Thursday, 22 August 2013

Book review: Britain's Hoverflies by Stuart Ball & Roger Morris

Britain's Hoverflies: An Introduction to the Hoverflies of Britain

Stuart Ball & Roger Morris
Princeton University Press WILDGuides | 2013
296 pp. | 15 x 21 cm | 569 colour photos. 161 colour distribution maps
Paperback | £24.95 / $35.00 | ISBN: 9780691156590

Only about 60% of the 280+ British species of hoverfly are readily identifiable by non-specialists (i.e. without recourse to a microscope and specimen), which goes some way to explaining why hoverflies have not been adopted by birders and nature enthusiasts with the same gusto as dragonflies, butterflies and macro moths. That may be about to change: this outstanding new field guide will almost certainly put hoverflies on the naturalist's radar.

Since 1983, Stubbs and Falk's British Hoverflies: An Illustrated Identification Guide has been the standard guide to British hoverflies. It is the definitive treatment, aimed at the specialist and very keen amateur and is now in its second edition. Size and cost have put it out of reach of the casual observer (like me), who instead relies on Gilbert's Hoverflies (in the Naturalists' Handbooks series) to tentatively name the commoner species.

WILDGuides' Britain's Hoverflies really fills a gap, giving the average naturalist a fighting chance of identifying the majority of species in the field. The book is the same size as previous WILDGuides publications, although more than twice as thick, so it is a true field guide. Its layout, with the plates facing the text, maps and figures makes it entirely fieldworthy – no need to flip back and forth in order to review all the information on a particular species. Following the format of previous WILDGuides, photographs are the main identification tool. A large proportion of the images were taken by Steven Falk – yes, the co-author of the standard work, illustrator of the old Gilbert handbook and administrator of an excellent hoverfly photograph website – and are perfectly engineered to show the field characters required to clinch identification. Often pointers and annotations are used to indicate key field characters. Since the authors are co-organisers of the Hoverfly Recording Scheme, we can be pretty confident of the identity of the subjects – something that cannot be said of some other books and Internet sources.

The facing-pages consist of snappy text which focusses on identification, similar species and observation tips (exactly what is required of a field guide, yet so often left out), together with a distribution map and indicator of flight season. The maps are excellent: large enough to allow the user to pinpoint a location and making use of colour to indicate abundance. The distributional data are derived from the Hoverfly Recording Scheme.

The combination of superb photographs, text and figures makes this one of the most effective identification guides I have used. On top of that, the introductory chapters are exemplary. Packed with fascinating information, even a cursory perusal is enough to make the reader want to get into the field and start using this guide.

In sum, this is one of the best field guides to any taxonomic group. I hope it will set the standard for photographic guides to come. How long before we have similar guides to grasshoppers and bush crickets, bees and wasps, ladybirds, pond life, or even mammals or fungi? All credit to the authors and to the WILDGuides team for giving us this vital new field guide.


Gilbert. F. (1993) Hoverflies (2nd edition). Naturalists' Handbooks # 5. Richmond Press: London. 72 pp.

Stubbs, A.E. & Falk, S.J. (2002) British hoverflies: an illustrated identification guide (2nd edition). British Entomological and Natural History Society: London. 469 pp.

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