Many people have commented in reviews of Jeff Glassberg’s new Swift Guide on the increasingly strident anti-collecting tone that characterizes much of the discussion about nets, collecting and research on many butterfly listservs today. Greg Pohl, president of the Alberta (Canada) Lepidopterists’ Guild, recently responded to a position of the group Grassland Naturalists that called for a moratorium on insect collecting. It’s a long and very well argued letter that mirrors my own feelings about butterfly research:
Greg Pohl President, Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild (ALG)
Glen Semenchuk Executive Director
Federation of Alberta Naturalists (FAN)
11759 – Groat Road Edmonton, AB T5M 3K6
October 15, 2007
Dear Mr. Semenchuk;
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond to the recent letter that FAN received from the Grasslands Naturalists. In that letter, they state that they are opposed to insect collecting for research, as well as for recreational and commercial purposes, and they would like FAN to take the lead in changing attitudes towards the study of insects. As the president of the Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild (ALG), I’d like to address several issues raised by them.
ALG members share the appreciation expressed by the Grasslands Naturalists for insects. However, we feel their concerns are almost entirely misdirected; we strongly believe that the collecting of insects contributes to their protection and ongoing security far more than it threatens them. By far the greatest threat to insects is habitat loss resulting from human activities. Of the many ways that humans directly and indirectly kill insects – urbanization, deforestation, pesticide use, car windshields, and bug zappers to name but a few – insect collecting is the sole activity that the Grasslands Naturalists have singled out as a threat, yet it is the only one that actually contributes to protecting insects, by increasing our understanding of them and the crucial roles they play in the ecosystems that sustain us.
I’ve written you a lengthy letter, because I want the naturalist community to fully understand the importance of collecting insects. Please share this letter with FAN members, the Grasslands Naturalists, and other naturalist groups as you see fit. A brief summary of our position is that insects are very different from birds and mammals; they are incredibly numerous and prolific, so the effects of collecting on their populations are minimal. Because we know little or nothing about most insect species, and they are very difficult to identify, it is necessary to kill and collect them to study them. Collecting insects is a vital part of most entomology research, including taxonomic, diagnostic, biodiversity, and pest management work. Much of this is carried out by amateurs, who have often become world-class experts by collecting insects. Every collector among us has a deep concern for the species he/she studies, and would consider him/herself an environmentalist. Most of the information critical to the protection of endangered insect species is derived from insect collecting activities. We sincerely hope that both FAN and the Grasslands Naturalists will recognize how ALG members and others collecting and studying insects are partners, not enemies, in the ongoing work of protecting insects and other wildlife. Details of the role of insect collecting are as follows.
The ALG Position on Insect Collecting:
ALG recognizes that insect collecting is a valid pursuit that leads to a greater understanding and appreciation of insects and of the natural world. We recommend that collecting be limited to sampling a population, not unnecessarily depleting it, and that restraint should be exercised where the health of a particular insect population is unknown. To ensure their value for scientific study, collected specimens should have locality and date information attached, and they should be safeguarded to ensure their long-term safety. Properly labeled and cared-for specimens are extremely valuable to scientific researchers; private collections should be made available to qualified researchers for examination, and when no longer required or wanted by the collector, they should be offered to a public facility where they will be available to future workers as well.
ALG does not support mass commercial collecting, and as far as I know, none of our members engage in such practices. The commercial market in insects is driven by a very few butterfly and beetle collectors who are not interested in the biological aspects of insects, but simply in the acquisition of specimens. ALG does not respect or condone that form of collecting, and draws a clear distinction between it and the many amateur hobbyists who pursue insects to learn more about them. The only “high-demand” insects in Alberta with any “market value” are a few species of high elevation mountain butterflies that are already protected by provincial and national parks. We believe that little or no commercial collecting is going on in Alberta, and certainly not by members of ALG. However, should evidence of such be obtained, ALG is happy to work with FAN and the Grasslands Naturalists in opposing such activities.
Because the impacts of insect collecting are overwhelmingly positive, we are concerned about the perceptions of members of the Grasslands Naturalists. The spread of this ill-conceived perception to the lay public would be an impediment to scientific study, and ultimately to insect conservation. The Grasslands Naturalists compare entomological pursuits and bird watching, but the comparison to birding has little basis in reality. Insects and birds are fundamentally different creatures, so those of us who study them each do very different things, as I will detail below. We believe that current legislation protecting species and their habitats provides adequate protection from overzealous collectors (whether this provides adequate protection from other threats in another matter). We wish to see insect collecting encouraged, rather than discouraged, so that we may more fully document the diversity of these wonderful and fascinating creatures.
