Of Photos and Insects: The Collecting Impulse

metallic green bee feeding on pink rhododendron flower

A metallic green bee with a hefty collection of pollen on its hind legs curls up and hangs on to a filament inside of rhododendron so it may feed off the anther.

As someone relatively new to the world of insects, I am still not comfortable with the common practice of collecting specimens.  From the more practical matters of preserving specimens to the collector’s challenge of the search and chase, it has not interested me; and in fact, it has always struck me as a morbid exercise. It surely is vital to scientific pursuits, for which I bear no grudge and no little admiration, but as a photographer concerned with artistic pursuits and a writer prone to metaphorical interpretation, it is difficult to separate aesthetics and data from the specter of drawers of corpses. When I think that people do it strictly as a hobby, I really cannot fathom it; it seems like an exercise doomed to diminish the beauty of life in the very attempt to preserve such beauty. It’s an activity driven by an impulse completely beyond me. And yet, it’s not.
When I was a child, I collected basketball cards. Quite religiously, impulsively and, more apt perhaps, compulsively. One of the young victims of my generation, I thought I was compiling a nice future portfolio for my career as commodity broker. Or you know, that Shaq rookie card was going to really pay off, anyway. My eventual disappointment in those cards’ lack of inherent value never matched my compelling interest in collecting the cards; thankfully, it was a case where the process ended up being the point: the search for something new and different and special, the agony of finding the “same old thing,” brushes with greatness (or the glass display case holding the good stuff at the card shop), and the satisfaction of getting a coveted card, knowing that something special belonged to me. The collecting impulse, the collecting payoff, whatever it is, is not restricted to cards or insects, or really anything at all, as far the human thirst to gather and organize things of a common ilk. To say I cannot fathom in the end is really not true, or not accurate; more so: I wish that I could not fathom it.

So regarding collecting insects, let’s say I do in fact get it, even though I don’t get it. In comparison to my photography, the fine line over which I don’t get it, borders on the illusory (but not quite). My photos are another sort of collection, not only an artist’s work, but a bug lover’s. The greatest indication of this can be seen in my archives where many shots — poor,  poor, woefully-conceived and -executed shots — remain because, simply, I don’t want to give them up. And not for their artistic merit. Instead, they are the markers, the “cards,” of my experience of insects; they are my records, my gets, and they are mine and no one’s else. The fine line, however, is still there, defined as it were, as the meaning of life — which yes, is a lot like not defining it at all, but I think that is also the point.

This topic has a great depth that I can see wrapped up with order and logic; value and what it means to value something; the anxiety of the contemporary age; art; etc., it has depth that my little post here won’t do justice. Someday I might tackle it further, in the meanwhile, the collecting and photographing will go on, separately and simultaneously. For me, apart from the bug photos, it’s (mostly personal) ephemera and Celtics championship hats (that second one is a joke, unfortunately). There’s also the “uncollecting,” i.e. purging, but I think I’ve whinged enough about my overweight photo archives in the past that I can skip that one for a while.


19 thoughts on “Of Photos and Insects: The Collecting Impulse

  1. Very nice photo and essay! “… poor, poor, woefully-conceived and -executed shots — remain because, simply, I don’t want to give them up. …” Yeah, I know what you mean.

  2. Beautiful photograph, as always, and some interesting thoughts Michael.

    I don’t think anyone who loves insects is comfortable with taking and killing specimens. I’ve never really like doing it. But I think a clear distinction needs to be made between collecting for collecting’s sake and taking voucher specimens for scientific study.

    At last year’s AES show in London it was possible to purchase a wide range of pinned butterflies and beetles from all over the world. The vast majority of these came with no data and so they are of little scientific value. The purchasers of these are in my opinion just collectors, much like your example of when you collected football cards, yet these are or were living creatures. I’m uncomfortable with that. Their value appears to have been reduced to purely monetary or decorative. And don’t even get me started on people who make pictures out of butterflies etc…

    However, let’s take Salisbury Plain as an example as something I know a little about. In order to record what’s out there and ultimately help play a part in its preservation it is just not possible (nor is it sometimes practical) to identify all species found in the field. Even by experts in that particular discipline (I’m no more than an enthusiastic amateur). Some specimens for example may need to be closely examined under a stereomicroscope, others may need genital extraction, others may need to be verified and so passed on to a third party. In these instances, a small number of voucher specimens will need to be taken and humanely killed. Having done so there is a moral duty to take care during the pinning process, then clearly and accurately label them with when, where, grid reference etc. Needless to say that even in a time of ever improving digital macro photography, beautifully illustrated colour guides and keys, and a wealth of online resources these specimens will continue to provide invaluable data and valuable reference to colour, size, variation, aberration etc

    In fact, even after the insect has long fallen to pieces, through decay or the passage of time the data labels attached to the pin still have value.

