Collect by all means, but….

Some of Wallace’s beetles


Leaving aside grant writing and committee meetings, which are, in theory, voluntary, the part of academic life I hate the most is marking assignments and exams.  At this time of year, however, I find myself actually enjoying marking student assignments. You may well ask why, what is it that makes these assignments different?  The reason is simple enough; many years ago, when thinking about ways in which to satisfy learning outcomes and to give our MSc students worthwhile skills in a different and enjoyable way, I had a flash of inspiration. I came up with two assignments that I felt our aspiring entomologists would appreciate and that I, and my colleagues would enjoy marking.  One is a written piece of work based on the Royal Entomological Society student essay competition. This not only gives the students the chance to write about something they like in a totally different format than their usual essays and lab reports, but as they are encouraged to submit their essays to the prize committee, they get the chance to gain a monetary reward, and many do so*.

The second assignment which I ‘borrowed’ from my own days as an entomology student, is to collect and curate a small insect collection, with the added twist of preparing a factsheet/booklet, suitable for use at outreach events, describing the collection with notes on the biology and ecology of the specimens, capped off with a fun fact for each insect. The students do a fantastic job with both the collections and the accompanying leaflets, booklets and posters (they are allowed a very free rein as to how they present the fact sheets).  They are so good in fact, that I borrow some of them to use at outreach activities**.

Some examples of the student collections.  Apologies for the lousy photographs 😊

Now on to the meat of my post. Although initially aimed at the use of live animals (by which they meant vertebrates, the three Rs of biomedical research, reduction, refinement replacement (Russell & Burch, 1959) now widely permeate society and have meant that many of the zoology practical classes that I did as an undergraduate, e.g. examining the effect of adrenaline on exposed frog hearts, or infecting scores of day-old chicks with Eimeria tenella, ready for killing (by the students) and subsequent dissection of the gut, are, and rightly so, no longer part of the student curriculum.  Although as entomologists we deplore the common perception that insects are not, for the most part, recognised as animals by funding bodies, or the general public, we are glad that this allows us to escape the dreaded ethics forms and licences to allow us to work on living material. As entomologists however, whether we work on pests or on insects of conservation interest, we are deeply in love with our study animals and although some of us (not me, I have always been an observer rather than a pinner) may own or manage large collections of insects, we do this from necessity not from a love of killing.  This is, and always has been, something of a conflict for us entomologists since the first one emerged from the undergrowth clutching a treasured specimen (Newman, 1841).

Newman (1841) on why entomologists are more humane than non-entomologists


Joseph Greene – another early ethical entomologist

Living insects are not always amenable to transport and display; the standard fare at outreach events are stick insects, leaf insects, flower beetles and Madagascan hissing cockroaches, fulfilling the hardiness, cuteness and “yuk” factors respectively and in all cases, being large enough to see easily.  I have taken living specimens of the “World’s biggest aphid” along on many occasions, only to be greeted with responses that can only be described as of complete underwhelming disdain 😊We want and need to show the fantastic diversity of insects and the easiest way to do this is with the standard display boxes.

Our basic outreach display box of common British insects

Boxes such as the above do not usually cause much controversy although some visitors do ask why we need to kill and pin the insects.  It is the boxes of what look like identical specimens lined out in serried rows that cause the most questioning.

Serried rows – the infinite variety withing species – thanks to Erica McAlister from the NHM for the photograph.

My response is to ask my interlocutor to imagine that they are a 10 metre tall explorer from a distant Galaxy that has landed on Earth and collected a couple of humans, which you carefully preserve and take back to your home planet and donate them to a museum as typical Earth specimens. Now, imagine another intrepid collector arrives on Earth with the description of your specimens which unbeknownst to either of you happen to be two males from an Amazonian tribe. Alien Explorer 2 has landed in Iceland at a ladies day at a hot spring.  What is han to make of the specimens han trapped? This is usually enough to make my point and of course I also explain about the huge importance of type specimens and the advantage of being able to look and compare whole specimens from every angle, which despite the huge advances in photography and 3-D imagery is not always possible with virtual images.

