Discussion about pinning insects

Hello everyone,

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I’m having a hard time coming up with a solution to my question, so I’d like to hear what the community has to say. If you have experience with pinning insects, or even if you don’t and you have thoughts about it, please answer this question to the best of your ability:

Why do you pin insects, and what does it mean to you/do for you? For me, the only good reason I can see to kill and pin an insect is if it’s an undescribed or rare species, and you want to look at it more carefully so you can do research on it. I know some people collect just for fun, but I really don’t see what fun there is in it.

Thanks for any information you can provide!

Edit: I don’t mean to insinuate that people collect because they like killing insects, if that’s how this came across I’m very sorry.

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It’s a good question. I don’t catch and pin many insects, but a few. I actually usually only do it with common ones (because then I don’t think taking one will impact the population).

I mainly do it to learn more. I’m a novice and not very good with IDing with keys and don’t have much experience seeing insects up close (I don’t have a collection available to me to learn from). Having some pinned insects gives me a focal point to learn more about them. It’s also sometimes the only way I know to figure out IDs since I am not good enough to do this in the field “on the fly” as it were.

I do try to tag and take records appropriately, and while my pinning isn’t perfect, I hope to donate my (small) collection someday when I am done with it.

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Collecting insects isn’t for everyone, as many people don’t want to harm or kill a creature of any species, but to properly be an entomologist and study insects you need to have specimens. The data attached to the specimen is more important than the specimen itself, but the specimen is included because future entomologists can confirm that the species actually is identified correctly. Even the best entomologist has misidentified something in their lives. There are many reasons to collect insects beyond “it’s fun”.

  1. Keep track of morphological variation. A large series of specimens is much more valuable as a museum worker can get a good idea on the variation in that species. Having a few is not going to answer that question. when doing taxonomic studies you need to describe the full variation in that species, and studying hundreds of specimens is much better than a single small series.
  2. Geographic range. Normally museums have lots of pinned specimens from all over the world which allows one to compare the number of species found in one area versus another, and any regional variation that may be taxonomically significant.
  3. Changes over time. Collections can show changes in species in an area over time, as most museums have material that is over 100 years old and covers a good chunk of the industrial era and climate change, as well as the spread of the human population. You can see species that are no longer found in an area and ones that have migrated into the area that you would otherwise never know.
  4. Genetic studies. As genetic techniques improve we can get genetic data from older and older specimens, so this is useful for studying how species evolve and long term patterns of speciation that long pre-date humans.
  5. Dissection/Anatomy. Collected specimens can be identified to species using genitalic dissections and other internal and external anatomy that only can be studied through microscope work on a pinned specimen. The preparation of the wings spread and legs out makes all features easily seen, inlcuding ones you will never see in a live insect. Some species cannot be identified except in hand as a specimen.
  6. Teaching. Nothing engages students and kids more than actually letting them go out and catch things themselves. Getting people interested involves collecting and having them make collections and tasking them with identifying their catch. Getting kids to use phones may be easier now, but in the past the only way to study insects was to collect them.
  7. Permanence. We have collections that have lasted over 200 years and they have outlasted any of our digital media which has a sadly limited lifespan, so dry collections are a superior repository of data. Anyone can go and check the material out and the specimens are easy to examine and study without juggling files. Maybe this will change in the future?

I am an insect collector AND a photographer and I see the utility of each. iNatualist has actually been a big help in surveying moths given I don’t need to pin and prepare vouchers from each location. I can post 75% of my moths and get them identified by photo and that is a valid record of that moth. I don’t think it will ever fully replace doing an insect collection, and certainly won’t replace the taking of specimen vouchers for taxonomic work (genetic or morphology). If you prefer not to collect that is your right, but I’ve seen enough NABA anti-collectors to see that the anti-collector sentiment is actually harmful to entomology. Collectors and observers should be working TOGETHER but the anti-collectors are causing a rift and hurting the advancement of knowledge. I strongly request that people understand that people don’t collect to kill things, and that they should respect us for doing what we need to do for our work. I have never run into any bug collector that enjoys killing the bugs!

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[I finished this just as rayray finished his post so I hope there aren’t too many duplicates.] This question doesn’t just apply to pinning insects but to collecting specimens in general. Here are a handful of reasons:

  1. Many species can only be identified by looking under the microscope (take moth genetalia or Asteraceae achenes).
  2. Natural history collections (including insect collections) represent treasure troves of data including morphological, genetic, and distributional.
  3. Collecting specimens enables the collector to use a taxonomic key (these are almost always based on specimens) teaching the collector how to identify using classical methods.
  4. Specimens can be turned into type specimens if future research indicates that it represents an unnamed species.
  5. It can build connections between you and your local natural history collection (whether that be a university collection, botanical garden herbarium, etc.). This connection often help the natural history collection in outreach.
  6. Knowing how to collect specimens allows you to aid researchers if they need help obtaining material.
  7. Scientists are generally more likely to use data from natural history collections. The reason for this is that the data is typically better curated and represents a more permanent record (or at least perceived more permanent record) than online sources.
  8. Finally, all of the above is fun, educational, and engaging!
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nathantaylor, haha we came up with just about the same list. Impressive.

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Great explanation, that’s super helpful!

I agree with the replies above, but they address the wider question of why entomologists kill insects. Specifically why you might pin them is to allow you to view them easily from all directions without having to hold the specimen in your fingers or forceps. And keeping the pinned specimen is a good way of preserving it for when you want to take another look, such as to compare it with something similar you find the next year. I used to pin many of what I caught, but since I moved to damp Wales I find pinned specimens go mouldy so these days most are kept in vials of alcohol.

