Herbarium. To do or not to do?

My passion is naturalism, two years in the INaturalist. And I always have an ethical-moral question. For example, if I can collect various plant samples (in the form of herbarium) or insects for entomological collections. How normal is this and is it worth it? It seems like this is real documentation and maybe someday it will come in handy, but my question is mostly about if only professional biologists can do this or everyone who likes it.

Check https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/pros-and-cons-of-specimen-collecting/25115 and other topics about personal collections, there was one just recently.


Check out this discussion here, i.t.o considering a herbarium collection and pro’s/ con’s of collecting:

I was given an official rebuke/ warning and my comment removed for giving my honest take on the matter, so be prepared for a somewhat volatile discourse on the subject


thank you!

thank you

My sense is people can pick plants in their own yard or when given explicit permission by another property owner. But it’s not okay in public outdoor spaces or on someone else’s private property. “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures”.

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I can only comment on herbarium specimen collection, although I heard that insect collecting is very important too. If you’re thinking of the ethics of collection then that’s a good start. I think collection has little effect on common species or hearty populations; mowing and direct loss of habitat and these species is much more detrimental than taking a specimen can do. But I will never take the opinion that collection cannot be detrimental. Context is everything!

So these are my personal rules:

  1. Collect with conservation in mind. Don’t collect anything rare and endangered unless you have explicit permission and are working with conservation agencies. Don’t collect the only occurrence.
  2. Collect to record new occurrences or to record presence over a significant span of time (not 1 or even 10 years, more!)
  3. Collect where you’re allowed
  4. Collect the ones that would be mowed anyway

So generally what I end up collecting are weeds or native but uncommon species that are overlooked and haven’t been recorded at that spot. Collecting is not fun to me; it’s a lot of work. But if you want to invest into doing this and you’re being as ethical as possible, go for it.


Also for anyone that wants to collect, a general suggestion I have is to collect where others haven’t. A problem in herbarium collections is clustering.

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Accumulating a collection of plant or insect specimens can be useful to you and others. Remember to label each one with place and date of capture! They’re useless to anyone else without that. Read up on how to preserve them – archival paper, well-sealed boxes, etc. It may be useful from time to time to put the specimens in a plastic bag and put them in the freezer, to kill pests.

If your interests change and you no longer want your well labeled, well cared for specimens, donate them to a herbarium, museum, etc. (And once you do, let go of them emotionally. The institution may keep them for its own collection, exchange them to other institutions, or use them for teaching. If you care, discuss that before donating.) Put a clause in your will donating the specimens and associated notes to an institution. (You can specify which one or leave that to the executor of your will.)


In most cases layman collectors plugging flowers or drowning beetles in alcohol have absolutely no clue wether they just picked something rare or endangered (especially if those species look similar to widespread species).


It is the question if they should? I am a professional biologist, but in the moment digital cameras were good enough to take macro-closeups, I stopped collecting alltogether (for private purpose, that is). After all, this is iNaturalist … it’s all about taking pictures. ;)

Usually there is no harm done in collecting dead parts (old bones, empty shells, feathers) or parts of plants (like a small twig of a big tree). But if you go through any old plant or bug collection assembled by laymen who donated their collection after death, then you will find many a protected species which the collector never had a permit for and probably didn’t even know he’d need one. I am talking from experience …


I’m not sure who you’re implying this is; unaccredited folks and amateurs can be just as good as the educated collectors. This comment just comes across as classist.


Thank you for your advice, it is a really helplfull

I am living in Republic of Moldova, and by observations on INaturalist i can say what here is not a lot of observers, but I saw in a lot of digital colections of herbarium what in a time of the Soviet Union here were botanists who collected plants but these herbariums are now in a Russia. Now I don’t even know how things are with this at the main university in Chisinau, the feeling that they do not exist on the Internet at all


If those collections are digitized, they’re in GBIF and can used on iNat if on map you check on filter for GBIF, so you can revisit sites and look what is there now (though old collections suffer from vague place descriptions). But yes, most people don’t need to collect and I can get 90%+ of plants ided to species without any specimens, and other percentage is either my fault of not getting specific shots or just it being the wrong time of the year, you can photograph pretty much everything but roots without disturbing the whole plant.


