Starting an Insect Collection is not Unnecessary Carnage

Question about Unnecessary Carnage
July 29, 2009
Hello WTB!
My kids and I are huge fans of your site. One of my kids decided at the tender of age of three that he wants to become an entomologist someday and spends hours each day out searching for bugs. For a five year old he’s pretty amazing at identifying what he finds, but when he isn’t sure we check your site.
Sometimes, we still have questions and would like to send a photo for an ID, but hesitate because we don’t want to be chastised for unnecessary carnage. See, my son decided this year to start an official collection of specimens like he’s seen in museums. When he finds an insect he does not have, he puts it into the freezer and then later (with my help), pins it into his collection display box. I help him label his specimens correctly, and he always lets insects go if that species is already represented in his collection. If someone were to email you a photo of an insect that is part of a specimen collection of this nature, would you classify it as unnecessary carnage? I think I could handle the criticism, but your biggest almost-six-year-old fan would be crushed.
Whatever the outcome of this question, we love your site and will continue to use it daily. Even though we walk away from the computer with severe bug envy, we just can’t stay away.

Hi Susanne,
We do not consider starting an insect collection to be Unnecessary Carnage.  We believe strongly in education, and beginning a collection of insects is an excellent educational tool.  Thank your for your very sweet letter, though we are a bit troubled that you would even entertain the thought that we would chastise an enthusiastic and curious child and crush his spirits for doing something that he loves.

Another point of View
Comment on insect collection/ carnage
July 30, 2009
As a naturalist who presents educational insect programs to thousands of children a year, I’d like to comment on the insect collection question. I agree with the answer that WTB provided about encouraging young entomologists. I do, however, think that insect collections are a relic of the kill-and-study age of nature discovery. Thanks to digital photography, kids can create a record of their discovery that is far superior to a box full of dead insects. Some inexpensive digital cameras can capture great close-ups. You can crop images to highlight interesting features of different insects. You can display magnified images that show things they would never see on a dead insect in a box.
Can you capture these images without killing the insect? WTB is filled with proof that you can.
Northern Indiana

Thank you for your input Vince,
Of course, we agree with you on this matter, but we must reiterate that we still do not consider creating an insect collection to be Unnecessary Carnage.  Is photography an alternative that we endorse?  It certainly is, and it will help to prolong our careers as photography instructors.

Suzanne Responds
Thank you for the wonderful response.  My son’s entomological pursuits have taught him patience, observational skills, and vocabulary words that astound his teachers.  He’s gotten our entire family interested in bugs, and we are all constantly on the lookout for interesting speciments.  The look on his face when he found a green tiger beetle or saw the first monarch of the summer is something I will never forget.
Vince from Indiana (the state I lived in for most of my life!) has a very good point.  In fact, we do photograph many of the insects we see.  I am always amazed by the photos of insects other people are able to take.  Sadly, I lack both the knowledge and the equipment for taking detailed close-up shots of insects.  In spite of that, my son’s room is decorated with enlarged photos of some bigger bugs he’s found in the past.  Purchasing an entomology kit designed for a child was much more economical for us than investing in a nicer camera with a macro lens.  Because of his young age, it is also more feasible for him to catch the insects with a net than an expensive camera.  His collection is much more than a box of dead bugs, as the attached photo will show.  We spend a lot of time together mounting things properly, making sure the toe biter’s rostrum is extended or the large rove beetle’s jaws are open wide.  Yes, this could be done with photographs, and maybe as my son gets older (and gets a job) he will move in that direction.
Again, thank you for the reply!

Budding Entomologist
Budding Entomologist

Hi again Suzanne,
Your son’s collection is quite impressive.  Make sure you take the necessary measures to protect it from Dermestid Beetles by placing moth crystals or whatever the latest suggestion is in the case with the specimens.

Input from Eric Eaton
August 4, 2009
Hi, Daniel:
… I liked the exchange of opinions on the insect collection started by the young boy.  First, the image depicts one of the finest private collections I’ve ever seen for someone that young, and he should rightly be proud of himself.  Second, digital imaging takes you only so far in terms of identification.  An average ichneumon wasp, for example, simply cannot be identified to species, genus, even subfamily, by images of a living specimen alone.  Preserving a dead specimen is often the only way to document a record, and is certainly the only type of record recognized by science as irrefutable.
What I find a bit more troubling is the current trend toward molecular analysis of specimens that requires specimens to be reduced to the equivalent of a smoothie, run through electrophoresis (or whatever DNA analysis method is used currently), and then determined to species identification.  I understand the need to do this work, and it is revealing far more species than previous external morphological studies have, but it is certainly a lot less aesthetically pleasing than an image, or even a nicely-prepared whole specimen.  Just my two cents, from someone who has numerous specimens representing state records, and two species new to science.
Keep up the great job, Daniel:-)

10 thoughts on “Starting an Insect Collection is not Unnecessary Carnage”

  1. Hi. I’ve been browsing this site for a while, but this is my first post.

    I teach a group of four-year-olds, and among the many, many things I find myself repeating daily is “Let it be! Insects are helpers!” with respect to whatever critter my kids have discovered, whether indoors or on the playground (of course, when something is discovered inside the classroom, we find a way to get it outside).

