local recording community to contribute records so that you have something to sell to commercial clients. By implication, it is clear that you cannot be a technical specialist across all taxa - the Eric Philps of the world are very few and far between, and are probably not ideal database managers!

So, what are you aiming for? As much data as possible - although you cannot say it, the commercial imperative is quantity and not quality. Also, you probably want to concentrate on the data that is most commercially useful - bats, badgers great-crested newts, Schedule 41/42 species, BAP species.

What experience do you need to run a recording scheme?
Probably the most important requirement is an innate interest in the group of organisms that you are proposing to record. If you are taking over an existing scheme then you probably also need to have the confidence of fellow recorders that you know what you are talking about, or are able (and willing) to seek the input of others more skilled than yourself. Data management skills are desirable but not a pre-requisite (although you will become unstuck in due course if you don't gain skills). Like the LERC manager, you also need to be capable of motivating people, but more importantly you must understand how important it is to give structured feedback to your contributors: schemes that act as a black hole rapidly lose impetus (and there are good many such schemes). As a scheme organiser you must also be confident enough to challenge incoming records, no matter who from, so you MUST develop the necessary taxonomic, ecological and biogeographic skills. If you run a national scheme it also helps to have a reasonable knowledge of the landscape and ecology of the whole of the British Isles (but that can come with time).

What are you intending to produce with the data?
Here I think the biggest divergence probably obtains between the LERC and the Recording Scheme.

Unless the LERC holds data and is seen as a suitable source of information it will not get the income to survive - so financial survival is critical. You will not necessarily be judged on data quality - to many clients the important thing is enough information to satisfy the local planners that you have adequately investigated the environmental parameters of your proposal. For the NBN, an ability to list the vast numbers of records at a broad taxonomic scale is probably pretty important to attract ongoing statutory agency funding. In other words, nobody is starting from the question of data quality - it is headlines that grab the politicians and it is the politicians that control the purse-strings. And, as the vast majority of politicians have no scientific knowledge whatsoever and could not interpret a graph if it hit them in the face, big means best!

For the Recording Scheme, the most obvious and stinging criticism is that the dataset contains anomalies. The second most damaging problem is a failure to get data organised and maps and other outputs transmitted to your supporters (in other words they have a different set of supporters). If the supporters lose faith in the scheme then they will not engage and the scheme will decline. If it is vibrant and producing lots of outputs and creating a community around the interest group, more records will be generated and reliable recorders will be recruited. So, a vibrant recording scheme has got to be there to create a community spirit and to provide motivational feedback.

How many LERC and NBN staff run recording schemes or contribute records out of office hours?
I doubt this one can be quantified. I do know that at least some are occasional contributors to schemes. But in a parallel situation, I was always amazed at the low level of interest in biological recording amongst colleagues at Natural England. True, there were plenty of twitchers but real recorders were at a premium. Precious few former colleagues sit amongst the major or even minor contributors to the HRS (except former CSD and EFU staff who make up a significant part of the key major recorders). It was always a disappointment to me to hear that people felt that they did not want to take their job home with them but were happy to sit in meetings talking about what the recording schemes could be tasked with.

And the moral of the story?

Unless we get away from the volume rather than quality argument, there will be increasing question marks over the reliability of NBN data. That in turn means that Recording Schemes will be called upon for ever more data validation - which is already reaching unviable proportions. So, as a starting point perhaps LERCs and the NBN need to be developing lists of species that they can use as reality checks for datasets. If there are obvious dodgy records then the whole dataset should be disallowed until it has been validated - and if there is nobody available to validate it then simply mark the data as unvalidated and don't have them appear on the maps.

Unless some attention is paid to data quality, users of the NBN will start to become wary of its content. If the data are unreliable, then so too are the outputs of the science that is based on those data. In the past, the HRS has flagged dodgy records with LERCs. Some have taken action, but others have ignored our advice - so we find it best not to access those datasets because we have to go through the same process time and again. We no longer bother to provide that feedback except where we know LERC managers will act.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Whose data is it?

The Hoverfly Recording Scheme gets fairly regular requests for access to the dataset, mainly from University 'pollinator' groups. In general, we are happy to oblige and as a result the HRS data get used in all manner of ways. This is absolutely right - when we engage with recorders via Facebook we make it clear that the data are used in this way, so I hope nobody is in any doubt that we are assembling a dataset for wider usage and for the 'common good'.

Nevertheless, there is a fine dividing line between making data available for research purposes and simply being seen as the source of data upon which to build research proposals. Today, I got a request for access to the data from a PhD student who remarked that his PhD proposal was highly dependent upon access to the HRS dataset. Nobody had talked to us previously, so this came like a bolt out of the blue! OK, we will make the data available - after all, we are simply the custodians of the data and NOT the owners. We must not be protective apart from making sure that the data are used wisely and in the common good.

The problem I start to have is that the job of running a recording scheme for a popular group has evolved into pretty much a full-time occupation. I do not dare have a day off between about the end of February and the end of November and can anticipate putting in between 6 and 10 hours daily during the summer months. I know other schemes find it difficult to keep up with the demands on their time, so I cannot be the only one that feels the change. If running a scheme has become this demanding, there is a need to ask what motivates the recording scheme organiser and what will either:
  • motivate them to keep going; or
  • de-motivate them and lead to a loss of scheme activity?
Now, I am a well-known 'grumpy old git' and there will be those who say 'Morris is moaning again'. But, you can be sure that if I am vocal there are several others who won't put their names to what I say but will be quietly saying 'thanks Roger for saying what I don't want to say in case it affects my chances of a job/promotion/honours etc.'

I've got nothing to lose - my career has hit the rocks and in eight months time I will be able to draw my pension so I simply have to survive until then! So, I will say what others might be more reticent to say!

So, what motivates me?

These days, my main motivation is to try to make sure that by the time I pop my cloggs there is somebody to take over from me, Stuart and everybody else. A huge investment of time and emotional capital has gone into building the HRS from a pretty shaky base into one of the biggest invertebrate datasets in the UK (and probably one of the biggest Diptera datasets in the World). That investment will be wasted if we have no successors.

