British Bugs

The value of collecting insect specimens

All species have a slightly different way of life, or ecological niche; the species present in any given habitat can tell us a great deal about its condition and act as valuable ecological indicators. Species level identification is therefore of paramount importance. We cannot hope to understand, conserve or effectively manage natural habitats without correctly recognising the species they contain.

Although the British insect fauna is relatively small, many species are very similar to one another and cannot be reliably distinguished on the basis of their external appearance. While it is entirely possible to confidently recognise a proportion of insect species in the field, systematic recording of any group is not possible without taking voucher specimens. This allows critical examination of both external and internal characters under the microscope and the opportunity for comparison with similar taxa. A photograph can never be a substitute for this.

While the necessity to kill insects for any reason is regrettable, it underpins the science of taxonomy and is an essential part of biological recording. Collecting is merely a means of sampling the population and is unlikely to have any long-term detrimental effect if practised responsiblyEven scarce or localised insect species usually have relatively large populations which have a high reproductive capacity and are robust to the effects of removing a small number of individuals. Habitat loss and declines in habitat quality are the main causes of invertebrate population extinctions.

It is also important to realise that if properly prepared, labelled and stored, insect specimens will ultimately be incorporated into
museum archives. Such reference collections are routinely used for a huge variety of research purposes.

While the recent increase in the amount of casual recording by the general public is to be applauded, there has been a concurrent decline in the more traditional pursuit of systematic recording supported by voucher specimens, a situation which is leading to inevitable bias in the data. Equally concerning is a widespread perception that taking specimens is no longer necessary and has been superseded by more modern methods.

Collecting insect specimens is not just 'something the Victorians did'; it still has enormous relevance to the world of today. Although much can be acheived through macrophotography, this cannot and will never replace the value of actual specimens. If you choose to take only photographs, it is important to appreciate that many potential records will not be realised, and that the value of your observations will be reduced.

Tristan Bantock  2013