Insect Identifications and Etiquette

I’ve been a student of insects for most of my life, and of the many aspects of entomology that interest me, field collecting and identification remain the most enjoyable. My interest in beetles first began to gel during my days at the university (despite a thesis project focused on leafhoppers), and early in my career I settled on wood-boring beetles (principally Buprestidae and Cerambycidae) as the taxa that most interested me. To say that species identification of these beetles can be difficult is an understatement, but I was fortunate to have been helped by a number of individuals—well-established coleopterists—who freely shared their time and expertise with me during my early years and pointed me in the right direction as I began to learn the craft. Some of the more influential include colleagues that have since passed (e.g., Gayle Nelson, John Chemsak, Chuck Bellamy, and Frank Hovore) and those that, thankfully, continue with us (e.g., Rick Westcott and Henry Hespenheide).

It has been a little more than 30 years now since I began studying these beetles, and due in great part to the help I received early on and the motivation that it inspired within me, I have gained a certain amount of proficiency in their identification as well. Not surprisingly, I too regularly receive requests from people looking for help with identifications. I rarely turn down such requests (in fact, I don’t think I have ever turned one down)—it not only helps my own research but also, occasionally, allows me to fill a gap or two in my collection. More importantly, however, it is my duty—I benefited greatly from those who shared their expertise with me, so it’s only fair that I continue by their example.

As common a practice as this is among collectors, it seems odd that there are few written guidelines on the etiquette of requesting and providing identifications. Note that this is something different than borrowing specimens for study, which has its own set of expectations and responsibilities. As someone who has both requested and received requests for specimen identifications for a long time now, I have my own thoughts about reasonable expectations in this regard. Perhaps you, too, will find these thoughts useful the next time you contemplate asking somebody to identify your specimens (or accepting a request to do so).

Guidelines for requesting identifications

  1. Always ask permission to send specimens before doing so. ‘Nuff said.
  2. When you do send specimens, read  and follow the guidelines suggested to avoid creating additional work for the identifier who must repair specimens damaged in shipment.
  3. Leave extra room in the specimen box. While tightly packed specimens minimize shipment size and can reduce cost, it also increases risk of damage during shipment due to ‘bumping’ or during removal from the box for ID. More importantly, it allows little or no room for the addition of identification labels to specimens. Additionally, many identifiers find it helpful to remove all of the specimens from a box and group them by related taxa to facilitate identification. The reassembled specimens may require more space than they did in their original arrangement.
  4. Send the entire available series of specimens. A common practice among those sending specimens for ID is to hold back specimens from a series and send only one or a few examples. Whether this is to, again, minimize the size of the shipment, confirm a provisional ID, or safeguard specimens perceived as desirable, it nevertheless prevents the identifier from having access to the range of data and variability represented in the series. This is important if the series contains 1) multiple species, 2) previously undocumented distributions or ecological data, or 3) unusual morphological variants. An exception to this is when very long series of specimens are available and sending the entire series would be unwieldy and/or unnecessary. In this case, the identifier should be informed that only a partial series of specimens was sent.
  5. Allow retentions. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes individuals have balked at my requests to retain specimens that proved useful for my studies. This is poor etiquette, as it shows little respect for the value of the service being provided by the person making the identifications. More common is to allow retention of examples from a series, but not singletons. This also, in my opinion, is poor etiquette. I remember one of my early sendings to Gayle Nelson that contained a single specimen of Agrilus audax, a very rare North American buprestid known by only a handful of specimens. Not surprisingly, Gayle did not have this species in his collection, and while I, too, was a student of the group I didn’t hesitate to give this specimen Gayle—established and well-respected expert of the family that he was. To this day the species remains unrepresented in my collection, yet I have never second guessed that decision due to the value of what I gained in his respect and mentorship in the years since. Most identifiers are both humble and sparing in their requests for retentions.¹
  6. Allow time for identifications. Individuals with expertise in a given group are generally few in number, and those willing to provide identifications may be fewer still. As a result, they usually have a number of boxes on hand at any one time awaiting identification. Get an idea from them at the start of how long they expect it will be before they can complete the task. If the projected timeline passes and you don’t hear back from them, an inquiry is fine, but be polite and understanding.