The other thing that motivates me is that after all these years running the scheme (26 years now since 1991) we now have a long enough data run to start to do some nice analytical work and to publish some interesting papers. I WANT to do just that - after all, I was trained as a scientist, I have a scientist's mind and I want to do something meaningful with the data. BUT, I must remember that we are simply custodians of the data and NOT the owners.

I reckon we should be aiming to retire from the front-line of running the scheme around 2021 (30 years tenure) and I would like to think that by then we will have produced a decent run of papers; but to do so we must pull our fingers out (that means me!)

And what de-motivates me?

I have to say that I have become increasingly frustrated to get the impression that recording schemes are looked upon by all and sundry as a source of free data. That starts with the biodiversity industry that is always looking for new ways to increase the volume of biodiversity data without stopping to think about who will compile it, verify it, generate the enthusiasm amongst recorders, validate records and extract records. In practice, it has meant that an awful lot of schemes have turned from a private passion into an Albatross - you cannot drop it without there being dire consequences for something that you have invested half your life in (well almost) but if you don't drop it you have to invest even more because the demands are increasing.

To then find that the academic World sees us as simply a data resource, builds PhD or other grant bids based on access to the data we compile, but does not bother to talk to us first is somewhat irksome to say the least. To then see papers emerging in which the data come from us but the credits go to the academics is deeply frustrating. It is of course 'Citizen Science' - that great unwashed with no scientific expertise providing the great scientists with the material to produce their latest papers.

I also become increasingly demoralised to encounter ever-increasing attacks on anybody who has the temerity to post a photograph of a preserved specimen or to talk about specimens as 'material'. Why should I have to spend part of my time defending the collection of data that is the only facility available to show mankind the folly of our actions? It is as if the worst part of mankind is that which lacks morality and is actually prepared to generate reliable and meaningful data. Far better to rant at Governments without reliable data and then rant because you've been shot down for lack of legally admissible information!

And the moral of the story?

I think it is time that the agenda changed from 'how to we motivate recorders to produce more data' to 'how do we maintain and improve the morale of the people that keep the recording schemes going?'

 Rant over - but hopefully it sparks a meaningful debate!

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Starting to retain specimens - a simple guide

Some photographic recorders start to want to know what they are missing out on - there are frequently species that cannot be done from photographs and it is frustrating not to know what they are, especially if you are trying to generate a picture of what occurs in a garden or favoured wildlife site. What can be done?

The option several members of the UK Hoverflies Facebook group have adopted is to collect specimens and store them for the autumn when they send them to me for identification. I have written about this before, but it is always worth an update.

Killing specimens

There are several ways of doing this:

The simplest is to pop the container with your fly in it in the freezer for 24 hours - very few summer insects will survive such a time in the freezer.

An alternative is to use ethyl acetate or nail varnish remover - couple of drops on a piece of tissue popped into the container (beware that Ethyl Acetate is a solvent of some plastics, especially polystyrene which is often used. So, if in doubt use a small glass tube.

A further alternative is to take the fresh early growth from cherry laurel and crush it up into small fragments before putting as a deep layer in a tube or bottle and covering it with a wad of tissue paper - tightly pressed down. This is the traditional entomologists' 'killing bottle' and makes use of the cyanide released from these young leaves. I use this system for bigger flies, sawflies and other Hymenoptera (and any other big insects that are otherwise difficult to kill quickly).

Storing specimens

In an earlier post I showed how John Bridges does this using little plastic envelopes. It is a great system but he and I did hit a bit of a problem with mould, so I think that the alternative is to use a breathable envelope - I have previously shown how to make these too but here is the sequence again:

Stage 1. cut a piece of paper about 7cm square

Stage 2. Turn one side over to form a triangle

Stage 3. Turn over one side to seal the edge - it is often a good idea to stick this down with a slip of masking tape.

Stage 4. Put relevant details on one side that will not get torn when the package is opened. Key data = Date and Grid reference. My package is for specimens collected in the field and stored for several different schemes so I also put my initials and the group it contains.

Stage 5. Place your specimens inside to envelope - in this case fungus gnats from one site visit. In the case of hoverflies it is not a good idea to put more than one per package as they are bulky and if they lie next to one another they may form a damp area that attracts mould.

Stage 6. turn over the open end and again seal with masking tape.
These envelopes should be left in an open ventillated place for perhaps 24 hours so as to aid drying. After that I would store in a box - probably best to be breathable rather than a sealed plastic box that can build up condensation and mould - I have had problems in the past with mould and now leave my specimens in a more open situation for several days before using a cardboard box to store them.


I once sent an envelope of fungus gnats to Peter Chandler in a poorly protected package - he later wrote to say that they had arrived  in many tiny pieces but he had managed to construct a list from the genital capsules of some of them! That was an object lesson for me, so I now send my samples in plastic boxes - the sort you get from a takeaway Chinese meal.

What happens next?

When specimens reach me they go into a box of samples awaiting identification - which I do intermittently; which reminds me .......! I have several to do and had better get on with them today!

And the benefits?

Eventually, you will get a spreadsheet back from me detailing what you have caught. This spreadsheet will also go on the HRS database so there is a more detailed account of species in your area. This in turn helps both distribution mapping and our knowledge of species' abundance and phenology. It also helps to improve the interpretations of distribution using predictive models that use occurrence data to predict distribution and to assess trends (e.g. Frescalo or Maxent).

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The perennial challenge - 'taking specimens is immoral'

From time-to-time somebody posts a photograph of a preserved specimen on one of the Facebook forums. These posts are often accompanied by calls for help with identification or are used for educational purposes and are often very useful for developing the skills of the more enlightened participants; many of whom use a range of guidebooks that have been illustrated using photographs or paintings of preserved specimens. Where would we be without those preserved specimens?

Well, in the case of hoverflies there would not have been Steve Falk's magnificent colour plates in the monograph on British hoverflies (now sadly rather out of date). Nor would we have the lavishly illustrated WILDGuide (Britain's Hoverflies). Stuart and I spent a good two years carefully photographing the critical features. We are now embarking on a new guide to British Flies (assuming a publication agreement) and will have a massive job provide the illustrations - many of which will have to be of recently killed specimens because they rapidly lose their critical colours and become wrinkled, thus obscuring important features. So, bottom line - no specimens = no guide book!

