Pros and cons of specimen collecting

Last century I took an entomology class with a requirement to present a collection. Since retirement, I have gotten back into observing bugs and other organisms. I am enjoying trying to identify specimens (mostly arachnids and insects) from the photos I take, but it’s often not possible to get the ID to species level. When I had a swimming pool in my yard, I was able to collect quite a few drowning victims, although I didn’t keep them. I’m not sure I want to get back into killing specimens, just because of a general respect for the natural world and the fear of killing something and then finding that it was endangered/vulnerable, etc. What are your thoughts? (I would not think of intentionally killing any vertebrate.)


It’s unlikely that killing one individual arachnid or insect will have a strong population/species level impact. I think collecting (judiciously) can be an overall net benefit to species. Some ways this can happen are:

  1. Collecting allows you to make a species ID you otherwise couldn’t which is added to iNat or other database, informing science/policy which may help protect species. You may also be able to donate a well-curated/prepared collection to an institution for posterity, increasing its scientific value.

  2. Increases your knowledge/you have a reference collection which allows you to help others by IDing and adding to the community.

  3. For many people, keeping a collection is a gateway to a greater appreciation of biodiversity. For myself, collecting a few insects and observing them closely (even when dead) really did make me appreciate and care about them much more for instance (though it seems you already have this!).


(we/us pronouns) as a hobbyist naturalist, we choose not to harm or kill (and often try not to handle or interfere with) observed species. We have associates who are much more advanced than we who will collect only deceased specimens for further examination, dissection, identification, etc. Obviously, some protected sites might prohibit collection, but where allowed, we think your own value system will be the key determinant (and it can change over time). We would not try to tell you what to do, however. We appreciate your curiosity, your need to learn and contribute as well as your need to respect.


I agree with the points made by @cthawley. If you’re collecting simply to learn about the natural world and not for some sort of commercial reasons, the harm done by killing bugs is minuscule compared to the knowledge which can be gained. I’ve learned so much by collecting plants and bugs which I would never have been able to had I only been taking pictures.

You can also reach out to a nearby museum to see if they would like to accession your collections so that they can be used by scientists too. During my work I’ve been able to contribute thousands of plant specimens to museums which have graciously accepted them.


When I was weighing this out in my own mind, I realized how many insects I inadvertently kill driving down the highway, mowing, gardening, etc. A single, or even multiple specimens in an area, collected with purpose, are hardly a drop in the bucket.

I also collect for a friend on the spectrum. His collection has a positive impact on his life, and sharing his perspective has enriched mine. I believe non-commercial collection, even if it never goes further, is a great way to observe, teach, and preserve nature.


I collect specimens, but not in the typical manner. I refrain from killing any specimens, instead I collect already dead specimens or keep them alive until they naturally die (I try to provide them with their needs.)


In some of my college course work way back when, I was required to know how to prepare study skins of birds (the institution was allowed to keep such specimens, hence we were allowed to work with them in our capacity as students). I also learned the same for mammals at the same time. Some time ago, I posted a now-closed thread on the lost macaws of the Caribbean, which emphasized that, although there are thirteen proposed species, many are disputed due to the absence of physical remains as specimens. The Cuban Macaw is the only one whose plumage pattern we can be sure of, because it is the only one with extant museum skins.

And yet, I find myself at a point now where I cannot bring myself to kill any animal for a specimen, not even an insect or spider. It may be, as @annainok said, “hardly a drop in the bucket;” but the real difference is intention. Inadvertently killing an insect while driving is not the same as intentionally killing one, aside from any question of numbers. I arrived at this point as a result of being a vegetarian for many years; it was a gradual process.

Plants are different, in that they lack a central nervous system.


I have a small swimming pool for my kids, and often wonder if anyone would want the bugs I found drowned in it. I don’t have time these days to carefully photograph, or even examine, the drowned. I would be glad to stick these in a bottle and donate them somewhere, but doubt anyone would want them.


The question is why? If you ask about it and need validation, maybe you just don’t need to do it? Or don’t want? It’s certainly not for everyone and it’s not a big deal if you do or don’t do that.
upd. edited word added by my phone


While the life of a single insect is less ‘important’ than the life of something like a single blue whale, the combined effect of killing and collecting insects could become a concern. There are over 1.5 million observations of insects on iNat - if all those had been killed it adds up to a fair number. Some insects do need microscopic examination to correctly identify. A number of moth species can only be told apart through dissection, and some folks have the equipment and skills to do so. For most of us, an ‘as good as it gets’ ID is enough. Many places are reporting significant declines in overall insect populations. Most wild life worldwide has been affected negatively by human activities, so in my eyes, conservation should be more important than making a collection.
I have killed and pinned insects in the past and it is a good way to learn about them. Probably all Entomologists should do so as part of their education. I don’t see any reasons do so now, though.