¹ A corollary to this asking for specimens in exchange for specimens retained. An exchange involves two parties sending each other specimens that mutually benefit each other’s collections. Identifications are a service provided by one party that benefit the requester. To suggest an exchange as ‘payment’ for retained specimens ignores the value of the service being provided by the identifier

Guidelines for providing identifications

  1. Once specimens are received, protect them from damage as you would your own collection. Maintain them in a protective cabinet or check them regularly to ensure that dermestid pests do not gain a toehold.
  2. Provide the identifications in as timely a manner as possible. This is not always easy, especially for those willing to accept a large number of requests and who may find themselves inundated with boxes awaiting identification. If you cannot provide identifications relatively quickly, be honest with the requestor regarding how long you expect the identifications to take. If it does take longer, provide an update to the requestor and give them the option to have the specimens returned or confirm that they are okay with the delay.
  3. Add your identification label with your name and date (year) to at least the first specimen in the series. Even better is if you can add a small, pre-printed ID label to every specimen in the series, but this can be difficult if the number of specimens and/or diversity of species is large. If there are specimens with prior identifications that you disagree with, turn the prior ID label upside-down, replace through an existing pin hole, and add your ID label. I disagree with the practice of folding prior ID labels—not only could I be wrong, but this unnecessarily damages something with historical value, especially if new pin holes are added to the label. Always place your ID label below any existing labels (i.e., label order should reflect their sequence of placement—oldest labels nearest the specimen and newest labels furthest away).
  4. Keep retentions to a minimum. I generally ask to retain specimens only when they significantly improve the representation in my collection or provide significant new data—i.e., un- or under-represented species, undocumented distributions or ecological data, etc. The bar for singletons is even higher—usually only if they are completely absent from my collection (with ~65% of U.S. Buprestidae now represented in my collection, this is an increasingly uncommon occurrence).
  5. Following #4, provide an accounting of retained specimens. Minimally, a list of species and their number should be given, and my preference is to provide label data as well (especially if requested). I once sent a batch of beetles (in a family in which I do not specialize) to an expert for identification, and when I received them back it was obvious that a number of specimens had been retained (perhaps 1/3 of the total number). When I wrote to the identifier and asked for an accounting (remember, I was only asking for an accounting—I did not have a problem with the retentions themselves), I received a rather terse reply from the individual stating that he did not ‘have time’ to provide this. Needless to say, this level of dismissiveness was not appreciated, and I have since found another more agreeable researcher with expertise in that family to send specimens for identification.
  6. When you are ready to return the specimens, read  and follow it’s suggested guidelines to avoid causing damage to the specimens whose care you were entrusted.

Again, these guidelines are written from the perspective of a private individual sending and receiving specimens for identification. Scientists at institutions may have additional or differing guidelines on this subject, but in any case these guidelines should be communicated to and understood by individuals requesting identifications before any material is sent.

If you have additional suggestions or comments on how these guidelines can be improved I would appreciate hearing them.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

One million hits!

Million-hitsI knew it was coming, and yesterday it happened. I was really hoping to see hit number 1,000,000 appear on the small ‘Blog Stats’ item at the bottom of the right sidebar, but I just missed it due to a small traffic spike right around the time that it occurred. As near as I can tell, the one millionth hit came at 1:27 p.m. (Central Standard Time) from somebody in Tempe, Arizona. Whoever you were, whether a regular reader or just passing by, congratulations. However, the real thanks must be shared with all of you who helped log the previous 999,999 hits, for without you there would be no Beetles in the Bush. Here’s to two million!

p.s. To those who would poo poo this accomplishment, who think that internet traffic site stats are meaningless, that there is nothing out there but an army of bots and search engines generating irrelevant stats, please go rain on somebody else’s day.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

Virtual Mantle 2014

As our lives become more digitized, the relatively new tradition of sending holiday “e-greetings” continues to grow. I for one embrace this tradition, as it doesn’t really replace the old tradition of sending actual cards but rather expands the scope of people with whom I can exchange greetings. I still send “real” cards to family and close, personal friends, but I can now also send greetings to the many entomologist/natural historian friends and colleagues with whom I’ve interacted over the past year. For several years now I’ve used the “photoshopped Santa hat theme” (see 2011’s Santa Jaws, 2012’s Buprestis saintnicholasii, and last year’s Felizard Navidad), but this year I decided to send a more “super-powered” greeting!

My entomologist friends and colleagues are also increasingly joining in the act, and just as many people hang holiday cards on their fireplace mantle, I like to hang holiday e-cards on the virtual mantle here at BitB—see my virtual mantles from 2012 and 2013. This year I received greetings from entomologists both here in the USA and the far flung continents of Europe, Asia, and Australia! If you didn’t send me an e-card this year, I hope you’ll consider sending me one in 2015.

