Insect Identifications and Etiquette

I’ve been a student of insects for most of my life, and of the many aspects of entomology that interest me, field collecting and identification remain the most enjoyable. My interest in beetles first began to gel during my days at the university (despite a thesis project focused on leafhoppers), and early in my career I settled on wood-boring beetles (principally Buprestidae and Cerambycidae) as the taxa that most interested me. To say that species identification of these beetles can be difficult is an understatement, but I was fortunate to have been helped by a number of individuals—well-established coleopterists—who freely shared their time and expertise with me during my early years and pointed me in the right direction as I began to learn the craft. Some of the more influential include colleagues that have since passed (e.g., Gayle Nelson, John Chemsak, Chuck Bellamy, and Frank Hovore) and those that, thankfully, continue with us (e.g., Rick Westcott and Henry Hespenheide).

It has been a little more than 30 years now since I began studying these beetles, and due in great part to the help I received early on and the motivation that it inspired within me, I have gained a certain amount of proficiency in their identification as well. Not surprisingly, I too regularly receive requests from people looking for help with identifications. I rarely turn down such requests (in fact, I don’t think I have ever turned one down)—it not only helps my own research but also, occasionally, allows me to fill a gap or two in my collection. More importantly, however, it is my duty—I benefited greatly from those who shared their expertise with me, so it’s only fair that I continue by their example.

As common a practice as this is among collectors, it seems odd that there are few written guidelines on the etiquette of requesting and providing identifications. Note that this is something different than borrowing specimens for study, which has its own set of expectations and responsibilities. As someone who has both requested and received requests for specimen identifications for a long time now, I have my own thoughts about reasonable expectations in this regard. Perhaps you, too, will find these thoughts useful the next time you contemplate asking somebody to identify your specimens (or accepting a request to do so).

Guidelines for requesting identifications

  1. Always ask permission to send specimens before doing so. ‘Nuff said.
  2. When you do send specimens, read  and follow the guidelines suggested to avoid creating additional work for the identifier who must repair specimens damaged in shipment.
  3. Leave extra room in the specimen box. While tightly packed specimens minimize shipment size and can reduce cost, it also increases risk of damage during shipment due to ‘bumping’ or during removal from the box for ID. More importantly, it allows little or no room for the addition of identification labels to specimens. Additionally, many identifiers find it helpful to remove all of the specimens from a box and group them by related taxa to facilitate identification. The reassembled specimens may require more space than they did in their original arrangement.
  4. Send the entire available series of specimens. A common practice among those sending specimens for ID is to hold back specimens from a series and send only one or a few examples. Whether this is to, again, minimize the size of the shipment, confirm a provisional ID, or safeguard specimens perceived as desirable, it nevertheless prevents the identifier from having access to the range of data and variability represented in the series. This is important if the series contains 1) multiple species, 2) previously undocumented distributions or ecological data, or 3) unusual morphological variants. An exception to this is when very long series of specimens are available and sending the entire series would be unwieldy and/or unnecessary. In this case, the identifier should be informed that only a partial series of specimens was sent.
  5. Allow retentions. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes individuals have balked at my requests to retain specimens that proved useful for my studies. This is poor etiquette, as it shows little respect for the value of the service being provided by the person making the identifications. More common is to allow retention of examples from a series, but not singletons. This also, in my opinion, is poor etiquette. I remember one of my early sendings to Gayle Nelson that contained a single specimen of Agrilus audax, a very rare North American buprestid known by only a handful of specimens. Not surprisingly, Gayle did not have this species in his collection, and while I, too, was a student of the group I didn’t hesitate to give this specimen Gayle—established and well-respected expert of the family that he was. To this day the species remains unrepresented in my collection, yet I have never second guessed that decision due to the value of what I gained in his respect and mentorship in the years since. Most identifiers are both humble and sparing in their requests for retentions.¹
  6. Allow time for identifications. Individuals with expertise in a given group are generally few in number, and those willing to provide identifications may be fewer still. As a result, they usually have a number of boxes on hand at any one time awaiting identification. Get an idea from them at the start of how long they expect it will be before they can complete the task. If the projected timeline passes and you don’t hear back from them, an inquiry is fine, but be polite and understanding.