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I don’t pin them as I a lazy enough to not buy supplies, though I’m trained to, I kill insects only when they’re not identifiable the other way, in species where genitals can be photographed I do that, but some groups like ichneuonids are just too large and coplicated to be ided fro general photos (though there’re exceptions), there’re different genera that look exactly the same with vry inor differences and you never know which part you will need for id, it can be anything and you can’t take photo of anything from every angle with alive insect and imo it’s a bigger torture than killing it (I freeze them). I don’t know what fun you mean, I think personal collections are more of a passion thing other than just fun.

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… during the 1970s-90s I used to pin moths, because of very practical reasons: photography was based on celluloid film and photochemistry, you’d have to finish a roll of film before you develop it, therefore sometimes photos were only visible days to months after taking them, the cost of film/photography/prints was too high for my pocket money. Chloroform and needles were the way to go!

For me, this has dramatically changed since about 2000. I am exclusively into photography, refuse to take specimens even if asked by experts. And I very much like the iNat taxonomy system, where you can simply leave an ID at a higher taxon level, if species identification is impossible from photos.

I am not against insect collecting / pinning, if done by experts, and done for a scientific reason. But that is not for me anymore …

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I don’t really have much to add that has already not been said. Insect identification often demands looking at small details - subtle difference in arrangements of wing veins or the location of bristles on a thorax. The location of gills. Many features that are difficult to see from a photo. A properly spread or preserved insect allows these features to be seen.
In the past this was done by a relatively few people, so the impact on populations was generally minimal. With the rise of organisations like iNat, if every observation was a killed specimen, the effect on populations would be greater. The accuracy of an identification is less important than the engagement of people with the non-human world around them. So while there are good reasons for pinning insects, the advent of the internet and digital cameras has reduced the need for a preserved specimen. Like many of the responders, I know how to properly pin/preserve insects, and have done so in the past, but no longer feel I need to.
One final thought - if an insect is not properly pinned, then the identifying features may not be visible. Essentially, it is a wasted specimen. There are resources that explain the how’s and why’s of this.

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Not to go offtopic but is there a reason you won’t take a specimen by request by an expert? Normally you don’t have to even prep the specimen, just throw it in the freezer and then mail it to the researcher. I ask because it would be awfully frustrating for a scientist to have potential access to a important species but the person who has access to it does not want to assist with the scientific research! I certainly can’t think of a reason to block research.

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You ask a good question, but I think @amzamz already answered it: “That’s not for me anymore”.

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Yes, but that was amzamz saying that they didn’t collect anymore because they prefer to photograph moths now. Even if I didn’t collect anymore myself, I would not hesitate the collect a specimen and put it in the freezer for a researcher who contacted me via iNat to do so. I have seen a lot of recent taxonomic work done with the help of iNat observers, and I don’t think any of those people were insect collectors. I was wondering why amzamz would not collect for a scientist, not why they don’t collect themselves.

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Well, that’s not what I heard his post saying.

And, there’s no reason you should not act according to your own beliefs. Well, assuming your own beliefs do not involve excessive life taking (and I feel pretty confident you take a careful view of such things).

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Because you are at a place in your personal journey that doesn’t approve of killing, even tiny creatures. Killing for someone else is still killing. But since you refer to it as “blocking research,” I take it that is not where you are.

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I cannot understand how somebody can claim that they love moths, love insects or any critter and then put it in a kill jar and pin it to a board. I cannot marry that enthusiasm for insects with killing them.
(I’m talking about doing it as a hobby, not for scientific reasons.)
Can anybody explain to me why they do It? I’m genuinely curious.

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I do it for the research. I hope to donate my collection to an institution eventually. Also, I agree with you on the no-kill part. I keep my insects as “pets” until they die naturally

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How people love livestock and still kill them? Maybe because those two things are not connected? I love something both alive and dead, and if I need to kill it to id (and I know I will be able to), I’ll kill it, why exactly not? Cause somebody else can’t do that? Hobby of pinning is still scientific reason, even without dates it is part of science (I never saw an adult who wouldn’t have a systematic collection also, children just like to collect dead stuff, but adults don’t kill everything they see). Like, I love frogs and had to cut part of its head off for university class, so does it mean I don’t feel bad about killing it because I did it? I feel more weird about people who can’t see beauty in dead specimens other than those who killed them.

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Maybe its for a collection? Im not sure. I think they’re pretty, I just feel bad for the insects or anything that was pinned. Im not a big fan of it because the thought of them being killed just so they could be displayed sounds horrible. If they were already dead or dying it doesn’t seem like such an issue if you want it in order to preserve it. Im not sure if I would be considered a hypocrite since I have some insects that are encased in like some sort of plastic for display. It just seems cruel to do it while they’re alive still.

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What is the difference?

I do collect and have collected for quite a while. These days I don’t collect much as there isn’t much new to collect here, but I do take nice butterfly samples every now and then for photography. The way I see it, those pictures are my main collection now. And that is definitely a hobby. Out of necessity, the catching of moths can’t be that selective, but the main purpose in those is the same.

Then again, I’ve reported my catches to the national database for roughly two decades. I’ve also found some interesting ones from abroad. One was the first official record of a species from a certain region. Another is likely undescribed still. I simply collected them and took photos of them. As the ID seemed problematic one went directly to barcoding and the other lost its rear to genital slides, which solved the ID. Those samples are now in the local museums, but they were originally taken in order to have the pictures.

As far as loving them and killing them goes, I definitely do both, but I don’t love killing them. It is just necessary for what I do. I’m not a vegan either.

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