Unfortunately, not everyone has had the need for collecting and the importance of reference collections explained to them by an entomologist,  and some individuals can get very worked up about what they perceive as needless cruelty or desecration of Nature, sometimes with very unfortunate outcomes. The late Philip Corbet, one of the most eminent Odonatologist of modern times, then in his early 70s, was once badly beaten up by a member of the public at a Nature Reserve to which he (Philip) had been invited to collect a rare type specimen.  Adam Hart and Sierian Sumner received a deluge of personal abuse for asking people to kill and collect wasps as part of a citizen science project and at the risk of reopening a can of worms, annelid expert Emma Sherlock from the Natural History Museum London, was hounded on-line and in the main stream media for investigating the largest ever Lumbricus terrestris, to see if it was a species new to science or a genetic aberration.

The worm in question

In Emmas’s own words, “To identify earthworms generally there are less than half I can identify accurately alive, the rest you always have to preserve to identify. For the people saying you shouldn’t preserve animals how are you ever to conserve them? You need to add a name to the animal to be able to learn more about it and to conserve it if it needs help. Like the little polychaete worm that halted the big road development a few years back. If a specimen hadn’t been taken and given a name then it is just a worm, and there are lots of worms and therefore worms are not in need of protection”.

This is also the case for many insect species, which can for example, only be identified by close examination of their genitalia, in many cases, by dissection, so certainly not possible to do with living specimens.  Another point of concern that could be raised is the phenomenon of moth trapping.  Until I went on Twitter, I hadn’t thought deeply about moth trapping.  I was involved with running one of the Rothamsted Insect Survey moth traps when I was doing my PhD at the University of East Anglia, but hadn’t realised that it was a bit of a phenomenon with even hard-core ornithologists running traps in their gardens. Given the reports of insect declines over the last couple of decades (Leather, 2018) is this something we should deplore and restrict? Very sensibly, moth trappers (moth’ers) have not ignored the problem and the consensus seems to be that moth trapping per se, pales into insignificance when compared with the other pressures on insect populations.

I suspect that like most entomologists, I have what might seem to non-entomologists a contradictory relationship with insects.  My research spans the world of conservation and crop protection.  As an ecologist, my group and I are trying to come up with ways in which to enhance and protect insect diversity and abundance.  The other members of the group are looking at better ways to protect our crops so that we can feed the world, and this inevitably involves killing pest insects to reduce their populations.  In my own garden, insects are allowed to flourish and I cringe when I see or hear people telling me how they run their fingers and thumbs along rose buds to squash the aphids.  I feel guilty if I accidentally wash a spider down the drain when I am having a shower, but have no compunction at all in squashing a mosquito or swatting a stable fly when she attempts to suck my blood!

It is precisely this conflict of interests that has made entomologists think harder about the ethics of their profession than many ‘civilians’ do when swatting mosquitoes or spraying their vegetable gardens (e.g. Fischer & Larson, 2019; Didham et al., 2019).  In the end I turned to verse 🙂

Because we love them

We need to think carefully

When we collect them



Didham, R.K., Leather, S.R. & Basset, Y. (2019) Ethics in entomology. Antenna, 43, 124-125.

Fischer, B. & Larson, B.M.H. (2019) Collecting insects to conserve them: a call for ethical caution.  Insect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 173-182.

Greene, J. (1880) The Insect Hunter’s Companion 3rd Edition, W. Swan Sonnenhein & Allen, London.

Leather, S.R. (2018) “Ecological Armageddon” – more evidence for the drastic decline in insect numbers. Annals of Applied Biology, 172, 1-3.

Newman, E. (1841) A Familiar Introduction to the History of Insects. John van Voorst, London.

Russell, W.M.S & Burch, R.L. (1959) The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. Methuen & Co, London.



If you scroll down the RES page link you will see that our students have done remarkably well over the years.



an example followed by some of our former students 😊


Filed under EntoNotes

16 responses to “Collect by all means, but….

  1. Great post, Simon. With respect to long “series” collections: Daniel Lewis explores some of the history of this in “A Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgeway and the Modern Study of Birds”.

    From page 67: “The value of long series of specimens…which allowed researchers to address Darwinian ideas of intergradations of species, became clearer ever year…” The argument is that a single type specimen is only useful if natural species are strongly and naturally invariant in space and in time. But as evolution became part of what a museum collection was about, it because absolutely critical to be able to assess variation; and for that you need long runs of specimens.