I would like to gently say that the presence or absence of central nervous system should not make a difference to the taking of a life. Humans need to eat, but the food we eat should be treated with respect.
And I’m not looking to start an argument ! :grin:


I live in the D.R. Congo. If you look at my observations, you’ll see hundreds of set Lepidoptera specimens. I’m not a professional, nor am I formally trained/educated. I’ve been collecting, mostly butterflies, here for the past 8 years. Outside of the DRC I almost exclusively photograph what I see.

The DRC is relatively poorly studied. The forest is vast, sparsely populated by people, and much is unknown about the fauna found within. Many species of butterfly require specimens for proper identification. My collection provides new and unique data points for the ranges of many species. I’ve collected several species that had not/have not been scientifically described/recognized. I’ve collected species that had not been seen in over 60 to 100 years. I’ve had the privilege of describing the male of a species which had never before been recognized.

I’m not “tooting my own horn” here, but rather pointing out the scientific benefit to collecting specimens in this context. For me, this hobby isn’t “stamp collecting”. I’m not aiming to hoard boxes of interesting insects. I want to play my small part in increasing our collective understanding & knowledge of the creation that surrounds us. So, I share specimens fairly freely with scientists & scientific institutions and consequently have been able to contribute materially to a number of scientific papers & revisions.

On a personal level, through collecting, I’ve grown in my own understanding, respect and wonder at the complexities of natural systems. Collecting has made me much more of an environmentalist than I ever was. I enjoy nature much more because I began collecting and that increased enjoyment extends to the majority of the time when I don’t have a net in hand.

Lastly, I’ve had the pleasure of showing my collection to friends here and inviting others to join me for a day out in the forest. It’s really neat to see how much more aware people become of the natural beauty that surrounds them just through a bit of exposure. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me they never paid attention to butterflies before, but now they see them everywhere.

So, to conclude: Is collecting in a sensitive manner going to enhance your knowledge of, and appreciation for nature? (Are you being edified?) Are you engaging in collecting in an unselfish manner? (Are others benefiting too?) Have you considered the impact you are having on the species being collected?


There is an iNat project for them!

In terms of donating the specimens, there is this project looking for ants and beetles from what I understand:


Can you clarify, please? Do you mean you don’t see any reason for you to collect now, or you don’t see any reason for anyone to collect now?


I work mainly with plants, not insects or arachnids, and I get how it is often harder with insects or arachnids to get an ID to species level without collecting a specimen.

With plants, however, I have noticed an odd sort of “conservatism” in reports of plants in that a lot of herbaria still seem to consider specimen collection the “gold standard” for identification and “proof” that something definitely occurs in an area. And the herbaria put a lot of resources into storing and preserving their specimens. To me, this seems like an outdated way of thinking, one that made sense back before the advent of modern digital photography.

The way I see things, at least with plants, is very different. In many cases, a good photograph (a well-composed photograph with a contemporary, medium-end smartphone is usually sufficient, and a DSLR with a decent lens and someone who knows how to use it is above-and-beyond) is often far superior to a dried specimen collected years ago, even if you can examine it up-close-and-personal. And…looking at a photo of a specimen? Even if it’s a professional photo, as good as it could be? Forget it. It’s just not as good in the overwhelming majority of cases. So much stuff just doesn’t come through, the color, the shape.

For plants, my gold standard is being there in the field and being able to touch and smell the plant, observe it from different angles, and ideally, with magnification. Sometimes though, a good photograph is as good or better than magnification from a hand lens. I can see things with a high-resolution photo taken with my 50mm lens on my (low-end) DSLR, with my minimal photography skills, that I cannot see with a simple hand lens. I’d imagine that if I had a high-end camera and some fancy lenses, this disparity would be even more pronounced.

So that’s me…I just don’t see much benefit to specimen collection for plants. But I get why it is important, sometimes necessary even to get an ID, for insects and arachnids and probably other taxa as well.

If I were to collect them, as to whether or not it is okay, I think it’s always fine to take one to a few isolated specimens from a locally abundant species. If something is rare, however, I would adopt a no-kill policy. If I find a dead one, that’s fair game, but otherwise I’d leave it be.

