by Robin Williams, Somerset, UK

A UK naturalist and photographer describes how he developed an interest in the gall wasps, bees and ants found in Southern England. He discusses both the difficulties often encountered with identifying these insect groups and the booklets he has written to aid their identification.


After many years of abiding interest in watching and photographing birds, I came back to a very early interest - insects. Partly this was due to the apparent weight of equipment increasing as my years advanced, but it also arose through sheer chance. Our local Wildlife Trust put in a little notice in its newsletter, 'If you are interested in learning more about dragonflies please contact John Boyd', and it gave a phone number. It turned out to be a short course, out in the field, designed to last four Saturdays but has been running ever since. Ten years later it looks as if it will continue as long as our little group is still here. (Image right: Hornet, female, Vespa crabro).

Our group, with six regular members, meets every Saturday throughout the year and spends the day visiting wildlife reserves and other interesting spots, largely on the Somerset Levels and Mendips. Weather has to be pretty poor to deter us and we have eaten lunch on a Mendip slope in howling winds and even snow. Mark you, we have learned how to dress comfortably and how to carry cameras and other equipment in the easiest way.

The interests of the group still include dragonflies, on which John is a renowned expert, but have grown both more catholic and more restricted. if that does not sound too strange. We have also become more knowledgeable as well as being more aware of how misleading first impressions can be in trying to identify insects in the field. We are all photographers and take anything which catches our eye - hence the catholicism of my earlier remark. But we all came to the conclusion that if you are to know anything worthwhile, it has to be about a limited range of species. So our specialities have developed. Two of us have interests in snails, centipedes and millipedes, though they also wander off after bugs when they see them. Another has moved away from insects into a passion for fungi, while a fourth is particularly taken with Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants) as well as mosses. My general field is Hymenoptera, with a very special interest in the wasps which inhabit oak-galls, though being a photographer I cannot resist any beautiful insect.

All this has shown up problems, as anyone who has studied the lesser-known areas of natural history will be aware. How do you recognise the creatures you have seen, photographed or caught? There are almost no books which illustrate all the species of a particular family or group. The only ones which do exist are for popular creatures such as dragonflies, grasshoppers and hoverflies. Everything else depends on whether anyone has produced keys to a family and, more important, whether you can understand the strange and esoteric language used in these.

We soon found out how difficult it was to make an identification from even an excellent key and also how impossible it was unless you understood the technical terms in use. As some of the current keys date from the end of the last century (because no-one has written a more up-to-date version), it will be appreciated that language has moved on during that time and there are now several names for the same part.
(Image left: Chalcid wasp, female, Torymus nitens).

Being used to market research in my previous incarnation, I spent a great deal of time in reading up on those areas which particularly interested me. The result was two booklets, produced initially purely for my own benefit and that of the members of our group, bringing all this information under one heading. Sources included books, many obscure articles and information by word-of-mouth. The first booklet was entitled, 'Southern British Ants, Their Descriptions and Lifestyles'. This is an accumulation of information from as many sources as possible, but presented in a quite different fashion to normal. The book refers particularly to Somerset & Dorset but the findings apply to other parts of Britain in many cases.

There are no keys included as such as it is designed to be used in conjunction with other books for final identification, though some identifications will emerge naturally from using the tables. The idea was to produce something which will enable you to go out into a habitat, find ants and shortlist them down to one or two with comparatively little effort., though some groups, such as the red ants, are always tricky. It should certainly make ant watching much more fun - and they are most fascinating creatures.
(Visit ant image gallery).
(Image right: Chalcid wasp, male, Mesopolobus sericeus)

The second book was much more fundamental. For various reasons I became involved with recording Hymenoptera and had to try and come to grips with understanding and recognising them as quickly as possible. Many of the keys are very old, others newer but sometimes equally difficult to understand. What did the terms mean? How could I find the answers?

This proved far more difficult than I had imagined. There were two sets of queries; the first concerning purely technical terms for the parts of the hymenopteran body - and they often turned out to have several sets of names for the same part. The second set were associated with descriptive terms, adjectives, used for describing general conditions, such as colour, shape and form. These were equally obscure, the writers of the keys appearing to have invented their own meaning for some words in use under different meanings elsewhere. Even the multi-volume Oxford Dictionary did not have all of these in its pages. Some professionals, who might have been expected to use these terms in their everyday work, turned out not to understand them. But, if I was to follow the keys, I had to find the answers.

