Guest blog – Real life bugs, or a living planet..? A response by Max Barclay

48161_10151259287226862_1057861168_nMax Barclay is Collection Manager of Beetles at the Natural History Museum in London, where he manages a dedicated team of curators, and some 10 million specimens going back to the voyages of Charles Darwin, Captain Cook and beyond, consulted each year by hundreds of scientists from all over the world. A life-long naturalist, Max began his career as a volunteer at Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust when Gerald Durrell was still alive. He believes in maintaining the relevance of natural history and collecting in a world increasingly disconnected from wildlife, and in enthusing the next generation to understand and engage with the natural world. He is a frequent speaker on the subject, and his recent TEDx talk is available here .

Email:  Twitter: @coleopterist


All discussion on the environment will at some point, quite rightly, centre on education. We not only have to do something about the way we treat the environment, but we have to educate our children with regards [to] environmental issues.
Pip Howard 2014.

The sentiment above begins a recent guest post by Pip Howard on Mark Avery’s ‘Standing up for Nature’ blog. I agreed with it so much that I started reading the rest of the blog, nodding at most of the author’s points, and with my finger hovering over the ‘retweet’ button, when unexpectedly, a comment about falling standards of public education in Britain and a decline in engagement with nature, turned into a complaint against an educational product with which I am proud to have been involved, the ‘Real Life Bugs’ magazine.

‘Real Life Bugs’ is a mail order series of 85 magazines. Each issue covers a particular group of ‘bugs’ (or invertebrates, if you prefer) and discusses their life history, behaviour, distribution, habitat requirements and other aspects of their natural history in some detail, including distribution maps, diet, threats, etc. The product is endorsed by National Geographic Magazine and the Natural History Museum, and in my capacity as a senior entomologist at the latter institution, one of my jobs is to fact-check every issue, to make sure distributions, identifications, scientific names etc. are correct. A verified, factual, magazine that teaches children about insects, and uses scientific names, sounds like every naturalist’s dream, so what’s the problem? Well, the objection is that every issue of the magazine comes with a dead ‘bug’ encased in a clear block of resin, so every child subscribing will be implicated in the deaths of 85 invertebrates. Each issue has 10 pages of detailed information, and in my opinion the dead ‘bug’ is an excellent accompaniment to that. We use similar resin-coated insects in the Museum’s family activities, because unlike live or dried insect specimens, children can handle them without damage. The resin is sufficiently clear that all external detail can be seen, and a hand lens or microscope can be used for closer examination.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the opportunity to handle a specimen may be worth a thousand pictures: nothing else can communicate the same sense of scale or detail. I know from daily experience the power of natural history collections to inspire awe and fascination. A collection like the one this magazine provides, in the hands of a curious young person, is an invaluable learning tool, and likely to engender a serious interest in a certain percentage of subscribers. The long term educational benefits of raising awareness of insects, and giving children the opportunity to see them up close, justify the invertebrates killed for each subscription, especially when compared with other activities that result in the death of a similar number of invertebrates (for example, buying a packet of frozen prawns). However, Mr. Howard describes the magazine as an ‘Orwellian Nightmare’, which is not an expression one hears applied to the frozen shellfish section at the local supermarket.

So, why such different reactions to the same thing, from two people who are ‘on the same side’? I don’t know Mr. Howard, but he and I clearly share a concern for the environment and recognise that an environmentally aware ‘next generation’ is part of the solution; we’re of similar age, grew up with the same influences and both went into jobs connected with nature. Clearly the discrepancy between my enthusiasm and his hostility towards the same product requires examination.

Mr Howard is surprised by the Natural History Museum’s involvement with this product. He shouldn’t be, the Museum’s Mission Statement is “to maintain and develop our collections, and use them to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world”. To paraphrase, we use dead specimens to increase knowledge about and inspire appreciation of nature, a mission that is very compatible with endorsement of ‘Bugs’ magazine. In 2007, when ‘Bugs’ was first launched, the Museum wrote and circulated a letter explaining this compatibility, but seeing as this discussion is still taking place seven years later, I think it is necessary to discuss and where possible understand and counter the reasons for hostility to the magazine, and the use of dead specimens for education in general. To do that we need to look at our complicated relationship with the natural world, and why, when and how we deem it appropriate to kill other living things.