BUT, I think we ought to stop and think a bit further. Invertebrates are already the Cinderella of conservation - very few people take them seriously because the level of information available is so limited. It is as easy as anything for a developer to make a noise about a 5mm long wasp and howl that it is madness to stop a development on account of this animal - after all, fewer than 20 people in the country can either find or identify it! QED there is no conservation case!

Sadly. the vast majority of invertebrates are simply not identifiable from photographs. So they will always be the Cinderella at the party. BUT, if we don't have any data at all because we have vilified the people who can identify them and take the trouble to do so and to help others do so, we will have no defence at all for the vast majority of our fauna. I can hear the QC asking the quavering Natural England Officer 'and when was the last record of this species? Moreover, when was there anybody capable of identifying it?' - Believe me, that is how it works - these sorts of processes are highly intimidating. So to use that great quote from Sir Geoffrey Howe in his resignation speech (from the Thatcher Government) 'It's rather like sending our opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find that before the first ball is bowled, their bats have been broken by the team captain.' Every well-intentioned opponent of retaining specimens is like that team captain!

Pause for reflection

I don't think I ever recall seeing anybody getting hot under the collar because Fred or Joe has assembled the longest list of twitches for 2017/16/15 .... Quite the opposite - they are the heroes of the conservation movement - great because they are so fanatical about wildlife. BUT, are they? Where is their wildlife legacy - I cannot say I will be rushing to the 'Museum of Tick Books' to catch a Glimpse of Bill Oddie's books or whomever else. What do they add to the sum of scientific knowledge - NOWT - they often are lists of places that they and several hundred or thousands of other people have used the earth's precious resources in achieving what? A list! And the cost in CO2 emissions?

We all drive cars (well nearly all) and therefore we all contribute to the death of countless invertebrates - so much so that I suspect that road casualties are at least a factor in invertebrate decline. Likewise, we all rely on the supermarket for food and massive road miles that accompany it; likewise for our mobile phone, colour TV or iPad - everything we consume is accompanied by the death of countless invertebrates that generates nothing useful for science and nobody bothers to even acknowledge (see my post on Roadkill where I actually did a count).

It therefore seems to me that it is time to look long and hard at invertebrate conservation - is it the technical specialist who is having a significant impact? Is it the family of blue tits in your nest box? Maybe if we got rid of all the blue tits and entomologists the invertebrate world would be safe? Of course it would not!  Reducing roadkill might go some way but still it would not. What would make a difference is a massive lifestyle change by all of mankind, but that will never happen, because it is OK to go twitching but morally unjustified to have a technical specialism that generates valuable scientific data!

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Changes in data sources - a timely reminder

This morning I awoke to an interesting post from John Bridges on the UK Hoverflies Facebook page; he had been going back through my blog and picked out an article from 2012 in which I was extolling the possible benefits of photographic records to biological recording. To quote John, quoting me:

  • For several years, I have been trawling the internet for photographs of hoverflies ----- So far I have extracted almost 9,500 hoverfly records ….............'That's about a weeks worth now.'
  • During the mid-summer months, this trawl can take as much as an hour a day...............'I bet he wishes it still did?'
  • Over 2700 records of hoverflies have been extracted for 2012 …................. 'Waiting for him after breakfast on a morning now'
  • Trawling the internet allows me to undertake biological recording whilst maintaining my presence in the office................'How much spare time now Roger?'
That was just 5 years ago and it is a timely reminder of what has happened in just a few years. It is also something that those who use but don't generate biological records might reflect upon. In 2012 I saw photographic recording as an adjunct to the main source of records and simply a way of increasing my own productivity without disproportionate negative impacts on me! Other recording scheme organisers were more wary (perhaps wisely so) - not wanting their lives to be ruled by the internet and their recording scheme.

John's estimates of the numbers are a little bit out, but the overall thrust of his analysis is correct. For example, 9,500 records equates to about seven weeks worth of data extracted in mid-summer and roughly 25% of the total for 2016. During the summer months I dare not be away from the computer for more than a couple of hours - I do an hour or two first thing in the morning and then log back on at lunch-time (if at home) but definitely by 5pm at the latest - by which time I have a good two hour's of work to do. If I fail to do this the evening is a nightmare so it is a critical marker in my day's work. Then, after supper I often spend the rest of the night extracting data - during mid-summer posts are still coming in at 1am and there are times when they come in like a machine-gun! 2016 was the turning point, and had help not arrived I would probably have been a gibbering wreck by now.

Fortunately, the Cavalry arrived just in time - Ian Andrews and Geoff Wilkinson now help to spread the load, and there are other potential offers of help. The other huge help has been those FB members who now maintain their own spreadsheets. This is a massive improvement because it means that a wider community of members can help with ID (thus growing their skills and spreading the load on me, Ian, Joan and Geoff). I still look at every post, and will still comment on those that need one - I think it is essential that people who have taken the trouble to post get an acknowledgement at least from me (a 'like' at least).

The other thing my 2012 post did not take into account was iRecord. It did not exist at the time, but is also another part of the job today. Last year there were about 6,000 records that took several full days to work through - there is a post somewhere giving times and some basic statistics. This year there are about 10,000 to work through. This form of data submission is growing at a considerable rate and it is likely to require further administrative changes to keep on top of it.

Meanwhile, several recorders now maintain spreadsheets and also send me specimens to check (sorry I am behind on this job folks). I think this is a great way of recording because it broadens the range of species covered, but of course it is another layer of demand on the recording scheme. Meanwhile, spreadsheets arrive at an increasing pace - this year has been the busiest yet. I do the basic checking and formatting before they go to Stuart for importing into the database. Both jobs take a while, but I am pleased to say that we are pretty much up to date (I think there are 5 datasets on the Dropbox awaiting Stuart's attention at the moment).

So, would I go back to the 2012 scenario?

Emphatically not (although I would like my life back)!

The growth in popularity of Facebook Groups (not just Hoverflies) has seen an unprecedented leap in the numbers of people contributing records and acquiring skills. We can produce data for the HRS to show its impact, but I wonder how many other schemes are in a position to do so? That growth will hopefully translate into the development of new people who will ultimately take over the running of the popular schemes (we must think about the very long-term).

Equally importantly, photographic recording has actually started to help to unravel some aspects of species' ecology that we would not otherwise have had. True, it is also creating a skew in the data that I have written about, but we can deal with that provided we still have a pool of traditional recorders who retain specimens for critical checking.