    Lots of interesting stuff in the book:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jonathan Wallace

    Perhaps worth noting that the armies of people trapping moths in their gardens that you refer to almost all release the overwhelming majority of their catches back into the wild alive. Some (not all) retain occasional specimens for dissection where identification is not possible from externally visible characters but it is commonplace for specimens of common but hard to separate species pairs (e.g. November and Pale November moths or Common and Lesser Common Rustics) to be ‘agged’ i.e. recorded as being a member of the aggregate of similar species without determining which. This is in contrast to the network of Rothamsted traps which have a killing agent but the rothamsted survey represents a very small fraction of the overall moth trapping effort. It is nevertheless of great importance because it is carried out following a strict, consistent protocol which permits rigorous statistical analysis of abundance and allows us to draw conclusions about population trends that cannot easily be derived from most moth trapping because of variable trapping effort, biased sampling of the overall environment and so on.
    Obviously people differ in their attitudes to killing insects for the purposes of study but I think most people with a serious interest in entomology recognise that it is sometimes necessary and that the impact on population levels is trivial. In the wider conservation/natural history community though, hostility to killing insects for survey or research purposes is potentially a growing concern. There was a recent post on the UK Hoverfly Monitoring Scheme Facebook page about a field meeting at a nature reserve that was cancelled due to a stipulation from the reserve managers that no flies should be killed or specimens retained. Of course the reserve’s managers are within their rights to set the ground rules for the meeting but their no-kill policy means that correct determination of species present on their site cannot be achieved for all species and hence there will be imperfect detection of the range of species present. This in turn can potentially have implications for conservation as outlined in your polychaete worm example.
    I don’t think anyone is advocating gratuitous or excessive killing of insects but it is to be hoped that the training of conservation practitioners – whether in college/university or on-the-job – would ensure an appropriate understanding of the need for some responsibly planned and conducted lethal sampling of invertebrates for conservation purposes and the ability to put the relatively small numbers of insects involved into context.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I meant to mention that the majority of moths are returned to the wild although then there is the possible problem that some birds are bright enough to hang around the emptying areas and pick up an easy tit-bit. I don’t know if anyone has done any research on the mortality rates of release moths?


      • Jonathan Wallace

        Yes fair point – birds definitely do learn that moth traps provide a nice morning buffet breakfast if allowed to do so! Emptying the trap as soon as possible after first light, avoiding repeated trapping in the same location on many consecutive nights and releasing the catch away from the immediate location of the trap (or retaining it until nightfall) are all commonly practised to avoid this as far as possible. Avoiding repeated trapping in the same location also helps to avoid the same individuals being retrapped repeatedly and thus prevented from engaging in essential behaviours such as feeding and mating. I am not aware of work on the mortality rate for released moths but cannot say that there has been none. There has been work done testing the effective trapping radius of light traps and it is rather small so in most habitats only a very small proportion of the overall habitat is sampled.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good to know that – thanks


  3. Lawrence KIrkendall

    Hi Simon and his readers,
    I have always thought of myself as the rare specialist who had never collected insects before becoming and entomologist (and I still only collect for research purposes). Perhaps uncommon but not so rare?
    Given the first figure, I thought someone might be interested to know that I stumbled upon an actual insect box with beetles collected by Wallace, in the beetle section of the Natural History Museum of Paris, while looking for bark beetle types there. Some of your readers might know of their unique storage system: rather than standard insect cabinets with drawers filled with unit trays, the beetles (and other insects?) are shelved in there original accession boxes, like books. So I am not sure where this box is (this was many years ago)…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve long promoted macro photography as an alternative to general collecting i.e. not collecting for a specific purpose. However, even I realise that live collecting is absolutely essential for certain purposes. Many species can’t be reliably identified to species level from photographs, you can’t extract DNA from a photograph. In other words it’s all about balance, avoiding the unnecessary large scale collecting of the past, but where necessary the collection of live specimens of invertebrates is essential.

