Cover of Britain’s Insects: A field guide to the insects of Great Britain and Ireland
Cover of Britain’s Insects: A field guide to the insects of Great Britain and Ireland

Biological recording & species identification

Paul Brock

Princetown University Press


ISBN: 9780691179278

Reviewed by Peter Smithers

The WILDGuides are among the very best field guides available, offering multi-access identification to relatively small groups (60–150) of organisms, for example butterflies, dragonflies, day flying moths. Larger groups of organisms have been taken on, such as the spiders, where 440 of the 680 species are dealt with, the missing 240 species belonging to the Linyphiidae (the tiny money spiders that require microscopic examination), and birds, where 631 species are dealt with. Challenges indeed, but ones that the WILDGuides take in their stride and deal with exceptionally well. However, when the bar is raised to a group like ‘insects’,readers could be forgiven for wondering if the WILDGuides had taken a step too far.

This guide features 1,653 species descriptions from the more popular orders, detailing the common or easily identified insects found in the region; a number that when compared to previous guides is prodigious. The guide opens with a
photographic guide to the difference between insects and other arthropod groups, and then offers a table of the insect orders and a photographic guide to each of these orders. In a novel move it also offers a photographic guide to the larval and nymphal forms of many insect orders. There is a glossary and an introduction to watching and photographing insects.

Where orders contain small numbers of species, such as the Orthoptera, Odonata, Phasmatidae, Blattodea and Raphidioptera, they are presented in great detail. The Orthoptera even have QR codes that link to the calls that the insects produce.The Megaloptera have diagrams of their genitalia to help separate the three species, and the Archaeognatha have drawings of critical features that allow identification to species.This is a level of detail that obviously cannot be applied to the larger orders due to the space available. The guide is already 600 pages and weighs in at 1.5 kg, making it a significant piece of field gear.

Each order is introduced and a series of clearly labelled photographs indicate the taxonomic features of the group, along with a table of the families within the order.The families are introduced with photographs of typical members, and these are grouped according to major habitat or morphological features. The family photographs are also accompanied by taxonomic notes. Small families have simple headers while larger ones have tables that detail the genera within them. It is these introductions that are the innovative feature of this book. They offer a series of visual choices that guide the reader, but it is these sections that take up space and add to the volume of the book, thus decreasing the number of species accounts that it can contain.The second edition of Paul’s previous field guide covered 2,300 species compared to 1,600 in this volume, but it did not offer the detailed introduction to the orders and families.

Each of the 1,600 species accounts offers a photograph of the insect, distribution map and brief notes on size, ID characters, habitat, food plants, distribution and similar species. It is good to see the rarer orders Embioptera and Mantodea included in this volume, but there would appear to be an uneven distribution of coverage over the larger orders. In terms of pages devoted to each of these orders, the Hemiptera have 90, the Lepidoptera 80, Coleoptera 86 and the Hymenoptera 104, but the Diptera receive only 34 pages which seems strange as the order contains a similar number of species to the Hymenoptera. Comparisons with Paul’s previous guide to insects are inevitable, and in his Comprehensive Guide 92 pages are devoted to the Diptera, so the rather slim coverage of a major group would seem disappointing, though I do appreciate that something had to give in order to make this guide a possibility. I appreciate that many of the families across the orders would be impossible to identify in the field due to their small size, and so have been omitted. But the comparatively limited coverage of the Diptera is this book’s Achilles heel.

However, producing a field guide to British insects is an almost impossible task. Attempting to select representatives from the 25,000 species that reside in the UK that can be recognised in the field is always going to leave gaps and disappoint someone. Perhaps the best perspective from which to view such a guide is to ask, what is it intended to do? In my opinion, such a book should be able to introduce a reader who is unfamiliar with invertebrates to the diversity of our insect fauna and ignite their curiosity. It should allow a beginner to navigate the many orders, and families that reside in Britain, enabling them to arrive confidently at an identification, and during this process to have gained an insight into the biology of that group. If a field guide can become the conduit by which the reader becomes familiar with many of the major groups and on that journey generate a sense of excitement, those “WOW, that is amazing” moments, then it is a success.

This book will do all those things. Its bright and colourful yet densely informative format will inspire new entomologists, pique the interest of those naturalists who are already familiar with some insects, and offer old hands a quick and convenient information source. Experienced entomologists may look at this book and see gaps and omissions, but all such guides are predestined to be riddled with such things. The beginner will be blind to these and only see the mass of information and opportunities that this book has to offer.

So, was this book a step too far for the WILDGuides? No. Paul Brock is to be congratulated on navigating the maze of possibilities to arrive at a balanced compromise between detail and breadth.The AES is also to be congratulated for supporting this bold project. Paul’s book is an excellent introduction to our island’s insects, and I suspect it will also increase the fitness of all who take it into the field.

Cover of Britain’s Insects: A field guide to the insects of Great Britain and Ireland