What I would like to see is a further shift towards people managing their own datasets and using the Facebook pages to deal with cases where they are not sure. That will doubtless happen over time and, of course, it needs to because the time of the 'Resident Team' is finite and we really must try to devote it to developing newcomers and embedding skills in the wider community. John, himself, shifted towards managing his own dataset a long while ago - and has contributed a huge number of records this way. In only three years he has become one of the all-time major contributors (there are several others who will do the same). We would not have had this improvement in recording without the advent of digital photography, the internet and social media. So, whilst there has undoubtedly been a massive change to my life, it is largely positive because so many more people get pleasure from hoverflies, are learning new skills and are forming a community that will hopefully last long after I am gone.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Making the most of very little funding?

For ten years I ran Dipterists Forum's field meetings programme - at least three meetings a year, all of which were 'residential'. The Summer field meeting was usually organised around a venue such as a field centre or University Campus, whilst the Spring and Autumn meetings were organised around guest houses and hotels, with the onus on members to find and book their own accommodation. Latterly I have also found a chain of hotels that has a small number of single rooms and which can accommodate our tiny party of Autumn specialists.

The big stumbling block was finding accommodation at a reasonable price. My aim was to secure a week's meeting for no more than £360 half board and with a common 'work room'. As time went by it became increasingly difficult to find such venues and in many cases I just could not manage to get anything because the Universities started to treat groups such as ours as 'Conferences' with appropriate 'Conference' rates. In the end I gave up running the summer meeting as I had run out of steam.

So far, DF has managed to continue the summer meeting programme (for 3 years) but I know it is a struggle to find venues at sensible prices and DF has had to subsidise some of the costs. That is an unsustainable long-term scenario so an alternative needs to be found.

It would be a shame if DF Summer meetings were to cease, because they offer a fantastic opportunity to get 20-30 of the country's leading Dipterists to look at an area. In some years they generate as many as 8 or 9,000 records (except in bad weather!). Over the 40+ years that these meetings have been run, they have been instrumental in the discovery of many dozens of 'New to Britain' and even more important second, third and fourth records. Importantly, the way DF works is to encourage newcomers and in recent years bursaries have been provided to allow two or three aspiring Dipterists to participate at subsidised rates - thanks to an anonymous donor and to the income from our WILDGuide 'Britain's Hoverflies'.

Will these meetings continue? We must hope so. BUT, as time goes by it gets harder to find accommodation and meet the bureaucracy of securing access permissions and, increasingly, providing evidence of insurance. Meanwhile, as costs rise, it is inevitable that the meetings will become out of reach for the less well-off. It would be terrible to see this sort of meeting become the preserve of the rich, pushing biological recording back towards the 19th Century when it was the preserve of the 'men of independent means'. I expect similar problems face other societies.

Getting 'Bangs for Bucks'

So, if there is thought given to funding and getting more bangs for your bucks - what about finding a way of supporting such field meetings - a subsidy provided records are received by a given date? If there are organisations that feel that they could support a targeted approach then maybe there is mileage in forming a partnership. For example, the three Country Agencies all want records from SSSI; LRCS want records from their area, and maybe there are others who would also see some merit in getting DF to visit their area. The main point is to try to get broad coverage, so there would need to be a good range of sites to visit - a team of 20 can cover a lot of ground in a week!

I also think there is a lot of sense in some of the societies working together to make these sorts of meetings happen and to ensure that when they are there there is an interchange of specimens. The DF Summer meeting has an annual event - the Honey Pot Challenge - a pot of Andrew Halstead's very excellent honey as prize for the person who generates the most records of sawflies in the week. It is a keenly contested prize, surprisingly so when you bear in mind the havoc that a sawfly can create in a pooter full of flies! I am sure other traditions could be generated and that these in turn might harness the enthusiasm of people to find a bit more than just their target interests; after all, when sweeping we all come across other taxa that may be of immense interest to other schemes.

And, if anybody is thinking about HLF bids, then maybe developing a programme of support for the active recording groups to go 'square-bashing? I have described some of my trips in this blog - it costs me about £350-500 per week to do this sort of survey - so it is inevitable that the furthest-flung places will get very little effort and those closer-by but under-recorded may stay so if the costs are too high. When I had work, I used to take myself off for five or six weekends a year and cover poorly recorded (and often very dull) parts of the country. Now, without work, I cannot afford much and try to go to places where I will enjoy the fieldwork and the scenery!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Is better funding the answer to improved biological recording?

My post yesterday generated an interesting thread on the issue of funding biological recording. Is this the solution to an apparent dearth of records in taxa such as slugs or ground beetles; or for that matter hoverflies, bees or other pollinating insects?

I think the issue is a bit more complicated than simply money. For a start, you have to be very clear what you want data for, before throwing large amounts of money at it. In yesterday's example it was studies into a Section 41 species, which arguably means money needed to commission extensive single-species surveys, which are probably the only way of generating the presence/absence data that might help some aspects of autecological work. However, even those sorts of studies will not say that a species is absent, they can only say that it was not found when looked for, so a level of caution remains. Nevertheless, money could be injected into surveys for Section 41 species [the species in question (Carabus intricatus) was a species targeted by English Nature's 'Species Recovery Programme'].

Do targeted surveys solve the problem though? I recall one classic study into the 'Phantom Hoverfly' Doros profuges that lasted 3 years and in the entire time not a single record was generated. One has to conclude that it was probably not the greatest 'value for money' but the exercise did show how difficult it is to gather information on some of our rarer, or perhaps more elusive species. From what I can see from the data, Doros profuges is likely to be doing something that makes it scarce, rather than it necessarily being all that scarce where it occurs.

Current data needs

The big challenge at the moment is how to reverse the massive overall decline in invertebrate life. There has been a lot of noise about data derived from a 27-year German Malaise Trap programme. That noise also implied that the UK lacked the necessary data to detect declines (apart from butterflies and possibly moths). The German work was based on traps run by 'amateur' entomologists who conducted the massive task of sampling, sorting and identifying each year's material. The people who did this were not the 'average man on the street' but a highly skilled team that includes some of western Europe's best taxonomists and conservation scientists. The only reason you would call them 'amateur' is that they did the job for nothing and probably would not have taken it on if it was a paid task because it is such a huge and often un-rewarding job.