    I’m mainly commenting because I was appalled to hear that Emma Sherlock was hounded online and in the media. Firstly Emma is a lovely person and a marvellous enthusiastic promoter of the cause of Earthworms. Secondly, in 2018 there was a workshop at the Field Study Council’s Preston Montford HQ to see if it was possible to identify Earthworms from photos. I was one of the photographers (the other two being David Williams and Bob Kemp). Emma was the Earthworm expert there.

    A draft paper was submitted to FSC Journal called “The accuracy of field and photographic identification of earthworms”. It had been down as one of the co-authors. I don’t know if it’s been published yet. Contact Charlie Bell at the FSC to find out. In a nutshell it was very difficult to even get reliable photos of the identification features of Earthworms due to the way they writhed about. Secondly, there was considerable variation in the conclusions of the experts from the photographs. In conclusion it was not a reliable or practical means of identification.

    The primary reason for this workshop was because people were unhappy about killing worms for surveys and identification. In other words Emma and others did try very hard to develop a reliable method of identifying live Earthworms, it just wasn’t practically possible.

    I was also appalled to hear about the late great Philip Corbet being beaten up. I’ve long had a copy of the New Naturalist “Dragonflies” 41, and some might know that I’m perhaps the most active Odonata recorder in North Shropshire. Whilst I promote visual identification of Odonata and have run photographic workshops on photographing them in the field at the Fenns and Whixall Moss NNR base, I’m also aware that in some instances you probably need to collect a specimen for reliable identification. Coenagrion damselfly species, especially females can be very tricky, and I was told by one academic Odonata expert that DNA is the only reliable method of identifying some female Coenagrion individuals.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this. As someone who works in the ethics of animal use in science, it is in my experience, fairly radical and refreshing thinking in the entomological world to consider applying the 3Rs to the science of insects. The 3Rs were developed over 60 years ago to provide a framework for performing more humane animal research on animals considered sentient, and therefore capable of suffering and also having positive feelings like pleasure.

    I really welcome your suggestion that these same principles are also applied to insects, even though these animals are not currently legally considered to be capable of suffering (although recent research may suggest otherwise).

    The ethics of subjecting an animal to a scientific procedure that will ultimately injure, or kill them goes far beyond the 3Rs, though. There are many who believe that all individual animals, whether considered sentient or not, have their own intrinsic value, entirely distinct from their value to humans (their extrinsic or instrumental value). That, as individual possessors of life, their intrinsic value should be given due regard – after all, a wasp’s life is just as important to the wasp as our lives are to us. Therefore, when using animals for human benefit – a context in which the animal has no choice but to involuntarily participate – other important questions need to be asked in order to determine whether their use can be justified.
    When it comes to the regulated use of animals in research, a harm-benefit analysis is performed for each project. It is often easier to identify the harms an animal will experience, rather than any putative benefit that may arise from the output of the research, but these benefits need to be examined in order to see if harms to animals can be justified. We need to ask questions like what is the nature of the benefit? Does it help us conserve other insects? Does it help us understand how we may lessen our impact on this world? Does it help with understanding how to manage unwanted insect populations in crops? Or is the collection itself, or data derived from it considered a benefit? Will the output be a paper that very few people will actually read, but imparts kudos to the author? When will the benefit be realised? Immediately? In 2 years? 10 years? Twenty? Is the benefit short term? Long term? We need to ask who actually benefits from the proposed use of animals too. Is it the individual collector or scientist? A research group? A museum? A community? Society as a whole? How? We must also ask what would be the consequences of not doing the proposed work.

    More difficult overarching questions should be asked about the ‘culture’ of killing insects for collections. The justification put forward here seems to centre on biological variation – that it is important to have representative specimens showing polymorphism within and between species to enable accurate identification. Is this on its own, a justification? This is not something that is commonly practiced by scientists who work on animals in other branches of the evolutionary tree, especially animals that are larger, and exist in smaller numbers. It tends to be commonly applied to animals of smaller body size who occur in greater numbers, are easier to preserve and store for longer, and whose individual lives are given less value (extrinsic) than those of larger animals. It is something that is nearly unique to (some) insect enthusiasts, although bird egg collecting could be a historical comparator. Why do some people want to kill, preserve and keep insects in particular? We would balk at the idea of collecting and killing vertebrates in the same number, so that we could identify them correctly to species or subspecies level. This creates questions about how we actually perceive insects as animals, and how we value their individual lives.
    Is an individual insect’s life worth less than a larger animal? Would a flea beetle’s life have less value than a rhinoceros beetle? Would a rhinoceros beetle’s life be worth less than that of a vertebrate of similar size?
    Is it their size that actually matters? Or is an animal’s rarity or relative abundance? Is it their usefulness to humans that matters? Their neural complexity? Or perceived intelligence? Is it their aesthetics or cuteness/beauty? Is it an animal’s similarity to us or their ‘alien-like’ differences?

