Friday, May 25, 2012

The Small Majority

The title of this blog is shamelessly lifted (and modified) from a book by Piotr Nasrecki called the The Smaller Majority - a pretty book that will open the eyes of those who travel long distances to see or photograph big animals. The late Stephen Jay Gould said
"Don't accept the chauvinistic tradition that labels our era the age of mammals. This is the age of arthropods. They outnumber us by any criterion – by species, by individuals, by prospects for evolutionary continuation."
At one point I decided that they were worthy of study and decided to pursue a degree in the agricultural sciences, one of the few places in India where one could obtain a formal training in entomology. After a lot of study and reading I still find myself overwhelmed by the diversity. People who begin to observe nature by starting off with the birds and imagine that insect identification should be similar and they ask "which book do you use ?" and I say none. It leads to something that goes a bit like a Lewis Carroll dialogue because one really has to resort not to one book but a whole library full of books and little articles scattered across journals. And at the end of it one still needs to be satisfied with the possibility of not knowing what species something that you hold in your hand is.

Amazingly, there are now a growing band of organizations that do short trainings to which people flock in the hope of becoming experts. Since such expertise eludes me in spite of years of reading on-and-off, I thought I should put together some of the sources available. I am concentrating mainly on resources that are easy to find, especially on the Internet. There are however some really good modern works, albeit expensive that the more serious insect observers should consider.

An overview of Insect classification

Fondly called "Brues&Melander" and despite being archaic (published in 1932!) (particularly for some higher level groupings) is still very usable and provides good overall structure and feature information, but once you find a group, it is best to research it on the Internet search to see if things have changed.

Indian Insects

Indian Insect Life by Harold Maxwell-Lefroy is another archaic work (1909) and yet worthy of a careful browse. Lefroy was the first "Imperial Entomologist" in India and was a prolific author whose life was cut short when he died breathing poisonous fumes in his laboratory.

Another old work published after Maxwell-Lefroy, is by T B Fletcher (who became Imperial Entomologist of India with almost no formal training).

Printable notes

Here are some PDF files that are good to print and keep until you know all the insect orders.

Cornell class notes
Notes - an identification key - insects and some non-insects - another illustrated key (13 pages)

Once you get an idea of the insect groups, you will be able to look at specialist sources like the Fauna of British India - but to fully utilize them you need to have access to specimens, a binocular microscope, and time for a lot of reading - or if you are luckly you may find someone with the expertise needed at your nearby university.
A species that too many people ask about!

If you are a rank beginner and just want to know what something is, there are electronic forums where you can ask - remember, the chances are high that the insect you see is really common and hundreds of people before you would have asked what it was. See if you can find it on the forum before you post.

Here are some possibilities -
1)  - a Facebook group
2) - a Yahoo mail group
3) - a site that deals with North American insects but good to see the images there
4) You can ask any question on the Wikipedia reference desk - but posting images takes a bit of learning - but if you do donate your photos here - they might become part of future reference material
5) - an Australian website on insects

If you know the group - then there are specialist websites where you can find more information - here are some examples
1) - for flies (Diptera - the "true flies") - has both a gallery of collated information as well as a Q&A forum
2) - for Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants) - has a Q&A forum (English accepted)

Any India specific site? Afraid not. (Unless you have an extra lifetime to spare and want to file an RTI with the Zoological Survey of India, who are in theory expected to be the information clearing house for Indian biota !)

And if you still need help - ask me and I will try and point the way ...

Postscript: 2015 September - ZSI has since made a lot of their content available - online