British Insects: the Families of Hymenoptera

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L. Watson and M. J. Dallwitz


This data set is generated from a DELTA database (Dallwitz 1980; Dallwitz, Paine, and Zurcher 1993). The original intention of the ‘British Insects’ suite of packages, of which it forms part, was primarily to present scans of the fine hand-coloured engravings of insects in John Curtis’s British Entomology: illustrations and descriptions of the genera of insects found in Great Britain and Ireland (1824–1840). The first 12 volumes of the first edition (up to 1835) were directly available to us, and pages issued from 1836–1840 have been accessed from other sources (see Notes on John Curtis’s British Entomology).

In addition to presenting Curtis’s and other early illustrations, however, all the ‘British Entomology’ subsets incorporate descriptive data organized under the DELTA system, and purport to offer at least partial identification and information retrieval via the interactive program Intkey. The present subset incorporates all the families of British Hymenoptera, described via standard morphological and ecological characters. It is unlikely to achieve its identificatory objective satisfactorily at this early stage of development, but the DELTA data (from which updates of the interactive package are easily generated) are readily accessible for improving, correcting and extending.

Family descriptions were compiled for this purpose from Wright’s (1990) and Willmer’s (1993) keys to the genera of Symphyta and Aculeata; then checked, improved and extended using the detailed taxonomic descriptions of Riek et al. (1970); see References. In considerably extending the coverage of families and genera illustrated, we have resorted to scans from the Saunders’s (1896), Edwards (1896) and Cameron (1883, 1885) treatments of Hymenoptera Aculeata, Cicadina and Psyllina, and Sawflies, as well as from J.F. Stephens’s Illustrations of British Entomology (Supplement, 1846). Thus, we are able to exemplify most of the British families of Hymenoptera with at least one picture, and most with several to many.

The nomenclature of Curtis and the other early authors was aligned in the first instance with the original British Check-list of Kloet and Hincks (1945), after which many of the rather numerous names not listed by them were tracked down with resort to the Second Edition, ‘completely revised’ by Fitton et al. (1978). The original edition of Kloet and Hincks was indispensable, because the authors of the Second Edition chose to omit ‘some synonymy pertaining to the older British literature’. While they mention this qualification only in relation to the Aculeata, numerous generic and specific names of Symphyta employed by Cameron in the late Nineteenth Century are also missing from their list. A few of the omissions will represent insects no longer considered ‘British’, but this explanation cannot be generally applicable (for example, the Sawfly ‘Nematus ruficapillus’, said by Cameron to be ‘the commonest species of the group’). Saunders and Cameron illustrations posing this problem have thus far been omitted, but the plates and text of Curtis folios are presented under ‘Unsatisfactorily resolved Images’ in our interactive Insect Orders package, at (see also Updated insect names for John Curtis’s British Entomology). While pursuit of outstanding queries over the identifications and nomenclature of early entomologists continues with reference to recent, invaluable Internet postings, it is obviously impracticable in the present context to keep abreast of nomenclatural recombinations, generation of which continues apace. We hope, however, that names given with the illustrations in these ‘British Insects’ packages should at least encourage their use in connection with modern texts.

Family assignments of the insects illustrated have been checked at family level, in effect with reference to the family descriptions in the cited works, by ‘identifying’ the illustrations using the Intkey package. While we think these conform reasonably well with the family assignments, however, checking on the generic and specific identities of the insects depicted has so far been very limited, and expert input would be welcomed. Meanwhile, persons wishing to use the pictures for their own purposes should take the necessary precautions for themselves.

All the compilations in our ‘British Insects’ series, including this one, are readily accessible for extending, improving and making corrections. Organization under the Delta system ensures ready access for corrections and improvements. Informed criticism and constructive input are of course welcome, and will be appropriately acknowledged. Alternatively, complete Delta data sets can be donated if required for teaching purposes, or to any professional or amateur entomologist or organization interested in developing them further.

Edited 16 December 2011