Daniele Baiocchi—Rome, Italy

Daniele Baiocchi—Rome, Italy

Svata Bílý—Prague, Czech Republic

Svata Bílý—Prague, Czech Republic

Gianfranco Curletti, Museo Civico di Storia Naturale, Carmagnola, Italy

Gianfranco Curletti, Museo Civico di Storia Naturale, Carmagnola, Italy

Eduard Jendek, State Forest Products Research Institute, Bratislava, Slovakia

Eduard Jendek, State Forest Products Research Institute, Bratislava, Slovakia

Mark Kalashian, Institute of Zoology, Yerevan, Armenia

Mark Kalashian, Institute of Zoology, Yerevan, Armenia

Allan Smith-Pardo, USDA-APHIS-PPQ, South San Francisco, California, USA

Allan Smith-Pardo, USDA-APHIS-PPQ, South San Francisco, California, USA

Pham, Hong Thai, Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, Hanoi

Pham, Hong Thai, Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, Hanoi

Stanislav Prepsl, Vyškov, Czech Republic

Stanislav Prepsl, Vyškov, Czech Republic

Robert Sites, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA

Robert Sites, University of Missouri, Columbia, USA

Ilja Trojan, South Moravia, Czech Republic

Ilja Trojan, South Moravia, Czech Republic

Mark Volkovitsh, Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia

Mark Volkovitsh, Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia

Bill Warner, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Bill Warner, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Bill Warner, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Bill Warner, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Goeff Williams, Australian Museum, Sydney South, New South Wales

Goeff Williams, Australian Museum, Sydney South, New South Wales

Junsuke Yamasako, University of Tokyo, Japan

Junsuke Yamasako, University of Tokyo, Japan

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014

Missouri Master Naturalists Seminar

Missouri Master Naturalist Confluence Chapter Seminar | December 9, 2014. Photo by Lee Phillion.

Speaking to the Missouri Master Naturalist Confluence Chapter, December 9, 2014. Photo by Lee Phillion.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of speaking to the Confluence Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalist Program, the members of which are all graduates of the Missouri Master Naturalist Program. This community-based natural resource education and volunteer service program, sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the University of Missouri Extension Service, seeks to engage Missourians in the stewardship of our state’s natural resources through science-based education and volunteer community service. To accomplish such, members support conservation efforts and natural resource education in their local communities.

Since I’ve studied the insect fauna of Missouri for many years now, especially in its threatened and endangered natural communities, I thought a talk on this subject might be of interest to the group. I decided to focus on some of the work I’ve done in two of our state’s most critically imperiled natural communities: loess hilltop prairies in the northwest corner of the state and sand prairies in the southeastern lowlands—with a talk titled, “From Hilltops to Swamps: Insects in Missouri’s Rarest Prairies”. The presentation provided an overview of each of these natural communities, the circumstances that have led to their rarity in Missouri, and the insects associated with them with special emphasis on species that are dependent upon these natural communities for survival. For those who might be interested, I’ve posted a PDF version of the presentation here.

From Hilltops to Swamps: Insects in Missouri’s Rarest Prairies

Truth be told, it was one of the most enjoyable seminars I’ve ever given, due mostly to a wonderfully engaged audience of about 70 people. It was a perfect opportunity for me to promote awareness of insects and the need to consider them in conservation efforts with an audience whose members are at the forefront of the citizen science effort within our state. I extend my heartiest thanks to Leslie Limberg for giving me the opportunity to speak, Lee Phillion for sending me photos from the event, including the one posted above, and—most importantly—the members of the audience for the warm welcome they extended to me and the interest they showed during my presentation.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

First-ever BitB “Reader’s Poll”

For seven years now I’ve been conducting this experiment called Beetles in the Bush. In that time I’ve written nearly 1,000 posts (with the help of a few guest authors), posted nearly 3,000 images, contributed or entertained over 10,000 comments, and watched the site creep ever closer to its millionth hit! This might leave you wondering why I should, now, be asking readers to provide feedback on why they visit BitB and what they like most (or least) about it. The reason is simple—blogging is less popular now than it was a few years ago. Comments and readership are both in decline (not just here, but across the platform), and the trend has left few clues about who the remaining readership is and what they are interested in. If I know clearly what readers want, it will be easier for me to provide it. That is not to say I expect (or even could) drastically change my content or its focus. However, if I know a certain topic is more popular than others I can give that topic priority, or if nobody really reads the “long-reads” I can skip them altogether. I hope you’ll indulge my curiosity by participating in the five short polls below that need only a few anonymous clicks of the mouse—no written responses required. Of course, if you wish to provide written feedback in the comments section it will be most appreciated. And, as always, thank you for your readership.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Super Crop Challenge #16

Who am I?

Who am I?

Can you identify the structures in the photo above (2 pts), their significance (2 pts), and the organism to which it belongs (order, family, genus, and species—2 pts each)? Comments will be held in moderation so everybody has a chance to participate, but there are early-bird bonus points on offer for those who get their answers in quickest. You’ve got the weekend to think about it. 🙂

p.s. Read the full rules for details on how (and how not) to earn points. Good luck!

© Ted C. MacRae 2014