The thing which, in most people’s eyes, defines me as an entomologist is not my comical antics with a sweep net, my morbid curiosity of animal droppings and carrion, or my excessive enthusiasm for tiny biting specks of obviously malignant animated matter living in their children’s hair — it is the fact that I have an insect collection. In an era of ultra-sleek cameras, optically pure macro-lenses, high-resolution digital images and the wonderfully interactive labyrinth of the internet, a series of stiff dry insect bodies pinned into a small wooden box seems not a little archaic.
If people see the contents of a glass-topped drawer or an open store-box, laid out beside a microscope on my kitchen table, responses to it are varied. At the one end of the curiosity scale (usually voiced by children), there is: “Wow, did you kill all these yourself?” At the other end (usually from their parents, squinting at the tiny specks of nothingness which are chalcidid wasps or seed weevils) is: “Wow, how on Earth do you find these things?” This is a polite interest, but I often get the feeling there is also a hidden suspicion: “He kills the things he claims to love?!”.
There are, of course, the well-rehearsed arguments — the sheer unimaginable numbers of insects hidden all around us, their prodigious fecundity, and the mathematical impossibility of entomologists doing any harm by collecting a few specimens, even a lot of specimens maybe. When I spoke to some novice potential entomologists last year I tried to dumbfound them with a rough calculation I did on the back of a proverbial envelope*: more insects were killed in the building of the 2012 London Olympics, than have been collected and killed by all the entomologists in the world, who have ever lived, ever.
It’s a statistic to get people thinking, at least, but there is still some unease at the idea of a ‘collection’. For what is a collection if not a vainglorious display of prize trophies? It’s here I have to start making the other familiar claims about not being able to identify tiny insects unless a specimen can be minutely examined — often individual bristles on individual legs. My stock statistic is that I reckon on something like 1500 British insects being easily identified from a photograph; but since there are over 25, 000 species here, it means that nearly 95% of UK insects need confirmation under the microscope. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that plenty have various colour forms, males and females differ, and all have very different larvae and nymphs too. Sometimes the distinctions are so fine that a large series of specimens from various localities, found over many years, often have to be compared to identify them firmly.
The trouble is that the physical presence of the ‘collection’, with its neatly aligned rows of carefully mounted insects and painstakingly presented labels and headings, is still very much a hang-over from the past — a past where collecting something for the sake of it, to own it, to savour it, and to display it proudly and overtly, was a perfectly acceptable scientific procedure.
For nearly half a century, though, there has been a formal published code for collecting. It appeared at a time when butterfly collecting began to be viewed with mistrust, (and egg-collecting became the criminal activity of a rogue underclass). Just over 10 years ago I was pleased to be involved with reviewing it, and if I may make so bold, my greatest contribution was to get its title changed to a ‘Code for Collecting Insects’ where previously it had been a code for ‘insect collecting’.
Here is a subtle, but fundamental difference. One, like stamp collecting, or egg collecting, is all about making that private, often secretive, vanity-stoking display to show off magnificent captures. The other emphasizes the workaday need to maintain an ordered and accessible scientific reference collection to aid and support identification, and to advance entomology further. This is why a collection is necessary.
So why do I have a collection of ladybirds? Intuitively, they fall into the group of 1500 UK species which can more or less reliably be identified from a photograph, and surely they can all be firmly named under a hand lens in the field. Except, as any entomologist will agree, things are never quite this easy.
Firstly, there are the ‘other’ ladybirds. These are the remaining 25 small (2.5 mm) to tiny (1 mm) non-brightly-spotted beetles in the family, which include the sometimes notorious genera Scymnus and Nephus, which can fox even the most experienced eye. There are the ridiculous number of confusingly different colour forms and fluctuating spot patterns of several very common species. Occasionally I’ve found something that just looked ‘a bit odd’ in the field; maybe I hoped they would prove to be something new. And I’ve also accumulated dead specimens from traps, which would otherwise simply be discarded.
All these are good enough reasons, but the honest truth is that I have a ladybird collection because sometimes I need a prominent display of obvious and familiar insects that I can show off.
Although they would do just as well, I don’t have any butterflies, or moths, or dragonflies. A bunch of 8-year-olds might be enthusiastically scandalized by a display of sombre dung beetles, or fascinated by a box of pretty glittering rubytail wasps, but they can’t relate to them in the way that they can to the spotty, domed, brightly coloured beetles they all know so well. Looking at ladybirds, with their strong colour schemes and easy spot-number names, children can get an immediate understanding of such basic concepts as: species, genus, variation and rarity. The display collection (as opposed to the reference collection) still does have a place.
And I admit, I do still collect the occasional ladybird. Is this a bad thing?
* My calculations went something like this. The Olympic park in East London is 2.5 km2, that’s 2.5 x 106 m2, so with a nominal insect density of 1000/m2 we would get 2.5 x 109 (two and a half billion) insects destroyed. This is roughly forty times the size of the Natural History Museum’s insect holdings (60 million specimens). The museum has the largest collection (by a long way) anywhere in the world, so 40 of them ought to be enough to equate to world-wide entomological activity during, say, the last 200 years. I hope I’ve built enough latitude into the equation: actually insects are often quoted at densities over 10,000/m2, and I did not take into account any of the other Olympic venues around the country.