Friday, 23 February 2018

Are the potential specialists of the future being put off posting on Facebook groups?

Is it time to set up a separate Facebook group to help people who want assistance with identification of pinned specimens? In the past, I have felt that it was not a good idea to separate photographic recording from collected specimens. It always seemed to me that there was something to be learned by everybody when a specimen was posted, and that it was important to try to emphasise that identifying specimens is a critical part of data assembly. However, recent experience on the BWARS Facebook Group has made me think again.

How many people are being put off making such posts because they then get targeted by people opposed to lethal methods? I don’t know the answer to this but I think it is an issue that we must confront. If negative comments and what might be perceived as ‘bullying’ behaviour by those opposed to specimen retention is putting off members from posting, then we have a big issue. I have heard that this is the case on both the BWARS and HRS groups but am not clear how big the impact has been.

In the interests of balance, we must also recognise that some potential contributors have been put off the existing groups BECAUSE pinned specimen photographs are posted on them. Should we recognise this issue as well and cater for them too? 

Does it matter?

My short answer is ‘yes it does’. The longer answer lies in what we are aiming to do with Facebook Groups? If they are simply going to be appreciation societies for people wanting a rough identification of an animal photographed whilst out for a walk, then it won’t be an issue if nobody posts photos of preserved specimens. There are Facebook Groups that work in this way, and they serve a useful purpose.

Unfortunately, only a proportion of most insect groups can be identified from field photographs and that IF we are to assemble data that cover all taxa then we must accept that lethal methods are part of the mix. In the case of hoverflies, I think that probably 40-50% of our fauna cannot be done reliably from photographs on most occasions. That is not to say that the remaining 50-60% cannot be done at all from photos, but they will be the exceptions rather than the norm. And, in the case of those species where examination of the male genital capsule is essential, it will remain nigh-on impossible to provide an ID from a photograph.

The UK Hoverflies and UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook groups were set up as an educational and mentoring tool, to provide people with a deeper interest in the groups with a way of interacting with the respective Recording Schemes. They have played a vital role in developing a much broader skill-base for both schemes. They are also a really valuable vehicle for feeding back results of data to the people who generate it. As such, they should be there for both photographers and people who retain specimens.

Nevertheless, data generated by substantially photographic methods HAVE shifted the balance in the datasets and the HRS has growing evidence that this shift is affecting the outputs of occupancy models that are being developed to investigate changes in the abundance our wildlife assets. The message is quite clear that a shift away from the retention of specimens is accentuating the modelled rates of decline for some species (and for the family as a whole by about 7%). This is VERY serious because we need the data to be reliable and unchallengeable. If those who don’t want to face up to (and address) declines in biodiversity can find a way of discrediting the data then they will do so; and, in so doing, they will reduce the prospects of effective action to address the problem.

A new approach? 

Perhaps it is time to set up a bespoke group for people who want assistance with specimens? We might do this as a joint HRS/BWARS page or as two separate pages? A very sizeable part of the specialists on both the esiting pages do take an active interest in both Orders. Similarly, many of the most active participants in the existing groups also do both Diptera and Hymenoptera. What we don’t know is the level of demand there might be for a closed group (invitation only or strict vetting) that allows people to post specimens to seek technical advice.

Having been inclined against such a route in the past. I am now more convinced, although I fear that it would be a further step towards good science slipping into the shadows. It seems to me that we need a debate on the subject and in particular to hear from those who might have been put off posting specimen photos and are missing the mentoring they might otherwise get.

At the moment, the technical expertise on both BWARS and HRS Facebook groups stems primarily from people who have spent decades looking at specimens under the microscope. Many of us are of advancing years and we must look to the future and make sure that we train a new generation to take over from us. If people are put off posting photos of pinned specimens, might we then be losing our next generation of technical specialists? Or, is this telling potential technical specialists to avoid social media and operate strictly out of wider visibility? In either case, this is not good for the future of the existing groups, and in the long-term it is not good for conservation because we will have insufficient comprehensive data to track the fortunes of our wonderful wildlife.


  1. You've omitted one very important role that photos of pinned specimens play on open groups - they're an opportunity to educate the prejudiced. It may be tedious and repetitive and usually fall on deaf ears, but for every closed-minded bully there are probably a lot more who think the same but could be persuaded by your words.

    To save effort you could cut and paste from a file built up over previous encounters (AKA boiler plate).

    Of course the other trick is to photograph them dead but before pinning. I've never had an adverse comment. I wonder if it's the impaling rather than the lethality which upsets people.

    Malcolm Storey.

    1. Surely that was part of my opening statement Malcolm! And implicity was why I have in the past been averse to such a split!

  2. Malcolm makes a good point. It is surely the act of pinning which disturbs people. Logic should tell us that a pair of blue tits feeding their young will involve far more killing than the specimens taken by a recorder.
    Tony White

  3. I think it far more appropriate to take action against the bullies. Set up a field identification page for those opposed to seeing photos of pinned specimens. Set a pinned post letting everyone know the nature of the group and ban those demonstrating bullying behaviour on the page.