Could such a similar dataset have been assembled in the UK? Well, yes it probably could, had there been the willpower, insight and sheer determination by a big enough group of individuals. But there is the rub - a big enough group of individuals that see this sort of work as their priority. Running Malaise Traps is no easy task; indeed, any project that samples systematically and in large volumes is not a job for the faint-hearted! I regularly provide identifications for academic projects that run Malaise Traps and it takes an awful lot of time to do the identifications, let alone the basic sorting.

Yet, as I have previously written, I think there is a case to be made for establishing a Malaise Trap programme (posts of 11 & 12 November). The crucial point about this sort of programme is that it needs to run for at least 10 years before any meaningful outputs emerge, so if it were to be a funded programme the sums involved would be astronomical. To use an example, I ran the Dungeness Invertebrate Survey using pan traps and pitfall traps in the late 1980s (with Mark Parsons). It ran for two years and would have cost somewhere in the order of £80,000 including support costs. In today's money that would probably be closer to £200,000. It depended very largely on Recording Scheme organisers to do the identifications, so the real cost would have been a great deal higher if their time had been paid for at consultancy rates. I rather doubt any scheme organiser would readily volunteer to help on this sort of project today because the demands on their time are so much greater now. So, what would the German Malaise Trap programme have cost? Many millions I suspect!

So, what are the alternatives?

UK biodiversity data is predominantly derived from the work of countless 'Citizen Scientists' that range from the technical specialist and leader in their field, to the person who enjoys a walk in the countryside and posts their resulting photographs on iSpot in order to find out what they have seen. Each has a place in the process, but the whole thing is utterly dependent upon the very small number of people who have acquired the necessary technical skills and are willing to share those skills with a wider community; not every specialist will do this and I know a lot who won't go near photographic recording. Indeed, it has  been commented to me by various specialists (on several occasions) that I am wasting my time and I would be doing more good engaging in private ecological or taxonomic studies.

Assembling the data from these sources is no small task. To the relative newcomer it may appear to be a random and unfathomable process that fails to take full account of modern technology. Unfortunately, what we see today is the result of 150 years or more of recording using the most viable means of the day:

  • Until the 1970s notebooks and diaries plus odd notes in Natural History journals were the only way to disseminate data. These, plus Museum collections provide the foundations for what we know about the history of our wildlife assets. Some of these repositories have been converted into modern accessible data, but there are vast amounts still to do.
  • In the 1960s and early 1970s we saw the growth in biological recording closer to its current form. The BSBI plant atlas was perhaps the crucial model, but by then some natural historians were running their own card indexes - I recall the remarkable AA (Tony) Allen who always seemed to be able to write a note quoting various records that he had clearly noted in some voluminous index (or he had a brain the size of a planet). By now, early computing was making it possible to produce dot maps and these became the rage for about 25 years - national and local atlas schemes were in vogue. Why? because we did not have the internet and the printed word was the only way of making information accessible.
  • By the mid-1980s personal computers were becoming available to the masses, and the more adventurous (or able) designed their own databases, that morphed into the current pillar of many biological records centres: RECORDER.
  • By the 1990s, personal computers had become sufficiently  accessible (and powerful) that biological recording schemes started to take on the data management process themselves. They did so because there was totally inadequate central funding for data management - in the case of the Hoverfly Recording Scheme we digitised about 175,000 records from record cards - who now would even know what a RA33 or a Gen7 was? It was darned slow and tedious work but done by volunteers because there was no money (especially after 1991 and the dismembering of the NCC).
  • Then came the Rio Convention and the development of 'Biodiversity Action Plans'. A whole industry of BAP emerged with relative novices running around compiling great tomes on what occurred where and what was important in a local context. The 1990s was the decade of BAP planning ('plans, plans and more b..... plans' I remember was the catchphrase of one ports industry commentator). BUT, this episode highlighted the need for better co-ordinated data management and we started to see the growth of bespoke 'Local Records Centres'. This was partly driven because there was an obvious local need as the Habitats Directive started to bite and local authorities and developers needed to know where protected species occurred. The desktop computer had come of age and it was being put to good use in biological recording - less than a generation ago.
  • A network of Local Records Centres is all well and good, but biodiversity reporting demands central access to information; hence the need for better co-ordination and the growth of the NBN and its online facilities; hence too the development of GBIF at a global scale. The advent of the NBN has been accompanied by a massive growth in the facilities available for data capture - major investments by the Statutory Agencies and some NGOs.

So, here we are today after a long journey of system development - a great system for acquiring and processing data. We have iRecord, innumerable specialist online data acquisition systems ranging from the BTO's excellent 'Birdtrack' to the Mammal Society's online facility. They have generated a great deal of new interest in biological recording because it is relatively easy to input data (and you can re-access your records without having to resort to pen and paper or personal spreadsheet if you so wish).

But, biological recording is not only about acquiring and disseminating data. It is about feet on the ground, hand lenses, microscopes and so much more. If you want data you have to have the skilled technicians to generate it! Where are they? 'Citizen Scientists' of course!

Data suppliers - the reality

Most recording schemes rely on a minuscule number of diligent and technically  competent recorders. In the case of the Hoverfly Recording Scheme that comprised just 20 people across the country who supplied 50% of the data up to 2011. Since 2011 the situation has changed markedly, with the numbers of records arriving each year having doubled from between 25-30,000 to 50-60,000 records. BUT the numbers of recorders who do the tricky identifications has not risen in line - if anything they have dropped - we have lost several of our most diligent recorders in the last decade - the Grim Reaper marches on! Meanwhile, as I have previously shown, this change in recording effort is affecting the composition of the data and therefore the story they convey, if incorrectly interpreted.

Also, now, we rely on technical specialists such as me, and the 'Resident Team' on the HRS Facebook page to provide identification and verification services. This is a new task and one that has ballooned in the past five years. We have no greater capacity but far more demands on our time. So, instead of sitting at the microscope identifying material beyond the limits of my own scheme, I sit at the computer identifying and extracting records of hoverflies - the HRS gains records (volume) whilst other recording schemes lose out!

What would increased funding do for biological recording?

