Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Confessions of a Collector


This posting is in response to a request by Homer that I address the question of ethical considerations in insect collecting. In addition to finding the question interesting, I feel that Homer is a great person to be asking it. He's an archaeologist professionally. Both of our fields sometimes involve making collections of the things that we study, and there are distinct ethical issues involving the collections that we make.

I got my first butterfly net from the Easter Bunny when I was 6. I’ve been collecting off and on (mostly on) for nearly all of my life. When I was young, collecting was the main way that insect enthusiasts and bugs interacted. Every field guide from that era has a section at the beginning about how to make and keep a collection. As I got older interesting new ways of interacting with insects began to emerge: everything from watching them through binoculars like birders do, to rearing them indoors, to gardening for. At the same time, increasing concerns about conservation brought the practice of collecting into question. Where does that leave collecting today?

Leaf Beetle

There are many important exceptions to this rule, but most species of butterflies today are doing very well from a conservation standpoint. The young butterfly enthusiast that collects these species is doing no lasting harm to butterfly populations as long as she limits her activities to those species. It’s generally easy to avoid the species where there are conservation concerns. For one thing, they’re rare. Additionally for most imperiled species, a collector must actively seek them out by specifically visiting (usually protected) locations where they live. Poaching is not a part of ethical collecting. Growing up, the vast majority of my collecting was done in my back yard, along dirt roads near my house, and at roadside rest areas while my family was travelling. None of the species that I collected in those days would today give me pause from a conservation standpoint.

Flea Beetle

As I have gotten older, the focus of my collecting has changed. For one thing, I have branched out beyond butterflies and now collect grasshoppers, moths, and a few groups of beetles as well. I’ve branched out partly because I enjoy the intellectual challenge of learning about new groups of insects. Additionally, I’m no longer collecting for my own personal satisfaction. Everything that I collect today is deposited in the holdings of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. By doing this, I am ensuring that my specimens will be available for study long after I’m gone.

Tortoise Beetle

I collect for a variety of reasons today. I’ve already blogged a fair bit about the aspects of collecting that involve taking live samples of imperiled species, breeding them in the lab, and releasing them as part of ecological restoration. Even with the very conservation-oriented nature of this activity, I must still take precautions. I have to get a permit (typically multiple permits) for nearly every species I work with. I must take great care to avoid damaging the source populations for this work, as well.

Toad Lubber

Other aspects of my collecting do not involve conservation, at least not as directly. By collecting beetles and grasshoppers in order to teach myself more about these groups, I am collecting a snapshot of species diversity and distribution at a particular place and time. This requires that I keep records that are as complete and accurate as possible. The specimens and records assembled by collectors who came before me have been critical to my conservation work. I hope that my records will prove useful to future generations of scientists.

Slant-faced Grasshoppers, Spine-breasted Grasshoppers, and Katydids

I am also beginning to collect material to begin DNA studies on butterflies. I’m using molecular techniques both to compare the genetic diversity of natural and restored populations, and beginning a cladistic study of a difficult genus of butterflies from North and South America. This topic is worthy of a complete blog post, and I’ll probably do one eventually.

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At 19:58, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. Do I see an 2,000 page Reference Book in the works for you lifes work extraordinaire with pictures of you and Leon in the wilds of Borneo? I kid........ Fascinating post and educational to the simple gardener I am. We purposefully use Mason bees, ladybugs, and mantis in our garden ! ! !

At 19:58, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I've wondered myself about the view that bug collectors have in pursuing their collections. Great points.

At 21:22, Anonymous Anonymous said...


YOUR writing style has captivated a lot of your friends and a few of outcasts in the N.W. I was tagged with this charge:

Simply tell us 10 things about you that we don’t already know or would find interesting. Then tag 3 others…if you wish.

We felt it would be something great for you to do since WE would all get the benefit of reading your original take on life. NO offense should you choose to ignore this ridiculous Meme request. Thanks.

At 23:13, Blogger Ur-spo said...

that was good reading; I hadn't thought there was a ethics or concern to bug collecting until you raised it up.

At 14:55, Blogger Homer said...

Thanks Doug, I had not thought about DNA applications. Archaeologists have different but similar ethical quandaries- what to save considering the warehouses are so full?


At 21:37, Blogger robin andrea said...

I am glad you posted this, doug. It is an important perspective about the tension between species and individual. Because I am not a scientist, I tend to respond to animals emotionally, as individual creatures worthy of my attention and protection. You convey the importance of understanding the success of species, and the individual that is collected for assistance in that endeavor.

At 09:17, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What robin said.

That's a great way to put your POV, robin, BTW. Thanks for speaking for me! You made it easy!

At 17:03, Blogger Robert said...

I missed the bug fair this year at the LA's Natural History Museum! waaaaaaa! That's where I got my first millipede!

Have a great weekend!! xoxo


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