Why are insect populations resilient to collecting?
Insects are very different from birds and other vertebrates in that they have short generation spans, they have a phenomenal capacity for reproduction, and their populations regularly number in the billions. Insects are so abundant that their numbers simply cannot be considered in the same terms as those of vertebrates. Think of the thousands of insects that a single songbird eats during its lifetime; while each species is important in the ecosystem, a given individual of each species do not have the same ecological importance. The vast majority of insect species are so abundant and prolific that an unexpected loss of hundreds, or even thousands of individuals from a relatively small area in a year results in no detectable decrease in numbers the following year. A mark-recapture study in Europe estimated that it would take several collectors three weeks of intensive collecting to extirpate a tiny, isolated population (<250 individuals) of lycaenid butterflies. Because of their population size and their ability to reproduce, it is very difficult to affect insect populations by collecting.
The special challenges of entomology
Diversity: Before I can explain why entomologists must collect specimens, I must first discuss the enormous diversity of insects, and the special challenge this presents to entomologists. Insects are incredibly diverse; they comprise over 2/3 of the approximately 2 million known species of living things on the planet, and scientists estimate there are millions more species of insects remaining to be discovered. There are probably over 10,000 insect species in Alberta, but this is only a conservative guess. Hundreds, if not thousands, of species living in the province have yet to be documented, and every year entomologists discover unnamed species here, completely new to science. Compared to birds and other vertebrates, the sheer number of insect species is staggering. There are over 10 times as many known kinds of beetles in the world as all vertebrates – birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish – combined. There are more species of moths in 1 km2 of Boreal forest in Alberta (500+), than there are bird species in all of Canada (471). This is the special challenge that entomologists deal with every day – identifying, recognizing, describing, and cataloguing the millions of species of insects is almost overwhelming.
There are few resources available for research on insects, except for species that have economic or health impacts on people. There are at least as many ornithologists in Canada studying our 471 bird species as there are entomologists studying our approximately 100,000 insect species, so it is no wonder we know so little about our insects! Entomologists are still in the exploratory stage of discovering and naming species. Contrast this with the relatively mature fields of ornithology and mammology, where virtually all the species have been discovered, and most new research consists of ecological work. Entomologists are probably 200 years behind the vertebrate researchers because of the enormity of the task, and the lack of skilled people and resources to carry it out.
As an entomologist, I would like to remind birders that the comfortable position they are in today is built on a strong taxonomic foundation. Because of the mature state of ornithological knowledge, they have a stable taxonomy, and comprehensive guidebooks with detailed illustrations and range maps, so that people can identify birds reliably and apply names to them consistently. This state of knowledge exists now because at one time people collected birds and studied their skins and skeletons so they could describe and distinguish species, and thus arrive at a stable nomenclature and classification. For entomologists, that level of knowledge is a dream that is still decades or even centuries away. In entomology we are still building that foundation, and are highly dependent on insect collecting to do so.
Lack of knowledge: Because insect taxonomy is such an incomplete science, we simply do not possess the knowledge required to put together comprehensive guide-books to most insect groups. Most information is scattered among dozens or hundreds of often obscure scientific publications. Many species have no published information on them at all, with the exception of a brief description in a journal article, often over 100 years old and with no illustrations. Many species cannot be identified at all with our present state of knowledge. This makes field identifications of living specimens impossible for all but a few of the better known species. Most insect field guides cover only a few representative species, and omit the myriad lesser-known but very similar-looking ones. Field guides to Alberta butterflies, tiger beetles, damselflies, and ladybeetles have been written, primarily by John Acorn. These are excellent books, but collectively they cover only about 300 of the estimated 10,000 insect species thought to occur in Alberta. Even among these “well- known” groups, there are many species for which we do not have enough specimens to adequately determine whether or not more than one biological species is involved in a named “species” (for example in the butterfly genera Boloria and Polygonia; the ladybeetle genus Scymnus). So, we are still a very long way indeed from the situation that birders find themselves in, where comprehensive field guides exist and accurate field identifications can be made without killing specimens.
Another reason that many insects are so difficult to identify is because they are so small. With the exception of a few large and distinctive species like some butterflies and moths, the majority of insects need to be examined under a microscope to make an accurate species identification. Often, specimens need to be dissected and their internal reproductive organs examined, in order to do so. Needless to say, this precludes identification of living specimens in all but a slim minority of insect groups. Thus, killing and collecting insects is a necessary part of almost all entomological research that requires species identifications.