Some people probably dislike the fact that the magazine is commercially produced. They feel it reduces a once-living creature to the level of a toy, sold on the front of a magazine like a candy bar or model car. However, we don’t live in a world full of publicly funded educational products, and we frequently need to look to private companies to fill the gap: if you buy your kids a dictionary or a calculator, someone will make money, but that doesn’t devalue the educational worth of the product itself. In this case the commercial company has gone a step further, and teamed up with a public scientific institute to ensure that the quality of the information they sell is acceptable. I, personally, would rather educational information about insects was available for a fee, than not at all.

A prime consideration when we decide whether it is acceptable to kill something is the rarity of the organism in question, and the effect of its killing on its population or ecosystem. The rarest are protected by law as well as by public opinion. The killing of birds of prey or pine martens quite rightly causes much more outrage than the killing of pigeons or rats, although the species do not differ in sentience. This is as it should be, because there is a real possibility of permanently losing populations of raptors or carnivora, while for the time being at least, the fecundity and opportunism of rats and pigeons make them robust to a certain amount of persecution. Insects, with very few exceptions (usually long-lived, flightless, island forms) are extremely fecund, and good at withstanding predation, especially of adults. Being near the bottom of most food webs, their populations are huge, and they have adapted to being eaten in enormous numbers by a large proportion of the birds, bats, spiders and other creatures with which they share their habitats. Anyone who has attempted to control clothes moths, aphids or bedbugs by selective killing of individual adults, will soon realise the futility of any such activity.

The insects and other invertebrates used in the magazine are not rare species, and come from a variety of sources. Some (crickets, locusts, scorpions etc.) are farmed; there are huge invertebrate farms, producing live and dried food for pets, and even novelty high protein ‘insect flour’ for humans. Others are ‘ranched’, which involves putting aside a piece of rainforest in a tropical country and periodically harvesting adult insects of abundant, commercially viable species. The key here is ‘putting aside a piece of rainforest’ and this trade has led to the preservation of patches of forest (with all their inhabitants) from which insects can be collected for sale, and which in the absence of such a trade, would long ago have been cut down for timber or to use the land for something else. I have discussed this phenomenon here, where I called the giant, commercially collected longhorn beetle Titanus giganteus a ‘guardian of the rainforest’. In many species (e.g. in scarabs), the damage to the population from collecting is minimised further because only males are collected, not for any conscious conservation reason, but because they are larger, with bigger horns, and are the only sex attracted to lights.

So, the likely environmental impact of the use of insect specimens by the magazine is negligible, and there may be some benefits to tropical communities and ecosystems through a trade which encourages preservation of patches of tropical rainforest. In fact, in terms of number of insects killed, the manufacture of the paper for each magazine is probably many times more significant. If the magazine had, instead of an insect, given away a candy bar made using palm oil, for example, the environmental consequences would have been far greater, but probably nobody would have complained. Palm oil, found in many products, is almost always grown on former rainforest land, and is implicated in the destruction of huge swathes of Asian jungle along with all its inhabitants.

Outside the environmental considerations, there are moral/ethical factors to take into account. Most people have a view on when and why it is acceptable to kill other organisms. Personal views vary between individuals, from complete indifference to other living things at one extreme, to a concerted effort to minimise harm done at the other. For organisms that are common, or farmed, a popular view is that killing for so-called ‘necessity’ (meaning food, clothing etc.) is acceptable, while killing for ‘pleasure’ (entertainment, sport etc.) is not. Hence a lot of people wear leather and eat beef, but don’t approve of bullfighting. Although all three activities involve killing the same widespread species of domestic animal, the last is more widely condemned, partly because it is done for pleasure.