My example of survey costs tells a lot about what the costs are for assembling data. Bearing in mind there are perhaps 50,000 plant and animal taxa in Britain, and there are about 2,900 land hectads (10km squares) the costs of improving data by commissioned surveys and increased numbers of technical specialists would be immense. And, that is BEFORE we enter the marine environment where the costs rocket to immense figures. What is more, to achieve that sort of skill level you need skilled trainers - the same people who currently run the recording schemes and provide the validation and identification services. There are only 24 hours in a day and those people, by and large, are already operating at capacity - there is no spare capacity.

So, yes you could throw money at biological recording but in the end it boils down to a dearth of technical specialists and ever-increasing demands placed on those who have until now been willing to shoulder the task. Will that continue? Well, I for one would like to retire from running a scheme - but can/will only do so when we have replacements lined up, willing and able. It is a daunting task and not one that is likely to appeal to anybody with aspirations to have a family or a life!

Monday, 27 November 2017

Time to set up local Diptera Groups?

There are lots of species of Hoverfly and other Diptera that are eminently findable but are under-recorded. Some will only be found by sweeping and retaining specimens of similar species, but others could be sought by visual searches. This winter is an ideal time to start to develop local groups to seek out species that have either not been found or might be re-found in a particular area. Working at a County level is probably the practical way of organising but one could also do this at a regional level.

There are already some great exemplars. In Northamptonshire there is a local group that has weekly field meetings during the spring and summer. In Devon there is a group that meets (I believe) on a monthly basis. Opportunities exist elsewhere.

What about a 'New Forest' group, a 'Black Country' group or a 'Thames Estuary' group? More adventurous still - a 'High Altitude Group'. Developing and leading such a group is not dependent upon high levels of skills as a Dipterist but upon bags of enthusiasm and a willingness to act as a fulcrum around which others gather. That is a great role for relative newcomers - perhaps one for recent graduates wanting to make their mark? What is needed is an ability to enthuse and create an inclusive group whose meetings are not only instructive but also social. Don't worry if the group includes people with limited skills or experience - what you need to think about is creating a happy atmosphere and to set targets that are achievable and to which everybody feels they have contributed.

I wonder about a 'top ten' of targets for 2018? Here are a few ideas (over 10 - I can still count!)

1. Anasimyia interupta - grazing marshes and the river valleys of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

2. Callicera rufa - creating and monitoring artificial rot holes

3. Callicera spinolae - scattered records across East Anglia but possibly more widespread - surveying places with old trees and Ivy in September as a 'safari'.

4. Caliprobola speciosa in the New Forest and at Windsor Great Park.

5. Chrysotoxum vernale on Dorset heaths

6. Doros conopseus in Yealand Allotment and at Martin Down (Wiltshire)

7. Lejops vittatus in Essex, Kent, Pevensey Levels, Somerset Levels, Gwent Levels and Norfolk. (also perhaps look for Hybomitra muelfeldi and Atylotus rusticus)

8. Microdon analis on Surrey and Hampshire heaths

9. Microdon devius on the North Downs of Surrey

10. Microdon mutabilis larvae and puparia - north and western Britain but perhaps also the Welsh and West Country coasts? They live in slightly different places to M. myrmicae which can be found in tussock nests of the ant Myrmica scabrinodis.

11. Odontomyia ornata and other wetland species - various grazing levels but also scattered wetlands inland. One of several possible targets linked to wet ditch systems and pond edges.

12. Pelecocera tricincta on the Hampshire and Surrey heaths - there are lots of old records but limited recent records for places such as Chobham Common and Hankley Heath.

13. Parhelophilus consimilis - Somerset Levels and maybe other grazing marshes

14. Platycheirus melanopsis - the higher peaks of the Lake District and Scotland

15. Stratiomys longicornis - coastal sites. Maybe look for other saltmarsh specialisties such as Atylotus latistriatus?

16. Gap-filling in areas such as the upper Pennines, parts of mid-Wales, southern Scotland, and of course the many Islands. 

Any takers?

My targets for this year are to find new sites for Microdon mutabilis (and secure some material to try to help to work out how to split this and M. myrmicae. I have also got plans to look for Hammerschmidtia ferruginea away from its Speyside haunts and am hoping to find a few more sites for Lejogaster tarsata in the Iris flushes of the west coast of Scotland.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Don't believe the database!

I spent a little while investigating GBIF to follow up on Stuart Roberts' comment on the NFBR Facebook page that relatively few countries regularly upload to GBIF. To try to find a bit of context to compare UK data with northern Europe I looked at Eristalis cryptarum which in the UK is confined to three or four 10 hectads in southern Dartmoor. It was formerly present in the New Forest and at Studland, and there is a scattering of very old records from south-west England (Map 1).

Map 1. Distribution of Eristalis cryptarum according to held and scrutinised by the Hoverfly Recording Scheme. Black circles = 2000 onwards, Grey = 1980 to 1999; and Open = pre-1980.
Turning to GBIF, it is clear that E. cryptarum is widely distributed and largely Boreal or sub-Boreal across the Palaearctic (Map 2). I assume that the majority of records are correctly identified but of course there can be no certainty! Anybody working in another country might make the same assumption but would they be right? I'm afraid not! And where is the obvious problem? The UK, of course!
Map 2. Global distribution of Eristalis cryptarum according to GBIF as on 26 November 2017.
What on earth does he mean? I hear you ask: after all the UK records come from the Hoverfly Recording Scheme? Unfortunately they don't; all sorts of data are put on GBIF, verified and un-verified. So what is happening in the UK? A blow-up of the map (Map 3) tells the story very clearly.
Map 3. Distribution map for Eristalis cryptarum in the British Isles according to GBIF as on 26 November 2017.
I cannot comment on the Irish records; I am not aware of E. cryptarum in Ireland but would be happy to be corrected if there are genuine records. What I do know is that there are no records from Scotland, nor are there records from East Anglia. Both of these records are clearly erroneous, so where do they come from? I've not managed to work out where the East Anglian record comes from, but the Scottish one is amongst recent records compiled by Buglife! Where is the quality control before putting data onto the national and international forum? My guess is that both records are misinterpretations of colloquial names - both E. cryptarum and Sericimyia silentis share the same name: Bog Hoverfly.