    These are really difficult questions, but only by discussing them can we really begin to think about whether it is ethically appropriate to use animals for specific purposes.

    Aside from the emerging evidence that insects may well turn out to have the capacity to suffer (which would obviously carry with it further ethical dilemmas), the 3Rs only really scratches the surface of the ethics around collecting insects for human benefit (whether scientific or otherwise), but it’s a great start in getting the reflective discussion going.

    “The purest motivation for studying animals may be simply the desire to understand them. But even if this is our motivation, we should proceed cautiously and reflectively. For in quenching our thirst for knowledge we impose costs on these animals. In many cases they would be better off if we were willing to accept our ignorance, secure in the knowledge that they are leading their own lives in their own ways.” – Marc Bekoff

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Juliet – very interesting points and something I’m sure you discuss a lot at home too 🙂 A lot of this depends on how you define suffering and sentience, which I am not convinced are the same in insects as so called ‘higher’ animals. My feelings against blanket collecting/killing are mainly to do with, for want of a better word, the ‘right’ to exist. Crop protection and vector management are of course the dilemma entomologists/parasitologists/medics face every day when thinking about the ‘rights’ of our own species to live a healthy and long life. The strap line for our crop protection lab, is ‘we kill them in the greenest possible way’ . It would be even nicer if we could grow crops that were tolerant (a real plant resistance concept) in enough not to require protection. In my garden I don’t kill them at all as there is enough produce for us to share with the ‘pests’ but in commercial agriculture/horticulture it is, sadly, not yet possible.


  6. How we respect the intrinsic value of animals – whether invertebrate or otherwise – is something that should be considered regardless of their sentience, and I hoped that point was coming across. In essence, it is, as you say, the ‘right’ to exist, and this is something that we scientists don’t often reflect upon in our own anthropocentric world.
    I agree, there are many definitions of sentience – some believe it is ‘all or nothing’, and some believe that there may be a scale of subjective emotional capacity. How we even begin to assign a metric of sentience to different animals is beyond my current comprehension! An animal of greater neural complexity may actually find more effective ways of coping with suboptimal conditions, than less complex animals do, and therefore may actually suffer less – but this is another conversation entirely!
    So glad you have started this discussion here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Wallace

      You mentioned emerging evidence of insects having the capacity to suffer. Could you indicate what that evidence is? It is relatively straightforward to show evidence of an animal moving away from a potentially or actually harmful stimulus but that does not necessarily indicate suffering. Insects clearly differ hugely from us in their response to things that happen to them – e.g. males of some insects continuing to copulate after having their heads removed by their mate!
      It is – I think – evident that all of us tacitly accept that at some point human needs trump the right to exist of an insect (or a rodent or a weed or a bacterium etc, etc). Even the strictest vegan, green lifestyle results in the death or displacement of umpteen animals and plants as we cannot produce food or clothing or build houses without displacing wildlife. We can ask all the questions you suggest about the balance of benefits and harms at every point of conflict (and it is good that we should think hard about these things) but my fear is that ultimately there are no definitive, objective answers and consequently whilst there will be general agreement at the extremes there will always be a middle area that is disputed. I may pick a different point to you at which I consider the benefits from killing an insect outweigh the harms and we both may pick a different point to yet a third person.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Has also generated discussion on Twitter 🙂


  8. Good topic! When I taught entomology, I actually allowed trading among the students for their required collections. The condition was that the labelling was honest and that they ID’d the specimen themselves. The purpose was to avoid unnecessary killing (I have become increasingly soft in my old age) as well as preventing student stress. Most of them started the course without any clue about how to go about collecting, and they generally had only 3-4 weeks at the beginning of the term to collect before it got too cold.

    Liked by 1 person

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