It is primary a concern when the quest for knowledge is classed with ‘pleasure’ rather than ‘necessity’; I mentioned earlier how killing 85 invertebrates for a subscription to the magazine shocks some people who are not shocked by buying a packet of 85 frozen prawns. The prawns (quite often not sustainably harvested) are considered acceptable because they are ‘food’, though if we are honest, few people in the developed world would suffer from hunger if they couldn’t get a prawn sandwich; we eat prawns because we like the taste. Similarly many people wear leather because they find it more stylish or comfortable than the multitude of man-made fibres, so the line between ‘necessity’ and ‘pleasure’ is, on inspection, not as clear as we might like it to be. However (with notable exceptions where excessive cruelty or rarity is concerned, e.g. shark fins, some furs), most people, even those who are generally opposed to killing, will tolerate it for food or clothing. For a start, it is difficult to meaningfully oppose something which is so universal, so ancestral, as eating animals and dressing in their skins. Education, unfortunately, is a different matter, it is not so universal or deeply ingrained as a ‘need’ in our primal psyche, and so more people are willing to dispense with it. This came starkly home to me when I was a zoology undergraduate, and a large group of students staged a protest against a chicken dissection. At the same time, the student cafeteria (which sold more chickens in a day than the laboratory dissected in a year) continued its business unmolested. Condemnation of the lab and not the canteen is inexplicable, unless the protesters felt that education was a mere luxury, not important enough to merit the deaths of the chickens. Regretfully, I ascribe the same priorities, conscious or subconscious, to those who object to the ‘Bugs’ magazine (unless they feel the same way about using invertebrates for food).

If society makes the decision that killing for nourishing the body is acceptable, but for nourishing the mind is not, we lurch toward the end of the age of reason. If nature, and information about nature, is made less and less accessible to the young (even with the best of intentions) nature will soon become irrelevant to them. One of the greatest environmental challenges we face is the risk of a next generation of consumers who are uninformed about and indifferent to the natural world.

If nature is going to remain relevant, we need to recognise that the instinctive and unconsidered gut reaction ‘killing insects is bad!’ can be as unjustified and problematic as other gut reactions about invertebrates (like ‘Yuck!’, ‘kill it with fire!’). Such emotional reactions probably don’t justify detailed response. Except, that is, when they are presented in a discussion about crucial topics like conservation and education.

In the end, we will only conserve what we care about, we will only care about what we know, and we will only know what we have had the opportunity to learn.

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20 Replies to “Guest blog – Real life bugs, or a living planet..? A response by Max Barclay”

  1. I totally agree with the need to educate kids about ecology and natural history, but I am not happy about the way that these insect specimens included in your educational materials have been sourced. You say "Others (insects) are ‘ranched’, which involves putting aside a piece of rainforest in a tropical country and periodically harvesting adult insects of abundant, commercially viable species" you also say " the likely environmental impact of the use of insect specimens by the magazine is negligible".
    I believe a few wrong assumptions have been made here. One is that people involved in collecting insects are more than likely to be struggling to support a family and will not consider protecting a piece of rainforest because of the economic value it may provide in the future. They will be wanting to maximise their income at that moment in time.They will most likely move on to a new piece of forest when the first area has been depleted of insects. The people wanting to cut down the forest may be incomers and any local objections will be overruled by force or the locals' objections eradicated by payments . There will always be rogue traders who will exploit a protected area of forest or a protected species of insect.
    An analogy is the African Elephant which has a commercial value because of it's role in tourism, with local people and officials perhaps wanting to preserve the population, However, the rewards for poaching is high and the poachers are rapidly depleting the elephant population.
    Regarding the negligible effect on insect populations ; people probably talked about the Dodo in the same manner and that there were so many that killing a few would have little or no effect on the population.
    The value of an unmounted Titan Longhorn Beetle on the internet is $1600 so what chance has this creature got of surviving extinction threats. Even if legal protection were introduced I still would not place very high odds on this insect surviving when there is a ready market from museums and collectors.
    The British Museum should really know better than to buy insects from the wild and especially to use them in a commercial way. There should be no encouragement at all given to the collection of wild creatures for commercial exploitation.
    Surely it would be easy enough to source any required insects from a captive breeding program and preferably not from a tropical country where such a scheme is open to misuse

    1. "There should be no encouragement at all given to the collection of wild creatures for commercial exploitation."

      Given your stance we'll just all assume you've never eaten a prawn sandwhich then? Or fish and chips? Otherwise you'd be encouraging the collection of wild creatures for commercial exploitation.