This is of course an object lesson in why the rigid structure of Latin names exists - why try to usurp it with names that cause confusion? Meanwhile, beware outlying records that just don't look right! On which theme, I wonder about the record from the Pyrenees but would not dismiss it because there is the possibility that the right environmental conditions obtain at some altitude there. So, for UK distribution I would avoid any compilation of data from sources other than the HRS - we have problems but do normally manage to sort out the obvious glitches.

Lejops vittatus - has it declined or is it overlooked by lack of recording?

Lejops vittatus is a fairly easily identified species of Eristaline, but seems to be rarely recorded. It occurs in brackish environments, primarily in the ditch systems of the grazing marshes of Kent and Essex, the major coastal wetlands of Norfolk and grazing marshes of Somerset and Gwent. There is also a very old inland record that appears to be reliable (Figure 1). It is one of a group of genera whose larvae are aquatic and live deeply submerged and breathe through an extendable spiracle (rat-tailed maggots).

Figure 1. Distribution map for Lejops vittatus. Black circles = 2000 onwards, grey = 1980 to 1999 and open = pre-1980
What I had not previously relised was that the UK might be THE stronghold for this species in Europe if the GBIF map is anywhere near accurate. It otherwise seems to be coastal within the Baltic and there is a more central European record that I suspect is along the Danube (Figure 2). What this map does not tell us is that data on GBIF is somewhat patchy - there are good datasets for Germany and The Netherlands, but not for France, so the map is potentially somewhat misleading!

Figure 2. Northern European distribution of Lejops vittatus according to GBIF on 27 November 2017.
Analysis of the HRS data suggests that there has been a significant decline since the 1980s (Figure 3) but the data are very sparse, so I would treat this trend with some caution. What I think the trend tells us is that there may have been relatively little activity by skilled recorders in key areas. I have only seen this animal twice in 30+ years of recording; once in 1985 on the Somerset Levels and again at Seasalter in 1991. However, I have not looked very often so I don't think my experience is anything to go on! It is noteworthy, however, that the 1991 record arose because I was intensively surveying the ditch systems of the North Kent marshes and always had my eye open for this species. I think it is genuinely rare on the Kent coast!
Figure 3. Frescalo trend for Lejops vittatus.
Looking at the phenology histogram (Figure 4), it seems to me that this species has quite a narrow emergence window centred upon late June and early July. The very early and very late outliers in the data need to be more thoroughly investigated, although there is just a possibility that they coincide with exceptionally warm years when there might have been a partial second generation.

Figure 4. Phenology histogram for Lejops vittatus based on all records in the HRS dataset.
This one seems to me to be a potential 'target species' for Dipterists based in Somerset, South Wales, Norfolk, Essex, Kent and East Sussex. It should be identifiable from photographs, so that makes it a viable project for the many photographic recorders that live in these parts. I would add that whilst in such places it is also worth making an effort to record the Soldierflies and Horseflies - there are also some very rare and habitat-specific species that are likely to be under-recorded.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

A bit of market research

It is nearly 50 years since the second edition of 'Flies of the British Isles' by Charles Colyer and Cyril Hammond. It is the book that first got me interested in flies and I am sure was the catalyst for so many of today's Dipterists. Who could resist the fantastic photograph of Volucella zonaria on the cover and Cyril Hammond's fabulous drawings and paintings? It was also written with a charm and authority that would be hard to repeat. Sadly, it went out of print many decades ago and can only be obtained second hand. Most copies are pretty well 'loved'. Unfortunately, Cyril's paintings were lost when he died and there is no way that they can be re-used.

The book itself, whilst still very readable and informative, is also considerably dated. Our knowledge of the British fauna has expanded by perhaps as much as 1,000 species since the original edition was published in 1951. The taxonomic arrangements have changed and so too has much of the nomenclature so, although a 'must have' on the library shelf, it is probably not the volume you would turn to now if you wanted to get 'into' flies? In actual fact, it is probably still the book to turn to for a general introduction! There is the excellent, but largely unillustrated, 'Dipterists Handbook' which is a valuable well of knowledge, but lacks such things as keys. There is also Pjotr Oosterbroek's 'The European Families of the Diptera: Identification, Diagnosis, Biology', which is the only readily accessible key to the European families unless you start to invest in the weighty Manual of Palaearctic Diptera, which is beyond the pocket or the shelf space of the average novice! In a similar vein, Stephen Marshall's 'Flies: The Natural History & Diversity of Diptera' is a huge shelf-filler, colourful and informative but would be difficult to use in a UK context.

A replacement for Colyer and Hammond has been long-needed and has been the dream for several of us for many years. It is a daunting task that is not helped by the potential challenges of sourcing the illustrations needed for keys and family accounts. Stuart and I have frequently discussed the idea of such a project but nothing has come of it. Conceptually, it does not really fit the WILDGuides model that we used for 'Britain's Hoverflies' because it needs to be big enough to accommodate well-illustrated keys. We have done a bit of preparatory work and Stuart has been photographing fly wings for a couple of years - he has about 50% of the families covered already!

After a long period of quiescence, we are now talking to a possible publisher and are building a team to write it - we need a range of expertise and will be working with Dr Tony Irwin (formerly Curator at Norwich Museum) and Dr Graham Rotheray whose work on Diptera larvae has been inspirational both in the UK and in many other parts of the World. Additional peer review will be needed and we are confident that this will be available through Dipterists Forum. All four of the team are well-versed in the challenges of producing user-friendly keys and guides, so we think we have the right foundations for a great product.

As we start to work up our ideas, we need to think carefully about what can be achieved. Such a book would be quite large and, if illustrated in colour, might be quite expensive to produce. It therefore makes sense to try to understand the market. What is the ceiling price that would dissuade the aspiring Dipterist from buying it? I believe that 'British Soldierflies and Their Allies' currently sells for £36.00 direct from BENHS for non-members and have seen it going for £49.00 from Amazon! I imagine we might be looking at a similar bracket of price. Also, what would potential purchasers place more emphasis on: descriptive text, keys or colour plates?
Our basic outline at the moment is as follows:
  1. It will be composed of 3 sections:
  • A substantial introduction. This would cover areas needed to understand the keys such as explaining the taxonomy and anatomical terms. An account of their life styles, biology and ecology of both adults and larvae, including treatment of medical and economic importance. Some very general coverage of the flies of macro-habitats.
  • Keys to the 106 families. These have been rigorously tested and developed over the past 10 years. This key has been used in previous FSC courses run by Stuart Ball & Roger Morris as well a substantial number of other courses run by Dipterists Forum.
  • Descriptions of each family intended to be laid out in double page spreads with text on the left-hand page facing illustrations. The detail in each family description will vary, with some of the more obscure, small families perhaps having a half page with one illustration whilst the larger and better known families (especially those where there is a Recording Scheme) better covered with more text and several pages of photographs. Family descriptions will include coverage of the larval biology where known and a header summarising things like the number of species on the British list, their size range, the ease or difficulty of identification and whether it is covered by a Recording Scheme.
  1. It would NOT aim to cover all species, even in popular families, but should be regarded as a companion to such guides as the Larger Brachycera, Syrphidae and Tipuloidea.

