To Collect, or Not to Collect

Recently I posted to our Facebook page a link to the above article. In the article, Liam O’Brien argues that now, as climate is changing, as the ranges of insect species are ebbing and flowing, is the perfect time for the hobby of collecting of insects to come back into vogue. Hobby insect collecting has lost favor in recent decades, but a project by Bob Pyle, the founder of Xerces Society, called the Outer Net Project, is attempting to reignite the thrill of insect collection.

I collected insects as a child, especially grasshoppers and butterflies. I would capture the elusive creature and then house it in a coffee can. Remember back in the day, when coffee cans were metal with plastic lids. Grasshoppers were my favorite because they would hop, hitting the lid of the can. Multiple grasshoppers in one can could put on a drum solo that would make Neil Peart envious!

In ninth grade I was required to create an insect collection for my biology class at school. I enjoyed the project and received an ‘A’! As part of the collection we had to pin, spread wings, and label each specimen with date, identification, and location. I proudly came home and showed my parents my collection and the corresponding excellent grade. Mom flipped out however when she noticed that the location given for my earwig and silverfish was “kitchen”.

Yes, I do have fond memories of insect collecting. And I know several adults who have continued the hobby beyond their youth. I think it is a fun way to introduce entomology to children. I would hope the adult supervising their swinging of the net would take them to a habitat that has been well studied, and found to be free of rare or uncommon bugs. I know that children with nets can be messy and scary as well as worthwhile. I know sometimes insects lose their lives in the process. I would hate for something rare to lose its life at the hands of a ten year old.

I think another topic that needs to be addressed is the concept of moderation. I emphasize this based on an experience I had with an adult collector. Back in the day (10 years ago!) I was active on different butterfly-themed listserves. On one of these lists, a fellow participant, a collector, had reported that he had observed nine Valeriana Skippers in a gully in remote southern Arizona, and that he had successfully collected seven of the nine. He was quite proud of the series of rare butterflies he would be adding to his collection.

I was speechless. I would’ve loved to had traveled the four hours to this remote location to observe and photograph this rare bug. However, having removed seventy-seven percent of the population, I found it hard to justify the expenditure of time and money to now track down one of two individual butterflies that remained.

This is my concern with normalizing collecting. Is there anybody available to teach the ethics of collection? While those seven Valeriana Skippers may have been a feather in the cap of the collector, the collector proved to be a scrooge for the rest of us.

Yes, collecting can be fun, educational, and worthwhile. If done wisely and in moderation.