Why, sometimes, we need to collect invertebrates and our code of conduct for doing so

Collecting invertebrates using sweep nets during an FSC BioLinks course, 2018

Blog by Holly Dillon. Holly is a TCV Biodiversity Trainee spending a year working with the FSC's Biodiversity team at FSC Head Office, Preston Montford.

Why are invertebrates collected?

Collecting is essential for the study of most invertebrate taxa because most of them are so small they require microscopic examination to accurately identify them to species level. Many people think this seems a bit backwards because we have to kill things in order to study them and, in the current biodiversity crisis, surely killing things is the last thing we should be doing? This is not necessarily the case when it comes to invertebrates. Invertebrates make up around 80% of life on earth and there are over 40,000 species in the UK alone. They help pollinate crops, recycle nutrients in the soil, break down decaying matter, and they are an important food source for other wildlife. We need to study and conserve these species, they are critical to the functioning of ecosystems and we can’t survive without them. However, few species can be identified in the field so in order to identify them, study them and then conserve them, we need to collect and preserve them.

Maps showing the total number of UK earthworm records in 2009 (left) and 2017 (right) The maps above show the total number of UK earthworm records in 2009 (left) and 2017 (right). Earthworms, although widespread and vital for ecosystems, are under-recorded due to the difficulties in identifying them – earthworm species can only be reliably identified by looking at preserved specimens with a microscope.

The unfortunate individuals which end up being collected and killed help inform conservation decisions. By taking a closer look under a microscope to identify the individual’s species, we can then create an accurate biological record, a point on a map showing where and when that species was found. Generally, most invertebrate species are poorly recorded because they are so tricky to identify. With more records, we can add to national data sets and create distribution maps for invertebrate species. These can then help inform conservation organisations, as the distribution maps allow them to build up a better picture of where the invertebrates are and what’s happening to them. For example, are they being found in new locations or disappearing from places where they always used to be found? This means conservation efforts can be prioritised to focus on the species and habitats under threat.  This is not to say that there is a need to collect every invertebrate we come across but collecting one or two individuals of each species can help make these useful biological records. They can then be used to make reference collections, to aid future identification and to educate others.

Collecting invertebrates on FSC BioLinks courses

The aim of BioLinks is to provide training and opportunities to unite a community of invertebrate recorders and to create new recorders.  We use reference collections and specimens collected on our courses to teach others how to identify and record species. This will in turn lead to the creation of more biological records, increasing the quality of invertebrate species data being added to national biodiversity datasets and distribution maps.

We understand some people may not be comfortable with collecting and killing invertebrates, so our introductory and beginner level identification training courses steer clear of this. Even on the intermediate level courses, we still generally avoid killing specimens wherever possible. Instead, we rely on reference collections borrowed from museums, or made by our tutors or other naturalists. When such collections aren’t available, we may collect some specimens, but we follow the FSC’s code of conduct when doing this, to ensure we don’t have any detrimental impacts on the invertebrate populations. 

Caroline Uff’s (tutor of various BioLinks beetle courses) beetle collection The image above shows Caroline Uff’s (tutor of various BioLinks beetle courses) beetle collection.

Our code of conduct

Most invertebrate species are common and abundant, available evidence suggests that their populations won’t be harmed by collecting one or two specimens here and there. Collecting may, however, potentially harm populations that are localised or that have been seriously affected by the loss and fragmentation of habitats, so we avoid this. We also avoid collecting several specimens of the same species from the same area, collecting any individuals that are showing signs of mating or provisioning nests, or any locally threatened or rare species. Collecting should always be limited to the minimum necessary for the purpose intended, as well as by full compliance with legal requirements relating to particular sites and species. It is likewise important to not damage the habitats or vegetation in any way when collecting invertebrates, any logs or stones we turn over when searching for invertebrates are replaced. 

Collecting invertebrates using sweep nets during an FSC BioLinks course, 2018 The image above shows invertebrates being collected using sweep nets during an FSC BioLinks course, 2018.

These principles are enshrined within the FSC Code of Conduct, which is based on the code for collecting that was published over thirty years ago by Invertebrate Link (previously the Joint Committee for the Conservation of British Insects). This Invertebrate Link code has now been updated to take account of developments in conservation and is applicable to all terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates, not just insects. The code defines certain activities that should be avoided or restricted, but it equally emphasises the need to collect invertebrates in order to gain valuable information, which aids conservation. The full document can be found here. Please follow the code if you ever want to collect specimens, to ensure your activities do not have any detrimental impacts on the invertebrate populations or their habitats.

References

Joint Committee for the Collection of British Invertebrates, 2002. A Code of Conduct for collecting insects and other invertebrates. BR. J. ENT. NAT. HIST., 15: 2002.