  2. It would be illustrated by a combination of field photos, detailed photos of preserved specimens and line drawings to highlight specific features. It may not be possible to obtain field shots of some of the more obscure families especially where the species are very small.
We cannot be sure about its dimensions but we favour B5 format or thereabouts. At the moment we are thinking of a volume of around 350 to 400 pages, ideally full colour, but it may be necessary to use two-colour or even black and white in the key in order to reduce production costs. Inevitably, it will have to be perfect bound and in a soft cover as case-bound is likely to raise costs too far.

This is probably a 'once in a generation' opportunity. If the project finds a home (we have renewed hopes), it will fill a big gap in the literature. Our intention is to produce something that will last for several decades but we do need to produce a book that sells sufficiently quickly for the publisher not to incur long-term storage costs and also to recoup what is likely to be a significant investment over a relatively short period (i.e. a few years). If we can secure a publisher (it will probably have to be a 'not for profit' venture) my guess is that we are looking at a lead-in time of 3-4 years during which Stuart and I will probably be chasing madly around the country trying to source fresh specimens for the necessary photographs. We will doubtless also be approaching some of the very excellent photographers who publish on Flickr etc for suitable images!

Difficult taxa - should we believe the trends?

In my previous posts I have hopefully shown some of the challenges that we face when trying to interpret trends. Simply taking statistical outputs and accepting the results is generally unwise. One needs to understand what is happening within the data. As we have progressed with the revised atlas, I have therefore gone back to Stuart with a series of questions. The Frescalo outputs tell an important story but, as we have seen already, there are factors that may be having a profound effect on the results. Changing recorder methods are one factor that we can detect by separating off records derived from photography but here is one that confounds the basic analysis.

In my experience, Pipiza noctiluca is a very common species. It does visit flowers, but is far more commonly seen sun-basking on leaves - I favour elm, sycamore and lime for monitoring. On the right day in my local woods I can see maybe a dozen or more, mostly males. I usually retain a broad sample of specimens because they are so similar that it is quite possible to get two or even three species in the mix. It was in this way that I picked up the first British record of Pipiza quadrimaculata this spring (still to be written up and published). Taking a broad spectrum of Pipizines often adds species within Heringia and Pipizella as well. I find many of them to be pretty common, but often have a lot of difficulty being sure that I have actually got P. notata (bimaculata) and not another form of P. noctiluca!

So, what do the outputs tell us about Pipiza noctiluca? It all looks pretty clear (Figure 1)  - there has been a significant decline! But has there? Figure 2 where the same Frescalo analysis has been run on the whole dataset and then with photographic data excluded changes matters, as might be expected (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Trend for Pipiza noctiluca based on Frescalo analysis of all data.
Figure 2. Trend for Pipiza noctiluca based on Frescalo analysis for all data (blue) and with photographic data excluded (red).
The problem I find with both of these outputs is that one can roughly eye in a regression line but it is clear that there have been a number of very marked peaks. Unlike data for wetland species that has a spike associated with the major NCC surveys of Welsh Peatlands and East Anglian Fens in the late 1980s, the peaks here are a bit different. Is there something happening with recorder activity and perhaps changes in who is active and where they are active?

Figure 3 shows the current state of our knowledge of distribution of Pipiza noctiluca. It tells an interesting story. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s there was tremendous activity by a small number of very active recorders who covered all taxa. Dorset and Somerset were extremely well covered, as was Surrey and so too was the Sorby area. Several of those really active recorders have died or become too unwell to continue recording; others, such as me, have moved. There is also one recorder who is still very active, but whose records we don't have for the past 20 years (although this may be rectified soon).
Figure 3. Current distribution map for Pipiza noctiluca. Black symbols indicate the latest record dates from 2000 to date, grey - 1980 to 1999 and white - before 1980
In this instance, if we really want to understand what is happening, we probably need to look at the peaks and how they relate to activity by individual recorders; or whether in fact there is any correlation? Peaks do seem to be somewhat repetitive, so perhaps there is another environmental factor at work? Alternatively, perhaps we are just seeing bursts of enthusiasm followed by the inevitable misery of struggling to be sure one has correctly identified yet another form of P. noctiluca!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Changes in recorder techniques - can we detect differences in the dataset?

I have long felt that the shift away from records based largely upon specimens to records based on non-lethal methods such as photography was likely to be influencing the outputs of analyses to investigate trends in species' abundance. Whilst revising the text for the Provisional Atlas, I became acutely aware that some of the trends did not seem to fit my perceptions from field work and from monitoring the UK Hoverflies Facebook page. I therefore suggested to Stuart that it would be helpful to run two separate analyses; one for all data and the other for a subset of the data that excluded known photographic records. The results are really very interesting and can be summed up as a table (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Permutations of possible trends in the HRS dataset and in a subset that excludes photographic records. The final column highlights whether the permutations were found in analysis.
I think the overall results need to be published in the peer-reviewed press because they show how research teams must treat trends with caution. I expect that all of the graphs will become available at some point once we have decided how we might use them in the provisional atlas but probably not readily apparent in any printed version because of the cost of printing in colour. We can of course do so as a pdf without any problem. Here are a couple of examples:
Figure 2. Trends for Cheilosia proxima, All records in blue and with photographic records excluded in red.
Figure 3. Trend for Cheilosia impressa. All records in blue and with photographic records excluded in red.
Figure 4. Trend for Epistrophe diaphana All records in blue and with photographic records excluded in red.