That said, I also just don’t like killing things, even small animals like insects, and even common ones. They are still living beings and I think they are often very cute. So, unless I felt that I was getting some compelling value out of the collection I would not feel good about it. I’ve always felt that I know so little, I can get incredible amounts out of just sitting and observing, maybe photographing things, and I’ve never felt like I’ve gotten anywhere near the level of knowledge that would justify killing insects to move forward. For example, I don’t know how to identify species of jumping spider, but I’ve spent extended periods of time sitting and watching them in my apartment, seeing how they behave in response to different stimuli. I would feel weird about killing one if I had not gotten to the point where I felt like I observed it to know a lot about its behavior, just sort of out of a philosophical thing, like…try to understand something first before setting out to kill it, if that makes sense? I’ve always been sort of repulsed by the attitude in much of Western society where people go out and kill something first, before really understanding it. But others may feel differently if they’re studying entomology and they already know a lot and really need to do that to advance their knowledge.

I alsodon’t like the idea of encouraging others to kill casually, even if it’s just an insect, and I think sometimes specimen collection can unintentionally have this effect. It doesn’t seem to be a great thing to do solely as a hobby. And…this is coming from someone who is happy to support hunting, eat animals killed through hunting. To me, it seems a bit different because the one is more a hobby and the other, even if also a hobby, is more a livelihood, directly supporting us through food.

So yeah, my feelings about this are complex. But overall, I think people focus on specimen collection more than is necessary and beneficial.


I was speaking personally, but I do believe that minimal impact is the best way to go. There are always exceptions - @cabintom outlines some good reasons to collect, although butterflies as a group, have had substantial pressure on them through collection. Collection and examination has a role to play, and I do not deny that. I just feel that the benefits should outweigh potential drawbacks.



1 Like

The decision to collect has to be a personal one, but I’m all for non-commercial collecting in many cases. Adequately labeled specimens (with location, date, and collector’s name at least, often with information about the habitat) are important for researching morphology, ranges, species distinctions, phylogeny, etc. They are needed for document range extensions. They’re valuable for people writing keys to large groups (I know from experience!). They can help you learn more about the world around you. They allow species ID in cases where photos aren’t enough. Contributing your specimens to museums, herbaria, etc., makes them available for others to use, too. Great resources. So I say, go collect! (with a few exceptions)

What about conservation effects of collecting? Be aware of them, but also be realistic. Most plants, insects, etc., are so common at least locally that occasionally collecting one or a few won’t matter. However, be aware of the exceptions. Don’t collect a species or at a place or time where your work is likely to have bad effects. Also be aware of what has already been collected. For example, almost anything from the D. R. Congo would be welcomed by museums but Corvallis, Oregon, has been scoured by students making class collections as well as professional botanists. Conspicuous, easily identified specimens from right here aren’t all that welcome.

Are photos enough to record what is where? I’d say sometimes yes (that’s why I do identifications for iNaturalist!) but sometimes no. With Sedum section Gormania, most specimens are little brown sticks supporting brown flowers, plus a packet of brown leaves that have fallen off – not helpful. Photographs are important, and my colleagues and I have printed photos to paste on herbarium specimens of this groups (but we still made herbarium specimens). The biggest concern I have about photos as records is that we really don’t know how permanent they will be. The oldest extant herbarium specimens were collected in the mid-1500’s. Certainly collected specimens can be lost (to fire, bombing, floods, theft, insects, changes in institutional policy, etc.), but will our iNaturalist photos last until 2100 even? We don’t know. Solar flares, changes in institutional policy, social upheaval, war, software incompatibilities – there are many potential methods of loss. I say, collect and upload photos! Yes! But don’t completely neglect specimens.

And as someone who for years stuffed roadkill and window-killed birds, etc., for a university, I agree that animals found dead can make great specimens without any ethical concerns.


For many places herbarium is the only source of botanical data, plus you can get DNA from it and not from the photo, which is still very needed for plants id and new taxa description based on old collections. Every way of modern collection is so controversial though, so many fights about killed birds in recent years!


Yeah, the DNA is probably the most compelling reason for specimen collection in plants. And there are some cases, like the species complexes like birches (Betula sp.) where the morpohology is notoriously tricky, but there are straightforward differences in polyploidy that determine speciation, where the DNA is superior to morphology.

Interestingly though, modern information systems and DNA sequencing can now allow you to record and store data on the DNA without storing the actual specimen, thus saving a ton of resources.

I wonder if a “best of both worlds” would be to take a DNA sample, store relevant data on it, and high-quality digital photos and have both digitally accessible.