It might sound like a strange question to ask an entomologist but a recent debate on bug_girl’s blog got me thinking. Obviously, I have no qualms about collecting insects for my studies because my work contributes to scientific knowledge and indirectly benefits the things I am interested in. But are art displays like those by Jennifer Angus doing entomology any favours and could they in fact provide a catalyst for lobbyists to bring down a lot of very negative and emotive feeling against people who collect any insects?
I started collecting insects when I was a little kid but I went through a period of a decade when I didn’t collect – during my late teens and early 20s when I got into photography and studied ‘easy’ groups like macro-lepidoptera. I was concentrating on the photography and gave up taking specimens because I just didn’t feel that it was necessary. I also had a nagging feeling of guilt in the back of my head that made me believe, as I do today, that life in all its forms has value of a kind and I needed to have a good enough reason to kill insects. Just killing them to posess them or to hang them on the wall as decoration just didn’t “cut it” for me. This feeling wasn’t in any way a huge moral dilemma – it was just a nagging feeling at the back of my mind.
Anyway, in the late 1990s I became intrigued by the large species-lists that some serious entomologists had created for my local nature reserves and with the encouragement of entomological friends I decided to delve deeper and study groups like parasitic Diptera & Hymenoptera. This of course required that I take up collecting again but that wasn’t in any way in conflict with my conscience. Quite the contrary – it is necessary for my own personal education; any discoveries I made would contribute to the wider understanding of very under-studied groups; and the data gathered during the study would benefit the species concerned.
That’s pretty much where I stand on the topic so, going back to the subject of insects as art, I had very mixed feelings when I saw the display of thousands of dead tropical insects as an art installation. It certainly isn’t gratuitous, in the way that insects are routinely killed in shows like “I’m a celebrity…“, and the artist has tried very hard to only take insects from sustainable sources, such as insect-farms that benefit indigenous peoples and encourage them to protect the rainforests. Displays like this also undoubtably stimulate interest in and admiration of insects in some of those that see them and I am sure that they would encourage some people to become interested in insects. But I also worry that such displays risk opening a very nasty can-of-worms that might actually create an anti-collector backlash.
It also raises an interesting question about the relative worth of animals. Would people feel that it was more or less acceptible if the display had been made from captive-bred, freeze-dried poison-arrow frogs? Are the lives of insects worthy of less thought than higher animals? I still swat mosquitos or horseflies if they are trying to bite me and I have no qualms about spraying a single plant if it has become infested by aphids. But I also catch and release houseflies or wasps and I like to think that I always consider non-deadly measures first.
It also strikes me that, at a time when conservationists are trying to encourage youngsters to respect the world we live in and work to promote biodiversity, it creates a difficult paradox to explain that we value world biodiversity and respect all species … but it’s OK to kill thousands of insects for nothing more than an artistic display or because they look pretty.
I am not 100% convinced that art displays are a bad thing and perhaps it would have been better if this display had formed part of a museum exhibit where a broader view of insect collecting could have been explained. It’s a tricky one … but what do you think? 🙂