A treehopper specimen glued to an insect point

Insect Collecting: What I’ve Learned

A treehopper specimen glued to an insect point
A pointed specimen of a Modest Treehopper (Publilia modesta); thanks to Dr. Andy Hamilton for the identification. Collected September 2, 2012, from Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder, Colorado.

A big part of what’s been eating all my time outside of work the last few months has been pinning, labeling, and identifying my insect collection for the entomology class I’m taking–and it’s not even a very big collection, compared to what students in warmer climates often have to put together!

The funny thing is, part of why I didn’t take this class when I was in graduate school was that I thought I’d feel bad killing the insects. As it turned out, when I’m killing them for science (and I’ve tried to make my collection the best it can be, so it can at least be used for education if nothing else), I’m not too bothered, except by my beloved odonates.

And I’m very glad we had to make these collections, although it’s probably the worst effort:percentage of grade ratio of any course project I’ve ever done, and that includes petrology projects in college. I don’t think we could have learned as much by any other method.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned, or had vividly illustrated:

  • Insect collections are time-consuming. I knew this intellectually–our professor told us early on about a BioBlitz the museum participated in. After a few hours of relatively unfocused collecting, they did some quick calculations of how many student labor hours it would take to process what they’d collected so far–and decided to stop for the day. But there’s a difference between knowing intellectually and experiencing the amount of labor involved. In a few minutes with a sweep net, you can collect specimens that will take hours to pin, label, and identify. I probably spent 8 hours or so so far just on making labels and adding them to the pins. And my collection was pretty small, compared to many of my classmates’ collections.
  • Identifying insects is hard. Again, something I knew intellectually–but while I knew you can’t always identify insects from photographs, and some groups require close examination with a microscope, there’s nothing like spending an hour with a key trying to get one beetle down to mere family level, unsuccessfully. Of course, this is partially due to my inexperience with most of the groups I collected–but even so, I didn’t know about things like counting tarsomeres on beetles or bristles on flies before, characters which are not always easy to see. Even the sheer amount of not-always-consistent terminology is staggering. Those folks on BugGuide who can look at a photograph and identify the insect to species level? I was impressed before, but now I’m really impressed.
  • Insects are incredibly diverse. I didn’t have much time to go looking for insects, due to my job. I collected the bulk of my collection during two field trips, and most of the rest poking around lights at my apartment complex for a few evenings, and still easily exceeded the requirements of the assignment (14 orders, 35 families with no more than 7 per order, 60 “species”). This is one of the reasons I love insects and am so excited that I’ve learned to love them over the last few years: insects are everywhere, and that means almost any day I can go poking around in the bushes or looking at the ground and see an animal I’ve never seen before. You can’t do that with vertebrates. It’s opened up the world for me.
  • There is no substitute for hands-on learning. Identifying my own collection, even mostly to family level, has reinforced what we learn in lab in a way that no amount of practice with specimens selected by someone else could. In lab, we focused on common families with (usually) clear identifying characters. What came up in our sweep nets could be anything. I feel much more confident about the common families now that I’ve struggled with some of the trickier ones, and I also feel that I have vastly improved my general knowledge of insect groups and external anatomy–although of course I’ve only scratched the surface.
  • How to take pictures with a microscope. This is more of a practical skill, but my microscope pictures have definitely improved with a little practice. I mostly took the pictures for blogging purposes, and in some cases to post to BugGuide after I hand my collection in, but it’s a nice skill to have, and I can now put it on my resume and demonstrate with examples.
  • How to use a dichotomous key. A dichotomous key is a common type of identification tool, essentially a decision tree where at each step the key asks a question about a characteristic of the organism; for example, whether an insect has (a) antennae with clubbed ends or (b) without. The answer takes you to the next couplet, and so on, until you’ve (hopefully) identified the specimen. That’s the theory, anyway, although in practice there can be a bit more of an art to using keys. I’d used keys a little bit before, but not extensively; now I have a better idea of how to use dichotomous keys effectively, and also what types of keys are easier for me, as a novice, to use correctly.

I have decided to keep the majority of my collection for now, although I’ll give the duplicate specimens to the university to add to the teaching collection or whatever they see fit. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it–other than continue trying to figure out the specimens I got stuck on–but I’ve put too much work into it to be quite ready to pass it on.

On the subject of collecting in general, I’ve always been in favorite of collecting for scientific research, as well as the process of collecting (legally and responsibly) as a learning tool. For myself, I don’t really have the space to dedicate to an ongoing reference collection of my own, but I do hope to continue collecting insects to add to the collection of a local museum, once I figure out how I can target my efforts for maximum value. I am much less comfortable with commercial collecting. While insects have, on the whole, short lifespans and high reproductive rates, and it’s extremely difficult to harm even a rare population, it is possible and it has happened with some highly sought-after rare species for the market, particularly butterflies and moths. I think the extensive letter from Greg Pohl, president of the Alberta Lepidopterist’s Guild, on the value of scientific collecting in entomology is the clearest and best-laid out argument I’ve seen, and well worth reading.

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