Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Pros and cons of private Insect collections

Insect collecting At the moment, huge Dynastes grantii and pretty Chrysina spp are flying in our sky islands and landing under bright lights. They are tempting many nature-lovers even from out of state, to begin an insect collection. Indeed, collecting is a great way to learn about insects, and this knowledge hopefully leads to understanding and protection of environment and habitat. A well curated collection can be a valuable teaching tool to draw in others, especially kids. But: anybody who thinks he or she needs a collection should really consider the scientific validity of that enterprise. I am not saying that the ecosystem gets damaged by the withdrawal of a few individual insects. Where you find some, there usually are many more and as imagoes (adults) their lifespan is very limited. Any individual producing offspring produces such number that any dents in the population (by collecting) are easily filled. But to feel good your about collected insects, you need to prepare them carefully, label each one with collection data (more important than species ids!), dry them properly and keep them in a protective drawer (and those will be accumulated in cabinets, then whole bug rooms!) away from carpet beetles etc. For killing and preservation, toxic chemicals are used. This is some great effort, but it should be undertaken out of respect if you are going out to kill animals. Even today It is still possible, especially out west, to find new species or contribute important data to ecological surveys. Of course, the hobbyist has to understand that the large, showy species are usually well known and new data and exciting research results are rare. With the enormous diversity of insects, not many hobbyists can become knowledgeable experts of the whole phylum. Compare species numbers to those of birds or mammals and you see what I mean. However, specialization on families within orders allows even a lay person to accumulate enough knowledge to contribute. But you have to make yourself appreciate smaller, less charismatic specimens than just the big scarabs and longhorn beetles. Detailed observation and inclusion of the small and overlooked species will make a collection relevant and important beyond just a pretty wall decoration. In due course, If the collection is well cared for and scientifically interesting material is accumulated, it should later be made available to research and teaching in a museum or university setting. Collecting used to be the only way to really learn about insects, because reliable identifications in the field are difficult. Optical instruments and dissections may be needed, and good field guides are hardly available when compared to what’s out there for birders. To a certain degree, this situation is changing. With easy access to good macro-photographic equipment (even I phones!) much can be recorded and identified without the actual specimen in hand. Internet platforms like BugGuide and INaturalis and even our SW Arthropods group on Face Book (I am NOT suggesting to ‘just google it’) connect the naturalist to experts who are willing to help with their knowledge and who in turn gain access to data from the crowd of observers. Of course whenever something interesting is shown on those platforms, the experts will clamor for specimens, not just photos (with good reason). But still the beginner should probably use photography and internet platforms to learn the basics before he or she starts collecting and gets stuck with a pretty, showy, but in the end not very interesting collection of just Hercules Beetles, Silk Moths and pretty butterflies. That way, the collection may eventually become much more satisfying than just a wall decoration.