    As Max Barclay, Collection Manager of Beetles at the Natural History Museum in London, wrote last year:

    ‘In the end, we will only conserve what we care about, we will only care about what we know, and we will only know what we have had the opportunity to learn.’

    And finally a note on perspective. More insects are killed every day by the use of insecticides, loss of habitat, road traffic etc etc than have ever been taken by even the most enthusiastic of scientists and amateur entomologists combined.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Marc. Just to be clear, I do think there’s a difference between conservation and science as opposed to hobby collecting, hence my “no grudge and no little admiration” comment. And to expand on admiration, there are surely people who study insects that also love them, but in order to learn about and protect them (and us) collect them as specimens; something I just don’t see myself doing even though I know the logic behind it (or at least I see myself always choosing the comfort of not having to do it).

      Interestingly, as living creatures that reproduce in mass numbers essentially with an expected result of having only a small number of offspring survive to reproduce themselves, insects are, if not collaborators in conservation, well-suited to the methods we have of studying them in this particular regard.

      I have come to assume the distinction about scientific collecting, which perhaps is why I didn’t really want to go into a lot of detail about it and was thinking more philosophically. Entomologists and conservationists like yourself have done a great job of explaining the difference, too. In fact, Piotr Naskrecki amended his viral Goliath Birdeater tarantula post somewhat recently to defend specimen collection after essentially being attacked for collecting one of his photographed specimens (which he wasn’t even the one who collected it). I’m not entirely sure when I read that essay, but I think it was coincidentally after I had written and scheduled this post. Either way, the topic was “in the air” or on the web, as it were.

      For those interested, here’s the link to Piotr’s post:


  3. Yes, I’ve read Piotr’s post. It would appear there has been a lot of specimen collection defending recently. Generally I don’t bother.

    I do sympathise with your reluctance to collect. I too held off for many years but in the end found in order to progress with my study of entomology some collecting was inevitable and my small reference collection has proved invaluable. Although a good macro photograph can often be all that is needed for identification, sometimes the important determining detail isn’t in the shot. Or viewable at that angle. Of course you can attempt to go back to the location for another shot but the chance of the insect still being there is slim. Even relatively common insects can prove rather elusive when you are specifically looking for them. Or as I’m sure you are only too aware won’t co-operate by lying on their back while you get that critical reference shot of the underside. Also getting enough light to show the detail can be a problem and not everyone has your photographic skill. Of course if you do have the skill (and the knowledge of what to include in the shot) then there are many circumstances where macro photography is sufficient, providing of course that the photo is labelled in the same way as a specimen with what, where, when etc.

    With certain insect groups, braconid wasps for example, they are so small that even with an up to date key, identification is a real challenge. Of the first three specimens I tried to identify while on an identification course at the NHM in London, even with the help of two acknowledged experts to guide me I still got the first two wrong. Ok, I admit I may be a bit thick.

    It is important not to collect indiscriminately and to show restraint. Generally a male and female of a given species should be sufficient for most purposes. Unless of course it is that specific insect species you are studying and variation and/or aberration is relevant.

    My view is that, with the above provisos, it would be to our benefit to see more amateur entomologists getting out there and recording what they find and then passing that data onto the relevant organisations. If that means a little bit of ‘collecting’ to document what’s there so we have concrete evidence as opposed to anecdotal heresay then that may be a price worth paying to protect the habitat many of these creatures need before they disappear completely under the next motorway or housing project.

    Of course I’m not an insect and so cannot claim to speak on their behalf.