Why is it necessary to collect insects?
Taxonomy: A very active field of entomological research that is heavily dependent on collections is taxonomy – the discovery and description of new species. To describe and name a new species, a “type specimen”, or ideally a “type series”, must be designated and safeguarded so that future workers can re-examine the organism in detail. These types are the basis of our nomenclature and are required for a stable system of names. Insect collections are the repository for existing type material, as well as the source for future types. It is not an exaggeration to say that for taxonomists, just as many exciting discoveries are made among historical specimens in collections, as they make in the field themselves with net in hand. I cannot stress enough the importance of collections for doing taxonomic research. The accumulation of unidentified specimens, as long as they are properly labeled, is exactly the substrate from which crucial new discoveries are made. The existence of a whole new insect order, the Mantophasmatodea, was discovered recently among old museum specimens obtained years earlier in the course of general collecting. It may not seem valuable to an observer or even a collector at the time, but well labeled and curated specimens of all but the most common species are a useful addition to any collection. It is misguided to think that we already have enough insect specimens, so we don’t need to collect more. We should be encouraging more general collecting, to help us better understand the poorly known world of insects.
Diagnostics: Because insects are so difficult to identify, and identification guides are lacking, insect collections are a vital tool for making identifications. A comprehensive synoptic collection is essential to make accurate species determinations. Such a collection is never complete, because discoveries are continually being made. As entomologists encounter new species, they add these to the collection, and acquire voucher specimens from other research (see below). Thus as material from various sources is added to the collection, it becomes an ever-expanding “identification guide” to the insects of a given region.
Getting a correct identification on a sample is important in scientific research and in pest management. An incorrect species determination can result in costly pest management actions being applied in error to a non-pest species, including needless application of pesticides, or in failing to detect a new outbreak in the early stages.
As an extension forest entomologist, more than half the supposed “insect problems” brought to me each year are in fact harmless insects, and the real problem is in fact a soil/moisture/nutrient issue. Every week I stop someone from needlessly applying pesticides into the environment, by recognizing an insect as a non-pest. I would not be able to make these diagnoses if I did not have a comprehensive synoptic collection of pests and non-pests alike.
Vouchers: Because the nomenclature does change over time as we discover new species and refine our understanding of existing species, it is very important, in all entomological research, to collect and save vouchers of the species being studied. Over the years, as our understanding and definition of a species changes, we can then go back and re-examine the vouchers from past research and determine what species was really being studied, and thus ensure the ongoing scientific value of the work. For example, the symbiotic relationship between yuccas and yucca moths has been the subject of many studies over the past century. Until very recently all these pollinator moths were thought to be a single widespread species, Tegeticula yuccasella. In 1999, Olle Pellmyr showed that this species was in fact a complex of 13 very similar species with different biologies, identifiable only via microscopical examination.
If voucher specimens were collected in the course of a past ecological study, then we can go back and examine them, and determine which species the ecological research pertains to. If no vouchers were kept, then we have no idea which of these species was really the subject of the research, and it has very little current scientific value. Old research and inventory work is constantly being corrected and refined when museum voucher specimens are re-examined.
A voucher collection is also very important in the legal realm, to stand as proof that a particular species existed at a particular time and place. This can be very important information when a corporation fights against environmental restriction on resource development. Vouchers are also important when legal action or trade sanctions are pursued over exotic pest issues; they can prove what was intercepted in a shipment, and whether or not a species occurred in an area at a given time.
Inventory and biodiversity work: Insects are also collected to do inventory work – to fully understand which species live in a given area, and what the range and habitat associations of a given species is. Such information on many species forms the basis of biodiversity information. By sampling and identifying the insects that live at a given location, researchers measure the composition and diversity of the insect community there. They can then use the insect community as a tool to assess the relative “ecological health” of the area, and compare it to other areas – this is very important to identify biodiversity hotspots, to determine which areas should be set aside for protection, and to assess whether existing areas adequately protect biodiversity. Researchers also use this biodiversity information to measure the environmental effects of human activities like agriculture, mining, forestry, and urbanization on the environment. Insects are also used extensively in measuring water quality. Because many insects are extremely sensitive to pollutants, the relative health of a lake or stream is often measured by the composition and diversity of the insect community living in it, discovered by collecting those insects.
To carry out biodiversity work, researchers choose an appropriate target group (for example moths, ground beetles, or aquatic larvae) and then deploy traps that catch these particular insects in a standardized, repeatable manner. By its very nature, this work requires broad sampling of many individuals of an insect community, to generate the data that will lead us to more sustainable land use decisions, and, ultimately, more protection for all wildlife. All this work is highly dependent on insect collecting.