At risk of being permanently banned for my views, I will just subtly reiterate as I did elsewhere that herbarium collections in and of themselves DO NOT endanger even the most localized and endemic plant species, atleast not in my region where there are firm regulations and procedural frameworks for biodiversity management (as one would think there should be everywhere). There is just simply no evidence to support this notion.


Clearly there is no simple answer to such a question. I suspect a starting question would be “why”. In the link @Marina_Gorbunova provided, there is a person from the DRC who collects and pins Lepidoptera. The insects there are poorly documented, so the collection helps to establish range and other important taxonomic data. The person photos specimens outside the Country. Are the plants in your place well documented? What is your purpose for collecting?
As @anthonywalton says, a collection is unlikely to cause endangerment. I would add a caveat, though. iNat has millions of observations. If a significant proportion of those were from collected specimens, over time it might lead to population pressures, even with common species. I used to collect and pin moths, but see no reason to do so now. That’s all I have to say!


Perhaps not, but it can still be illegal. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty, almost any feather from a native bird is illegal to collect or possess in the United States, unless from a legally taken game bird. There are historical reasons for this: our National Wildlife Refuge System was first established to protect birds that were being decimated for the millinery industry – killed so that their feathers could be made into fancy ladies’ hats. Making it illegal to possess any feathers at all is an extra safeguard, to ensure that feathers from slain birds are not being passed off as found feathers. Can you prove that you found that feather already molted?

Even old bones may contravene the law in some circumstances, for example, if they are bones of a sea turtle or cetacean. The same logic applies as with feathers – can you prove that you found it already dead?

But the question is about herbaria specifically, so feathers and bones do not really apply. The real question here is, will making that collection add value? A collection of the most common, weedy grasses already known from your area probably is not a useful dataset; however, it may be a useful teaching tool for students of grass identification. You need to decide whether you have the skill and the willingness to collect and curate in such a way as to maintain whatever value the specimens have. Do you know the botanical protocols for how to make a useful specimen and how to label it? I feel that you should also consider whether your collection would be redundant – is there already a more thorough herbarium collection covering your geographic area?

I subscribe to the newsletter of the International Aroid Society. One of the most prolific contributors is Prof. Tom Croat, who often writes narratives of his collecting expeditions to places such as Colombia. He collects Araceae systematically, not a haphazard collection, and when the Society’s peer reviewed journal Aroideana comes out, there are often papers by Croat and colleagues describing many new species, often known only from the type locality. This is a useful kind of herbarium collecting; what makes it useful is its systematic, focused approach, and its adherence to scientific protocols.

This is why I don’t collect. Unless I am working on a specific research project, I don’t have the focus to collect systematically. A haphazard collection of this interesting grass, that daisy that caught my eye, and those mosses I hadn’t noticed before isn’t really worth the curation. I also don’t have the time or resources to allocate to proper collecting and curating equipment and supplies; I could, but only to the detriment of other things that matter more to me. So the first question you need to ask yourself is: why are you considering a herbarium?


" A haphazard collection of this interesting grass, that daisy that caught my eye, and those mosses I hadn’t noticed before isn’t really worth the curation."

As with iNaturalist, we don’t know what will be useful when added to the bigger collection and used by someone later. There are good reasons not to collect and definitely, your not wanting to for any reason is the best reason at all!


Yeah I got used to this kind of response. ;) But I do understand it. Let me try to explain my point of view:
I let my car having fixed by a mechanic, not by an interested layman … you wouldn’t refer to this behavior as “classism”, would you?
But having said that: I do not care about the classic education at all. I care about getting yourself educated, may it be academic or self-taught. So there are a lot of people out there who plug an orchid and then say “oh, it is protected?” … I was referring to those people. They may as well be academics, too. So I’ll have my car fixed by a mechanic, no matter how he aquired his knowledge of cars.

If there is a sort of classism in my comments: Yes, I do not like people who do not like to learn. But those people seem to be very rare on iNat, it is why I am here.


In this case it is difficult to gather actual evidence in a scientific sense. How would you do it? Encourage some school classes to plug all orchids from a specific area and then look wether the orchids will be back next year?
But it will be very different for any organism group. Population size is the key factor. Striking example: it is prohibited to “collect” tigers or elephants for good reasons …

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