¹ A corollary to this asking for specimens in exchange for specimens retained. An exchange involves two parties sending each other specimens that mutually benefit each other’s collections. Identifications are a service provided by one party that benefit the requester. To suggest an exchange as ‘payment’ for retained specimens ignores the value of the service being provided by the identifier

Guidelines for providing identifications

  1. Once specimens are received, protect them from damage as you would your own collection. Maintain them in a protective cabinet or check them regularly to ensure that dermestid pests do not gain a toehold.
  2. Provide the identifications in as timely a manner as possible. This is not always easy, especially for those willing to accept a large number of requests and who may find themselves inundated with boxes awaiting identification. If you cannot provide identifications relatively quickly, be honest with the requestor regarding how long you expect the identifications to take. If it does take longer, provide an update to the requestor and give them the option to have the specimens returned or confirm that they are okay with the delay.
  3. Add your identification label with your name and date (year) to at least the first specimen in the series. Even better is if you can add a small, pre-printed ID label to every specimen in the series, but this can be difficult if the number of specimens and/or diversity of species is large. If there are specimens with prior identifications that you disagree with, turn the prior ID label upside-down, replace through an existing pin hole, and add your ID label. I disagree with the practice of folding prior ID labels—not only could I be wrong, but this unnecessarily damages something with historical value, especially if new pin holes are added to the label. Always place your ID label below any existing labels (i.e., label order should reflect their sequence of placement—oldest labels nearest the specimen and newest labels furthest away).
  4. Keep retentions to a minimum. I generally ask to retain specimens only when they significantly improve the representation in my collection or provide significant new data—i.e., un- or under-represented species, undocumented distributions or ecological data, etc. The bar for singletons is even higher—usually only if they are completely absent from my collection (with ~65% of U.S. Buprestidae now represented in my collection, this is an increasingly uncommon occurrence).
  5. Following #4, provide an accounting of retained specimens. Minimally, a list of species and their number should be given, and my preference is to provide label data as well (especially if requested). I once sent a batch of beetles (in a family in which I do not specialize) to an expert for identification, and when I received them back it was obvious that a number of specimens had been retained (perhaps 1/3 of the total number). When I wrote to the identifier and asked for an accounting (remember, I was only asking for an accounting—I did not have a problem with the retentions themselves), I received a rather terse reply from the individual stating that he did not ‘have time’ to provide this. Needless to say, this level of dismissiveness was not appreciated, and I have since found another more agreeable researcher with expertise in that family to send specimens for identification.
  6. When you are ready to return the specimens, read  and follow it’s suggested guidelines to avoid causing damage to the specimens whose care you were entrusted.

Again, these guidelines are written from the perspective of a private individual sending and receiving specimens for identification. Scientists at institutions may have additional or differing guidelines on this subject, but in any case these guidelines should be communicated to and understood by individuals requesting identifications before any material is sent.

If you have additional suggestions or comments on how these guidelines can be improved I would appreciate hearing them.

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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4 Responses to Insect Identifications and Etiquette

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is great Ted. I was wondering recently about the etiquette of requesting identifications from photos on Facebook. You must have noticed I have posted images that tagged you and Steven Lingafelter. I guessed if that was rude you or Steven could just ignore but I wonder if there is a correct way of doing it.

    • Since you didn’t leave your name I’m not really sure who I’m talking to. However, I don’t have a problem being tagged to identify photos on Facebook as long as I’m tagged in the discussion and not on the photo itself. It’s not a frequent enough occurrence to be an issue. I would have a problem with somebody I didn’t already have a relationship with e-mailing me photos unsolicited for identification.

  2. Rentz says:

    Ted Good advice. I recall Curt Sabrosky saying the he always kept a t straight 50%. That allowed them to build up the national collection. Always seemed a bit stiff to me.

    • Yes, 50% is excessive. In fact, most public institutions have a 33% rule (every third specimen of a series), and that also seems excessive. Of course, they are trying to build up a collection, whereas I’m just trying to fill holes and not so much increase the overall numbers of specimens. Either way, the identifier should be up front about what to expect in terms of retentions before the specimens are sent.

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