Pest management: Pest control in agriculture, forestry, and human health obviously accounts for the deaths of millions of harmful insects, but many beneficial insects are killed in pest control operations as well. Some pest monitoring work, which is vital to the protection of our agricultural and forest products and our health, involves the unavoidable collection of beneficial insects. Monitoring programs for exotic forest pests depend on traps that broadly sample insects, and collect beneficial as well as harmful species. Likewise, mosquito traps for monitoring West Nile Virus carriers inevitably collect non- pest species as well. However, this supposed “bycatch” is not wasted; it is examined and often yields new species records, including unexpected introduced pests. For example, the first detection in Alberta of the exotic shot-hole borer (Scolytus rugulosus; a pest of fruit trees) came from the “bycatch” in traps deployed to monitor elm bark beetles. These and other specimens are labeled and added to general insect collections, where they are used in taxonomy, diagnostics, etc.
Education and training: An insect collection can also be a valuable educational tool. I and several other Alberta entomologists regularly bring collections to schools, where we are universally received with great enthusiasm by the students. An insect collection is a wonderful tool to open people’s eyes up to the beauty and wonder of the natural world right in front of them.
The building of an insect collection is a valuable training tool as well – there is no better way to get to know the species in an area than to make an insect collection. The pool of people with the expertise to reliably identify significant numbers of insect species is a small one. In Alberta, perhaps a few dozen people have that level of expertise; certainly less than 100. Every expert identifier of insects that I know in Alberta developed and continues to develop their expertise by building and maintaining an insect collection. The impetus to identify one’s own discoveries is a powerful motivation that these experts all shared in their formative years.
I’ve discussed the major reasons why researchers build insect collections in the first place. However, they have other functions that may not have been the original intent of the collectors:
Baseline data: Collections of old specimens are very useful in studying past environmental and climatic conditions. Each specimen represents proof of the historical occurrence of a species at a particular place and time. This information allows us to retroactively track the arrival and extinction of various species, and forms a baseline for the study of the effects of human disturbance and climate change.
DNA: Another use of old specimens is the extraction and analysis of DNA. With modern techniques, it is now possible to take a single leg from a specimen, up to several decades old, and extract and sequence DNA from it. This provides another tool for researchers to check identifications, discern species relationships, and to study changes in the genetic make-up of populations over time. This is an incredibly powerful tool that could not have been imagined when many of these old specimens were first collected. Old specimens can also yield parasites and phoretic mites, and plant and fungus spores, helping us make ecological associations. Thus, specimens from inventory and biodiversity work, voucher collections and “bycatch” from pest monitoring programs, all continue to provide valuable information. Who knows what uses we will find for insect collections in the future?
Amateurs versus hobbyists: I have laid out the argument for allowing scientific researchers to collect insects. However, the Grasslands Naturalists also object to amateurs: “…others who are just collecting to collect”. I will now defend the realm of the amateur entomologist. The distinction between “amateur” and “professional” is largely artificial. Just about everyone involved in entomology was drawn to the field by a love of the subject. We are all passionate about what we do, but some of us are lucky enough to get paid for it, while others do it on their own time at their own expense. The quality of the resulting information often has nothing to do with whether or not the researcher got paid to do the work. Some of the most knowledgeable people in entomology are folks who are self- taught, and carry out their avocation in their spare time. This is especially true in taxonomy, where all one needs to do excellent work is a microscope, access to specimens, and an aptitude for the subject. In this era of “fiscal restraint”, governments provide little support for basic taxonomic research. Thus the discovery and inventory of non-pest species is largely left to those who do it for the love of it. The knowledge of the distribution of butterflies and moths in Alberta is almost entirely due to amateur collectors, from Frederick Wolley Dod beginning in the late 1800s, through Kenneth Bowman in the first half of the 1900s, to ALG members like Gary Anweiler, Charley Bird and others today. Each of these dedicated amateurs has added thousands of data points to our species distribution maps. Besides gathering all this useful information, amateurs are almost always willing to share it freely. Every collector I’ve asked has been willing to contribute scientific information from their collecting activities, and the vast majority ultimately offer their collections to public facilities.
