Tomorrow’s Invertebrate Recorder: Graham Smith

Last summer I applied for and received the wonderful opportunity to jump aboard a week residential course with the FSC BioLinks project as a part of A Focus on Nature (AFON) for 18-25 year olds. Here, one of the rarer opportunities for a whole bunch of keen young naturalists to bump heads was made a reality, all from a range of backgrounds. One of the most beautiful things I have found about invertebrates and the natural world is that you get to be put back in touch with a child-like part of yourself; marvelling at things that are beautiful or don’t make sense – something we start to lose touch with as we become more cynical with age. That was especially apparent here on the course. All at varying levels of experience and confidence we had an endless curiosity and fun facts to share, all while conveying genuine passion. No elitism crept in; it felt like everyone truly wanted to impart their knowledge and were excited by that prospect.


Earthworms and Biological Recording

This was only helped by the enthusiastic tutors running the two factions of the week, which resulted in a cheeky rivalry which persisted throughout our time at the centre – earthworms vs spiders. Each team contained 7 people and I was on team earthworm. Admittedly, my instinct was stoically that spiders are quite cool and badass in the world of invertebrates, and as such my initial interest betrayed my team. Though I have to say, as with any group, once you learn enough you start to become empowered by what you know, you become almost frustrated at how underappreciated something is. I feel this quickly became the case with earthworms, when the UK and Irish diversity was first made clear to me (31 species) that was a turning point, alongside Keiron and Frank’s passion for them. I had never given it much of a second thought, I thought at most maybe we had a handful of species, but to think there are more UK worm species than bumblebees (~26) which are probably one of the most widely appreciated groups (alongside butterflies and beetles) is quite surprising. They have such a critical role within our ecosystems right beneath our feet and they also dwell alongside large numbers of two of my favourite groups of invertebrates – springtails and ground beetles! So, I guess was a little more ready to love the world of the soil than most.

 I have retained a newfound appreciation of the group, and I encourage anyone to give worm identification a go, you will most often need an adult (a worm with a saddle, yee haw!) and a microscope, with the AIDGAP guide by Emma Sherlock being your literal key to the puzzle of the segmented squishy earthworm enigma. They are criminally under recorded in the UK and are surprisingly rewarding to figure out. Also, a handful of the more distinct ones which you can do easily at home and are great for kids to help record while they are digging around in the garden!

Biological records are so valuable, and now more a time than any (amidst the COVID-19 situation as I write this in lockdown!) is a great time to reconnect with something we all too often let go unnoticed, and you can do it all from your garden! Be this earthworms, insects, plants or fungi there is so much to learn in these overlooked groups. Send any records along to iRecord and make your own little mark on the map of UK wildlife. There is an idea that if you read 3 books on a subject you end up with more knowledge on it than 95% of people on earth. An excuse then to throw yourself at a group of underappreciated life and have the fun of telling everyone else about it. No greater joy than looking at someone’s crumpled and baffled face or raised eyebrows as they must reassess their perspective on something which they thought was so simple, or even mundane! During the rest of the course we homed in on the importance of biological records, learning in the classroom and then putting the skills to work with field identification at Carding Mill Valley. Here I met my first Colletes (Plasterer) bee (see photo)! 



Entomology masters - onwards with invertebrates!

Since the course I have thrown myself into my passion for invertebrates in the form of insects, studying a master’s in entomology at Harper Adams. For anyone with a love of the six-legged critters I thoroughly recommend it, it has been a key steppingstone in connecting with the entomological community and further getting to grips with the endless options for research within the field. The course has equipped me with practice in keying out most groups of insects, and much more in the form of some fantastic guest lectures at the start of the year from staff at the Natural History Museum and biological control companies. With staff from these companies highlighting ways we can balance our need to control pests with our use of chemicals and exploiting available alternatives, with insights into the future of food production.

There is also invaluable access to the entomologists at Harper itself, for whatever interest you have there will be someone willing to work with you to your personal research goals and help you in the direction you want to go. Given that you seize the opportunity you can make the most of the amazing people around you at Harper Adams. For now, connected to the soil this time instead by ground-nesting bees, my research is taking place in Kent. Here I am looking at the importance of floral diversity and presence of different habitats in encouraging more of these beautiful bees! Though work has now been put on standstill due to COVID-19, with any hope this will provide insights into how we can better encourage native bees into food production, rather than focussing only on honey bees; who can be a double edged sword to say the least at times.

I am grateful for the opportunity FCS gave me last summer, and the connections it allowed me to make in such a small space of time; it has only propelled me ever further into my love for the natural world and biological recording! The world may seem strange and ever-changing at times but keeping in touch nature can keep you grounded and feel as though it is within your grasp to make positive change. Learn a little about little things and they will never cease to amaze you – earthworms included!

 - Guest blog by Graham Smith