Are insect populations damaged by collecting?
I am asked not infrequently by legitimately concerned patrons whether I am depleting the populations of the insects I work with. The answer may be unexpected. Not only is it difficult to damage an insect population by collecting, but it is generally recognized by entomologists and environmental organizations alike that responsible insect collecting is actually an effective tool in the fight to preserve insect populations. In order to understand the environmental impact of harvesting insects, it is important to first have a basic understanding of how they are collected. In effect, each insect that is not farm produced is captured with bare hands or with the use of a butterfly net. Lights are used to aid in the attraction of some nocturnal species, and beer-laden, fermented fruit laid out on the jungle floor can sometimes help in attracting certain day-flying species. Nevertheless, the process remains a laborious, methodical, and relatively slow procedure wherein each captured insect is an appreciated acquisition.
When comparing the number and effectiveness of human insect collectors running around the jungles of the world against the number and effectiveness of all the birds, lizards, frogs, monkeys, bats, predacious bugs, and countless other insect hunting animals in those same jungles, the answer as to how much impact insect collectors have on insect populations becomes obvious. As the bottom of the food chain, the chief defense of most insect species against depleted numbers lies in their ability to breed prolifically. This is not to say that abusive collecting practices are not possible or that governmental monitoring and permitting processes are not important, but the danger of decimation to virtually any insect population lies elsewhere—in habitat destruction.
Preserving threatened ecosystems – A case history
In late 2001 I was in the tiny village of Satipo, Peru, in search of good areas to collect morpho butterflies. My guide was a local lepidopterist who had been in the business of breeding and catching insects for many years and was knowledgeable about local populations. We were en route by four-wheel drive to one of his favorite spots when we stopped by a five- or six-year-old clear cut.
He explained that before it was logged, the area had been consistently abounding in morphos, but the butterfly’s host plant had been cleared along with the timber and now both were extinct in the area. We continued down muddy roads deep into the jungle for four hours, passing occasional clear cuts, until we came to Selva tribal territory. We paid the local chief for permission to collect on the tribe’s land and hiked in an hour or so to a small Amazon tributary. There, along a short, sandy riverbank that was fairly alive with butterflies, some of the local tribes people were employed in catching specimens. My guide explained that his family had been working with the natives collecting butterflies in that spot for eleven years, and each year the abundance of their target species had increased. The money paid to the indigenous families employed there was a financial incentive for the tribe to protect the area from development or logging. There had been no such sustainable demand on much of the surrounding land to prevent it from being logged, and some of the local authorities had succumbed to temptation and sacrificed their forest for onetime.
In as much as people who live in forested areas—or in the areas of any endangered ecosystems—are able to make a living by harvesting a renewable, sustainable “crop” such as insects, they have an economic incentive to conserve the habitat where their livelihood is produced. In some areas, such as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Kenya, successful insect harvesting and propagation programs have been put in place as conservation measures for the habitats of endangered insect species and have resulted in stabilized or resurgent numbers of those species. Both the halting of habitat destruction and the planting of additional host plants to welcome the return of threatened species have proven effective. These programs are funded by culling a percentage of the species and selling them to collectors, dealers, scientists, and institutions.
A Scientific Consensus
In a January 2001 National Geographic cover story on jewel scarab beetles, renowned entomologist Ronald Cave wrote: “With such a bounty on scarab heads, some conservationists worry that populations could be depleted. But our research suggests otherwise. Catching insects isn’t like hunting jaguars. Millions of jewel scarab eggs, larvae, and pupae remain underground, while collectors take only adults . . . The biggest threat to scarabs is not insect hobbyists but loss of habitat as tropical forests are converted to farms. We believe that regulated beetle collecting by local people—and, in time, beetle farming—could actually help slow this process.” Surely, insects are not the only renewable, sustainable resource to be found in tropical forests throughout the world. They provide just one example of man being able to live in conjunction with his environment without either having to be consumed by the other.
In their landmark work An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, Arthur Evans of the Smithsonian Institute and Charles Bellamy of the Transvaal Museum wrote about the need to depart from theoretical and less effective environmental ideologies and move toward more tenable solutions:“Beetles may also offer some motivation for preserving shrinking ecosystems. Our conservation strategy, particularly in the rain forests, must continue to shift from the idealistic preservation of “pristine” habitats to the realistic factoring of the human component. If local peoples can derive an immediate financial return through a sustainable resource within the environment, they are more likely to preserve that environment. Beetles present one such resource. Dead-stock trade in insects, mostly beetles and butterflies, runs into the tens of millions of dollars annually.”
The Perspective from the Field
On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I was collecting one night with good friend and local Scarab expert Jimmy Larin. He told me about leaving his prestigious post as assistant director of the National Museum of Natural Science in San Jose to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams of business ownership in the tiny village of his youth. We discussed the locals he was able to employ in remote areas where unemployment is the norm. He compared the forest to a cow, explaining that if you care for your cow, you can milk it daily and feed your family for many years. If you kill it to get the meat, you may feast for a little while, but then all those who have depended on the consistent supply of milk will have to go without.
In areas all across the world, habitats are subject to irreversible alteration because of the needs of the surrounding communities and individuals. Facing such a situation, many people choose sides, becoming advocates for either the environment or the needs of people, to the detriment of the other. I am not convinced that either stance is always necessary or most productive. It is largely because of our ingenuity as a race that we have been able to rise to such a position of preeminence over all other organisms in the natural world.
We cannot let that ingenuity be defined as necessarily antithetical to the maintenance of our natural surroundings. Dead bugs, for example, haven’t exactly enjoyed a treasured status throughout history, and yet there is a gratifying demand for them and an abundant supply of them. Surely there are other such commodities produced by the varied ecosystems of our planet that can be responsibly and viably harvested in a similar way. Our imaginations needn’t be limited to naturally derived products either. Ecotourism is another successful example of man’s entrepreneurial will working in concert with a respect and passion for the earth. The myriad ways that humans can work in conjunction with their natural surroundings to the benefit and preservation of both are as boundless as our creativity.