Another role of amateurs is that they are often our future experts, as noted above. The young people who might be casual hobby collectors today are the world-class experts of tomorrow. Not every “hobby collector” becomes a world-class taxonomist, but there is no doubt that every world-class taxonomist started out as a “hobby collector”. If we discourage the casual collectors, we will have no experts in the future. I am especially concerned that undue restrictions placed on insect collecting would effectively relegate it to the “paid professionals” only. I cannot overstate the importance of amateurs to entomological science and conservation in Alberta – if we limit collecting to “serious researchers” only, we will lose a huge resource of valuable specimens, information, and expertise.
Insect Conservation: In the past, insects were ignored by conservationists. Now, we are beginning to protect insects, but we cannot protect species that we do not know well. As an entomological expert, I (and several other ALG members) sit on the Arthropod Specialists Subcommittee of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). I also sit on Alberta’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee. We have helped commission, edit, and review federal and provincial status reports. Therefore, we know the kind of information required to get a species listed as endangered; it is derived from data from specimens in insect collections, most of which were collected by amateurs. Other than perhaps the Monarch butterfly, there would be no formal protection of any insect species in Canada, if it were not for the work of amateur insect collectors.
Insects are also making a major contribution to the conservation of vertebrates and their habitats. An example of this is the Yucca habitat in southeastern Alberta. The plant is already listed as endangered, federally and provincially. However, three moths and one skipper butterfly, all obligate yucca associates, have also been or are in the process of being evaluated for protected status. The addition of these four insects to the endangered species list will lend much greater voice to the protection of this unique community in southeastern Alberta. The same is true for dune habitats – several moths that are restricted to dunes are in the process of being assessed federally and provincially, based on the work carried out by several amateur ALG members (i.e. Verna’s flower moth and Gold- edged gem). Listing of these dune species such as the gem as threatened or endangered will help provide protection for all the animals and plants living in dune habitats. These insects can only be assessed if they are well known taxonomically, and their range and population levels are well enough known. All that information can only be gathered accurately by killing and collecting insect specimens, so it remains necessary to kill some insects, in order to protect the rest.
Collecting and Endangered Species: The Grasslands Naturalists claim that “some populations of butterflies and moths may already be suffering” from insect collecting, and that “rare and unusual species are particularly stressed by over zealous collectors”. If the Grasslands Naturalists have any concrete evidence to support this statement, we would like to hear it. While it is true that over-collecting may pose a threat to species that are already endangered, those species did not become endangered as a result of collecting.
Habitat loss is by far the most significant threat to insects in Canada. Of all the insects listed by COSEWIC, not one of the species assessments lists insect collecting as a significant threat. In fact, without the work of collectors, we would not have had the background information required to measure their populations accurately enough to make such assessments in the first place. Once these species are recognized as threatened or endangered, they are protected by legislation. It is illegal to collect protected species on crown lands, and it is illegal to collect them or any other species in provincial or national parks and protected areas, without a research permit. We at ALG believe this is adequate protection for these species from overzealous collectors, and we contribute to the federal and provincial processes to assess and list additional species. For the vast majority of insects that are not well enough known yet to make accurate assessments of their rarity, we need MORE collecting, not less, in order to gather that information.
In summary, ALG believes in ethical collecting, and does NOT support mass commercial collecting of any species. We do not support over-collecting of rare and endangered species, and we discourage collecting activities that do not result in specimens useful for study. The positive impacts of insect collecting, to scientific knowledge, public awareness and environmental conservation, far outweigh any possible negative impacts of collecting activities. We feel that existing legislation protecting endangered species and federal and provincial lands is adequate for the protection of insects from improper collecting. If the Grasslands Naturalists have any evidence that insect collectors are having a negative impact on populations of any insect species, we would like to know about it, and we pledge to do whatever is in our power to put an end to such activities. The real problem that insects face is habitat destruction – rather than preventing us from learning about insects, help protect them by fighting against that.
We are surprised and dismayed by this opposition to our scientific pursuits; we’d much rather join with groups like the Grasslands Naturalists to fight for preservation of native habitats than fight them. ALG members are quite comfortable knowing that there are people who are not willing to kill insects themselves to study them. However, the problem arises when misguided people attempt to limit our ability to legitimately collect and study insects, as the Grasslands Naturalists’ letter advocates. We hope you will recognize that insect collectors are the source of the information you need to protect species at risk, and can be a valuable ally. We care just as much about insects as you do. We are working to discover and document the information that is vital to protecting species and native habitats. We may not be political activists, but we’re working nonetheless to help protect insect species; we ask that you direct your fight against the real enemy, which is the destruction and degradation of native habitats and NOT legitimate scientific research.
Greg R. Pohl President, Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild, in consultation with ALG members