      1. Well Rich Facey a pretty simplistic argument from you. Yes I do eat only MSc fish products and no I do not eat prawns. And what about you if you feel so srongly that eating prawns is such a bad thing to do what have you done to stop the rest of the world eating them. You have a pretty well blinkered approach to allaying us entering the sixth global extinction event SIXTH MASS EXTINCTION,/A> What I was saying was that if the British Museum of Natural History doesn't discourage us from exploiting the natural environment then what chance do we have of surviving into the future ?


        1. Dave, I think you’re taking the simplistic view if you think my comment on your post tells you anything about my stance on conservation, ecology and the environment or what I do personally and professionally in that regard. Thanks for the link but I don’t need an internet article dated July 2014 to tell me about something I’ve been acutely aware of since the 1990s.

          Perhaps if you re-read Max’s blog again you might see what I was getting at. You seem to have a problem with invertebrates being sold that are sustainably sourced, sometimes from the wild, but are happy to eat fish, a wild creature sourced from the wild. Whether you eat sustainably caught fish is immaterial – it’s still the collection of a wild creature for commercial gain. Something YOU say should not be encouraged. Or perhaps you’re lucky and get your fish for nothing, from fisherman that operate free of commercial interest? How lucky of you. As for the prawns – I used them as an example as they were used by Max, or was that too simplistic for you to see?

  2. What a very fine blog Max!

    It does appear completely illogical for people to bemoan the intentional killing of comparatively small numbers of bugs for the purposes of educating people, increasing knowledge or planning nature conservation, especially when every car driver recklessly splats thousands of bugs on their radiator grill every year, often when travelling for entirely selfish reasons!

    The adverse reaction to the bugs in plastic on the ‘Real Life Bugs & Insects’ magazine is a common one, as the mail bag at Buglife attests. I believe that the negative reaction highlights a very interesting partition that people commonly make in relation to how we perceive our impacts on the natural world. People are much more accepting of reckless damage than they are of intentional damage. The negative outcome of two actions may be identical but if one action had an innocent purpose with an indirect negative outcome then the actor is treated with far greater leniency that an individual who took the deliberate action to achieve the negative outcome.

    There are some parallels here between manslaughter and murder, so we should perhaps not be surprised that observing evidence in a newsagent of the deliberate killing of bugs to present them for sale rings more alarm bells with people than seeing a car with its front bumper adorned with various macabre little smudges with awry legs and wings.

    The conversion of live animals into objects does have clear educational benefits as you explain and if the animals are sourced from ranching operations that encourage the management of wildlife habitat in situ then the magazine could actually benefit wildlife and people at point of source as well. At the same time we should respect the fact the objectification does cause unease in many people.

    You highlight a clear ethical line – the killing of bugs should not cause significant harm to the wild populations of the bugs or to wildlife habitats.

    The consumption of unsustainable food supplies, such as prawns grown in destroyed mangrove habitat, is a clear ethical wrong, but other examples occur closer to home that we may find harder to be judgemental about. The ploughing of soil is a hugely destructive action that causes the death of millions of bugs per hectare, combined with the use of pesticides we cause huge population level impacts on bugs in arable fields (and increasingly in the hedgerows and field margins as well).

    This cuts straight to the heart of the space of people or nature debate, but putting that to one side, if there are ways that we can reduce our impact on arable bug populations and still feed ourselves we should do so – no-till agriculture and reducing or banning the use of harmful pesticides for instance.

    The ethics of land apportionment and management are complex, as are the ethical issues around bugs in plastic.

    You are quite right to highlight that, unlike Hen harriers, most bugs occur in vast numbers and reproduce with great fecundity so that the collection of a tiny proportion by people will be akin to light predation and will not affect the next year’s population.

    However, it would be wrong to conclude that the sourcing of bugs is without environmental risks. There are some species that are long-lived and comparatively slow at reproducing, there are some habitats that are very vulnerable to collecting damage and indeed, as with removing mangrove forests to grow prawns, 'ranching' can damage habitats as well as protect them.

    Similarly it would be unsafe to rely on trade legislation to fully reflect the ethical and environmental red lines. There are a tiny number of species of bugs on the CITES lists and very little effort has been put into making sure that trade-endangered bug species are monitored or proposed for listing.

