Sunday, 7 October 2018

You've never had it so good!



A post on the UK Hoverflies Facebook page today raised the question of why Callicera spinolae took so long to recognise and be added to the British list? It was part of a wider question about the lack of both C. rufa and C. spinolae from Verrall’s 1901 monograph. The answer is perhaps worth setting out a blog post because it highlights the huge difference between 1901 and 2018, and what has happened in the intervening 117 years.

In today’s world, where we can jump in the car and travel to the far north of Scotland in less than 12 hours, we tend to forget (not realise) what life was like at the turn of the 20th Century. There was very limited public mobility – only the extremely wealthy could afford a car, roads were poor and travel long and arduous. So, most people recorded from a local area. People, when they did travel, went to the honeypots – hence the old collectors all went to the New Forest or to a few places in Speyside on the railway – you can read their accounts in the journals of the day and then find the specimens in the NHM collection (e.g. the Volucella specimens of FC Adams). There is something rather special about holding a specimen that was the subject of a short note in the EMM or Entomologist’s Record over 100 years ago; it provides such as poignant connection with the past.

We now have access to a vast literature too. My library contains the main works from northern Europe. What is more, quite a lot are in English or have keys in English. That was not the case even a generation ago!  The literature in 1900 was extremely limited – prior to Verrall’s work you would have had to have access to a substantial library of major foreign monographs and a big reference collection. This sort of facility would have been confined to the major museums of the day, or the extremely rich (or both). People tend to forget that today we have access to comprehensive (and cheap) literature plus the internet at the touch of a button. It was a rich man’s game then – hence being dominated by the likes of Verrall, who was course Clerk at Newbury Racecourse, or Yerbury (Lt. Colonel).

In the case of Callicera they were probably a lot less abundant. They are hard animals to find, even now, and although C. rufa is extremely widespread in Scotland I cannot remember when it was last recorded there as an adult. I work Speyside on an almost yearly basis at around the right time of year and have never seen it. Larvae are relatively straightforward to find. In the case of C. spinolae, I think it has genuinely become commoner and is expanding its range. It now makes a mockery of Schedule 41 – BAP Priority species that is popping up all over the place! I’m fairly certain the same obtains for C. aurata. I think the chances are that C. spinolae was an accidental vagrant that may only have set up transient populations until recently. I checked GBIF to see whether Callicera were any more abundant in Europe and am far from certain they are! There are precious few C. spinolae depicted, but I wonder if that is partly because there is taxonomic confusion with C. aurata and perhaps even C. aenea?

There have never been vast numbers of Dipterists; and especially so when it comes to taxonomically competent Dipterists. There is a strong British tendency to consider our fauna to be so well-known that we don’t expect other species and as we didn’t have access to European keys we never thought much about what else there might be. When Alan Stubbs wrote his book in 1983 the best he had was Seguy and van der Goot – and you know the British ability with foreign languages, especially Dutch! An indication of just how few competent Dipterists there are was shown by the data in the last atlas – of 750,000 records, half were supplied by just 20 people. Even today, I would reckon there are probably fewer than 20 who might be considered anything approaching Alpha taxonomists! And there are now no Syrphid specialists in the major museums.

We can always reflect and wonder what we might have found, had we been able to investigate the Britain of 1900, but to do so we would have had to be able to travel and to access comprehensive literature. This is the price we pay for progress: on the one hand we have books, fast travel, the internet etc. On the downside we have destroyed a lot of the British countryside in a quest for better living standards. It is especially sobering to think that the Great Man himself died of Dropsy at the age of just 64 – I cannot imagine that happening today with our wonderful health service.

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