    1. I think it is a good view of things. Somewhat offhandedly, I do wonder if there are enough experts to make use of a sort of citizen brigade of entomologist. From reading naturalists and entomologists here and there, it seems like specimens can go undescribed for a long time, sitting in university or museum collection drawers. Of course, that’s more of a hypothetical thought, as I don’t think there’s anything like a “brigade” of amateurs out there collecting. It does seem like it may be a, let’s call it a PSA, on the rise.

  4. The sharpness, the colours, everything is fantastic! I hesitate before adding this comment, because I’m not sure it’s relevant to the subject. I’m a biologist myself, and I’ve done extensive literature survey (to write a book) about the use of anaesthetics on invertebrates, and some experiments by myself. There are a lot of options in order to anaesthetize specimens that allow a successful recovery. In the case of macro photography, where everyone is interested by as less movement as possible, I think the use of anaesthetics could be an option instead of killing the specimen… just to take a picture.

    1. Thank you, and thanks for all the visits/likes!

      I appreciate your consideration, but please comment! Apart from spam, I pretty much welcome all comments. And even it if is not strictly on topic, a good digression is often worth a lot.

      As for anesthetics on invertebrates, that sounds quite relevant to the broader topic, and very interesting as well. I wasn’t aware that people undertook such measures. I echo Marc’s comment, let us know about the book. Please feel free to expand on the subject and/or your experiments here, too.

      1. I don’t think that many people take that kind of measures, because it takes time, they are unaware it’s possible or because “don’t give a shit since it’s insects” (I hope it’s not the majority :-)). I reply below about some ideas about what kind of anaesthetics can be used.

    1. Thanks for the BBC link. I smiled a bit while reading that because it’s a bit my work actually, I’m also working in a museum, on the DNA of museum specimens (I’m a molecular biologist). I agree with it, there is so much potential in these museums, but so little financial means…

      I will try to summarize my information (the book is in progress, but almost done) and share it with you guys when it will be done ! To share an example, if you use a cotton wool impregnated with ethanol, and leave it for 5-15 minutes are room temperature in a air-tight container, the insect will be anaesthetize. It’s possible to take picture.The recovery after it will be gradual, but it will live. It’s best not to put it back in the nature straight away but wait until the recovery. I haven’t tried with many species, but I know for sure for fruit-flies and spiders, it works, so why not with other groups ? You can also use vinegar, menthol as other example (and other very specific products like magnesium chloride, but it’s probably not easy to find ?). I try to make people aware about the utility of using anaesthetics during collecting when they go on the field. Because it’s not because they don’t have the same nervous system as vertebrates, that they can’t feel pain, in a way or another. And I’ve also realized that it could be applied to the macrophotography world :-)

      1. Very interesting…now I am imagining myself kidnapping moths and spiders for studios shoots! They’ll never know what happened, ha! Of course, there is still something, let’s call it “magical” about the place where a serendipitous meeting happens (plus mother nature provides free, beautiful backdrops).

        It’s always good to hear about people advocating for the smaller, overlooked creatures in this world. Looking forward to hearing about your book — which I’m guessing is written in French? Bon chance as you finish it up.

      2. Thanks for the info Gin. I look forward to reading more.

        I think the vast majority of macro photographers get their images by freezing the motion of the insect by a combination of fast shutter speed and the use of flash. I have heard of people cooling insects in the fridge to slow them down and to enable them to be manipulated for photography. But this isn’t something I approve of and I think the majority of photographers would side with me on this.

        I guess you are referring to the temporary incapacitation of an insect for photographic purposes rather than for scientific study. For scientific study I’m not sure that it would be possible to move the insect around under a stereomicroscope whilst looking for the pertinent details without the risk of inadvertently causing it irreparable damage.

      3. I’m glad to hear that ! I’ve read stories where people would glue the insects to be able to take pictures. I also stumbled on a website where they were explaining how to kill an insect in a way that will preserve the color (so you can still take pictures). I often forget that it’s not the majority of people, and that most of bug photographers are really passionate about nature :-)
        In the first place, it was dedicated to field collecting, to use the right anaesthetic before killing the specimen (for ethical reason) but also to choose the appropriate anaesthetic that won’t degrade the DNA/RNA or proteins. But then I thought it could be interesting as well for photographic purposes.

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