    The children, of course, are fascinated by insects, and, while insects’ identities could be taught through photographs and books, to teach the children to appreciate and respect animals and their purposes is best reinforced in practice. That is, to tell a child that a spider is beneficial and to smash it in front of him is counterproductive.

    Unnecessary carnage and a lost moment for education. Terrible shame.

    However, because of the age of the children I teach and their tendency toward kinesthetic learning, we do have an insect collection in the room. I want to teach respect, not hypocrisy, so the insects pinned to the board were all found dead. When a child finds an empty exoskeleton or a fallen butterfly on the playground, we pin it to the board and talk about what it is and how it might have come to its current state. Then, of course, comes the “Insects help us” talk.

    I try to balance respect for a child’s preferred method of study with respect for the insects themselves. This is why we have only pre-deceased findings in our collection, imperfect though they may be when they are found.

    To rely on photographs alone is a difficult way to keep kids interested. They need to experience more than an image can allow. An insect, living or dead, that is in front of the children makes it relevant to them and gives them more patience to listen while we talk about that insect.

    Occasionally, however, my philosophies are put to the test, as was the case the day I found an adult, female black widow spider scooting across the playground. I had to get her off the playground and far, far away from my class. There was a considerable amount of panicking on my part, but no one was harmed, and the children learned that, even though we shouldn’t hurt any minding its own business, there are some creatures that, when discovered, need to be reported to mom and dad.

  2. I have to say I object to the killing of any creature- harmless or not- unless for a food source or absolutely necessary protection (i.e. attacked by swarm of killer bees, swarmed by army ants etc. ;)) especially for studying purposes. I don’t mean in any way to crush dreams, but I’ve always wondered how people can say they love bugs and then kill them… I’ve done the same thing as shellyc, ever since I was 7 I’ve been building a collection of bugs I’ve found dead. My suggestions would be to try that out, and maybe (I’ve never tried this before but I’ve thought about it for a long time) when he finds a bug, let him research its needs and keep it in an aquarium/other habitat until it meets a natural death, and THEN form and mount it. That’s just my perspective, but I’m happy to hear that you at least kill them more humanely by putting them in the freezer first instead of strapping it down and pushing a stake through its heart like I’ve seen all-too-many times 🙂 Good luck with the collection!

  3. I have always been a fan of this site and its supposed reverence for arthropods and other tiny critters, but I must say that I am disappointed with its relaxed stance on bug collections that involve harming specimens.

    Killing any creature for the sake of satisfying curiosity is unnecessary carnage. We have a responsibility to carry our ethics with us wherever we go, and that includes the realm of education. They don’t suddenly become irrelevant because we wish to learn more. Whenever we harm when it is avoidable and unessential to self-preservation, we reduce animals to mere objects whose very existence is tethered to our own whims, and in doing so, we reduce our own character.

    It is possible to foster human curiosity while fostering respect for other living beings. It may not always be convenient to us, but it is a matter of much more than convenience to those affected by our actions. Digital photography is an excellent way to capture the lives of animals with minimal (if any) interference, and it preserves our yearning for and wealth of knowledge without spoiling our regard for the most vulnerable among us.

    A concerned bug enthusiast and macrophotographer

    • Dear concerned bug enthusiast and macrophotographer,
      Thank you so much for furthering the dialog on this topic, one that we acknowledge is a bit touchy. Please consider the circumstances of the original letter. Suzanne was concerned that we might chastise her son for his interest in beginning an insect collection. We also acknowledged that we support photography as a means of documenting sightings. We have tremendous respect for many scientists who are adamant environmentalists, yet they collect specimens for scientific purposes. What we do not condone is decorative insect collections with little or no scientific value, where the creatures in the collections are commodities bought and sold for profit. It has always been the mission of our website to promote an appreciation of the natural world and to stress the interconnectivity of living organisms on our fragile planet. We also believe it is important to evaluate each situation on a case by case basis.

  4. Thank you for such an educational post! Here in NM I always had a ‘kill it’ mindset, but after reading this I saw a careless jumping spider with my husband and he was very happy that I did not start screaming and flailing my arms saying “AHH SPIDER KILL IT KILL IT!” but instead thought of this site and let it go on it’s way. I hope that I can instill the same thoughts into my son as you guys have instilled in me, and seeing the bug collection has my mind ablaze thinking of how it can be a very educational and perfect father/son bonding experience. We will cross the bridge of whether or not to kill a bug for science instead of letting it be when we get to it, but I did want to take the time to say thank you and apologize for all the unnecessary carnage I’ve committed in the past. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment. The past is behind you and we are thrilled to know that in the future, you will be more tolerant of the lower beasts.

  5. My kids spend a lot of time outdoors. I encourage them to inquire, explore and investigate; however, they know to leave nature as is. We do not disrupt the environment in anyway, we observe, draw, take pictures and document. Neither believes in snuffing the life out of living creatures but we all agree that if the bug is dead and intact, they can pick it up for their collection. My question is how do we explain death of bugs, insects, creepy crawlers to children?


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