Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Big Wasp Survey

Having listened to Adam Hart’s piece on Radio 4 (I was vaguely aware of the project last year) I found myself asking ‘why do we need this project when we already have BWARS, the most comprehensive dataset on aculeate Hymenoptera in the UK?' In the course of the programme, I expected to hear a little bit about BWARS but, no there was nothing! Why not? Maybe the academics knew nothing about BWARS? (I have come across other academic proposals to conduct studies that would miror the work of existing Recording Schemes).

The Radio 4 programme was interesting and addressed a much wider issue about killing insects, but it seemed to me that it missed most of the critical points about killing insects. Yes, the Krefeld project was mentioned, so too was work on dung beetles, but I felt there was a serious omission. Most of our understanding of insect distribution and abundance is dependent upon specimens that have been killed and stored as ‘voucher specimens’. Almost all Red Lists of invertebrates are entirely dependent upon people who are prepared to take specimens and supply data to conservation organisations. They are not in the academic world and therefore get ignored!  No insect collecting equates to no capacity to develop species status reviews or to take the necessary measures to conserve critical habitats.

In many ways, this piece mirrored the problems I had with the hype surrounding the Krefeld project: It is a very narrow academic presentation of what is going on. There are vast numbers of records streaming in from what the academics like to call ‘Citizen Scientists’ many of whom are the ‘real’ 'experts' (I prefer the term 'specialist'). Yes it is possible for an academic study of a dozen or so social wasps, but what about the other 500+ aculeates? Did we need a study that used the public to generate a questionable dataset? How many of the less common Vespids were recorded and did the data match those already held by BWARS?

I ask these questions rhetorically. Of course the study was needed because it raised profile for social wasps - they are critical ecosystem regulators. Likewise the Radio 4 programme was valuable because it highlighted an important scientific and social issue surrounding the retention of insect specimens. BUT, to my mind, both failed to highlight the most important points: that most of our knowledge of species’ abundance and distribution is actually generated by organisations such as BWARS (and the HRS), and that for almost all of the time the data that are critical are dependent wholly upon volunteers who compile data without support from the academic world.

I suspect that we can probably say as much about social wasps from BWARS data as was gathered by the ‘Big Wasp Survey’. But, have we actually got any further in justifying the use of mass-killing projects? I doubt it, but believe that there are compelling reasons for supporting the continued use of lethal techniques to ensure that sufficient data exist to understand what is happening to our invertebrate fauna.

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