Eventually I found many of the answers and built them into another booklet, 'British Hymenoptera, Glossary for use with Identification Keys', which has changed its content and even its title in the several editions it has gone through. Everyone who has had one has been asked to point out mistakes or tell me about terms not covered which have baffled them in using keys to Hymenoptera. This has been enormously useful and the latest version covers nearly twice as much as the first, with nearly 300 technical terms for body and wing parts and around 250 descriptive terms. Separate sections deal with cuticular microsculpture - the sculpting of the surface of the body - and colour, with drawings to illustrate basic divisions and parts. If you need to use keys to Hymenoptera, this will clear up the basic understanding of what the author meant. It will no longer look like gobbledygook - as I thought the first time I tried to use one such key. (Image right above: Marble gall wasp, female, Andricus kollari).

The third work is more ambitious in its scope and the research contained within it. Some years ago Margaret Redfern & Dick Askew produced a book in the Naturalists Handbook series, 'British Plant Galls', which transformed the study of these fascinating vegetable growths. Our group became instantly fascinated by galls and the insects which caused them and were parasites within them. Almost immediately, I decided to concentrate upon the study of galls on oaks in Britain and have been pursuing this ever since. In course of time it is hoped that the study will cover all 68 oak galls and their 130 odd inhabitants - though even these figures may turn out to have been incorrect by the time the study is completed, for new insects and galls are still being found. Much of this work is well under way but the first fruits of it are contained in, 'The Oak Marble-gall in Britain, with keys, descriptions and drawings of its Inhabitants'. This, covering just one of the oak-galls, is very much aimed at the amateur, with easy to follow diagrams, jargon-free descriptions and a clear picture of how to find, understand and recognise the inhabitants.

The Oak marble-gall is a brown, spherical growth between 10 and 20mm in diameter, commonly found on the end of twigs on our native Pedunculate and Sessile oaks. The gall is formed from peculiar cell growth excited when a cynipid wasp larva hatches from an egg laid in the bud. But the extraordinary thing is that this gall may contain up to 19 different species of wasps. The history is made even more bizarre in that while this gall is produced by an asexual generation of wasp, a completely different gall, on another species of oak, is produced by the next, sexual generation of the same wasp.

How about the 19 different insects which might emerge from the gall? These come from three categories. The 'causer' is the original larva which develops into an agamic (asexual) female wasp which goes on to produce the next generation without benefit of fertilisation by a male. Then there are 'inquilines'; wasps which lay their eggs in the developing gall to feed on the vegetable matter inside it. Finally there are 'parasitoids', chalcid wasps which lay their eggs inside the causer or inquiline larvae, using them as living food stores, but finally killing them. (Image right: Inquiline, Synergus reinhardi).

Some of these parasitoids are like living jewels, though only a few millimetres long, glowing with metallic greens, golds and blues. I only had to see the first of these through my camera lens, and then a microscope, and I was hooked for good. By keeping the galls in old film pots it is possible to rear, examine and photograph these tiny beauties, then let them go. Now that the marble-gall book is written, the drawings done and graphs produced showing times of hatching, the search has moved on to complete the project for all oak-galls. After that comes a project describing our native bumblebees. (Visit bee image gallery).

Following demand from others outside the group who have seen the books, all three books are self-published, in comb-binders, with black and white drawings, at the lowest possible price, to encourage amateurs to take an interest in these fascinating insects. They are available from Kyntons Mead, Heath House, Wedmore, Somerset BS28 4UQ, post-free in Britain.

Southern British Ants: 5;
British Hymenoptera, Glossary for use with Identification Keys: 5;
The Oak Marble-gall in Britain: 10.

Editor's notes:

Robin Williams, who specialises in environmental photography, has supplied some marvellous 35mm slides of bees and ants to Micscape as well as the images above. We hope to upload an image gallery of the bees and ants in the next two issues of Micscape magazine.

The images above were scanned by the Micscape Editor from the 35mm original slides. Inevitably some losses in quality occur during scanning and in the compressed images required for the Web compared with the original slides.

Robin Williams can be contacted via the postal address above.

The images are Robin Williams / Vanellus and cannot be used commercially or redistributed without permission.


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First published in Micscape Magazine, March 1998 ( ISSN 1365 - 070x )

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