The Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects , by Peter C. Barnard . Wiley-Blackwell , October 2011. RRP £39.95, (400 pages), ISBN 978-1-4443-3256-8. http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1444332562.html .
One does wonder initially when looking through it, for whom The Royal Entomological Society’s Book of British Insects will be most useful for? It is described by the publisher as being for ‘students… amateur entomologists… professionals’, and looking at the level of detail included, it seems to exploit a niche between textbooks such as Gullan and Cranston’s ‘The Insects: an outline of Entomology’ and field guides such as Chinery’s ‘Insects of Britain and Western Europe’.
The chapters each describe a different insect order and are grouped monophyletically; this aids a reader’s understanding of the relationships between insect groups, a feature not found in many books. Background information on biology and ecology is included for each order, with a classification of subtaxa and a list of any species of conservation concern. In particular, there is information on each family, with suggested references for help with identification, which is the real value of this book: it covers 558 families of British Insects, including those lesser known.
For the author Peter Barnard, this book could be seen as a natural progression from his 1999 work ‘Identifying British Insects and Arachnids’, written while he was at the Natural History Museum in London. An extensive reference list is provided for each order, with much of the information from the 1999 book included, as well as more up to date works and URLs to information online such as societies for insect orders, families and recording schemes. A slight weakness I feel is the index, which surprisingly for a book aimed at students of Entomology, has very few English names. I think that these would be very helpful to those initially familiarising themselves with the subject.
Overall presentation of the book is clear and simple, following the systematic nature of the content. I do feel, however, that the images used let down this otherwise excellent work; some are undoubtedly beautiful and descriptive, but many are of a low resolution and poor quality. At a time when macrophotography is increasingly popular and images are widely distributed online, instead of having photographs that are for the most part from a single person, this book could have been a showcase for some of the excellent insect photographers in the UK.
At the end of his forward to the book, Quentin Wheeler describes the British insect fauna as playing a role ‘as a natural laboratory of biodiversity exploration’. I feel that recent initiatives such as OPAL, Bioblitz events and television programmes such as Springwatch are part of a push to involve the general public and budding naturalists with this so called natural laboratory. The new generation of entomologists also has technology on their side: excellent identification guides for many insect groups are available online, up to date taxonomic information is available through sites such as the Scratchpads, and many recording schemes now have online record submission, some such as the UK ladybird survey have Smartphone applications for identifying and submitting species records while out in the field.
The Royal Entomological Society Book of British Insects is available as a e-book, and I think this is where it will come into its own. With information on each insect family and hyperlinks directing to further information online, the book can act as an interactive ‘Encyclopedia of British Insects’, gathering the wealth of information available electronically to us. In this form, I would recommend this book to all Entomologists.