    The bottom line is that none of the 85 species in the ‘Real Life Bugs & Insects’ series should be supplied to the detriment of its wild population or associated wildlife habitats and those selling, promoting and endorsing the sale of the magazine should be confident that this is the case.

    Looking at the list of species - - there are some that do furrow the brow:

    • Some are long-lived and hard to breed in captivity – e.g. cicadas.
    • Some live in deadwood habitats that are vulnerable to damage – e.g. the stag beetles and long-horn beetles.
    • Some are predators and difficult to breed in captivity – e.g. Giant wasp, spiders and Tiger beetle.
    • Some are sourced from countries where there is a vibrant and potentially unsustainable trade in their wild collected relatives – e.g. scorpions.

    The ‘Real Life Bugs & Insects’ website states that “All the species featured have been grown on farms specifically for the series. None of the species will be threatened or endangered”.

    In addition in previous correspondence the Natural History Museum has stated “We make it a strict condition of the Museum association with insects in resin that these are insects genuinely bred in captivity in a sustainable manner without introductions from wild populations.”

    However today you tell us that some of the bugs “are ‘ranched’, which involves putting aside a piece of rainforest in a tropical country and periodically harvesting adult insects of abundant, commercially viable species” – this is not being specifically ‘grown on a farm’, or ‘bred in captivity’. This is a form of taking from the wild. The way that this is done may benefit the environment, but it is not what we have been previously told about the sources of these bugs.

    Indeed this is not the first time that claims made by the distributors of the magazine have appeared unsound or contradictory. For instance they have claimed that all the bugs “die naturally” – I guess this depends on how you define naturally, but it seems highly improbable that human hands are not involved. They have also claimed that they “comply with international legislation on the breeding of insects and arachnids” – we are not aware of the existence of any such legislation.

    These may of course all be innocent mistakes, but it does add up to a profound sense of confusion about the origin of the bugs.

    It is indeed today’s fascinated young people who will become tomorrow’s scientists and conservationists. This magazine does have the potential to foster that interest and enthusiasm. But there is also a very clear moral duty on us to be clear with the young people about the ethical sourcing of those bugs. Currently it is about as clear as mud.

    Despite a long running controversy there is no clear explanation of the source of the bugs on the ‘Real Life Bugs & Insects’ website - not a mention in the FAQ section. The above quote is hidden away on page five of a downloadable magazine. If the sourcing of the bugs is done responsibly and sustainably why does the website not provide this information freely and indeed explain examples in detail to help to achieve its education remit? Understanding how humans and bugs can coexist is surely a laudable educational aim?

    We hope that the sourcing of bugs does include “projects with a positive ecological impact” but given the confusion we would like some more detailed reassurance about the sourcing of the bugs.

    Max, are you willing to open up to Buglife your files on the sourcing of all of the 85 species so we can verify with you that the supply chains are indeed sustainable?

    Best wishes


  3. I'm an Entomologist and recently told that insect pest collection by Undergraduates would soon be banned.I had a futile argument that in a manner it is physical control. Finally I found the answer in your meticulously written blog.Kindly mail me the videos relating Entomology.

  4. A most interesting blog from Max Barclay. Coherent, well argued and, for me at least, ultimately convincing. Getting children to relate and empathise with the natural world is problematic and many avenues should be explored.

    On our local nature reserve we hold regular pond-dipping and sweep-netting expeditions for primary school aged children. Their reactions are interesting and varied, ranging from uninterested, apprehensive, scared and fascinated. Initially there is a lot of shrieking and waving of arms and flapping of hands to ward off bugs that jump and fly or are ugly and slimy. After a while interest takes over for most of the children and they are in wonder of a damselfly, a bush-cricket, a dragonfly larva and, especially, a water scorpion. Later on they see having a few grasshoppers on their coat or hand as a badge of honour. Later still some of the children start to become concerned because the bugs are kept in containers with a magnifying glass on top and inevitably an insect may be injured and loose a leg or an antenna and we get requests 'can we let them go now please?' Bugs that have scared them to start with are carefully returned to where they were caught and virtually all the kids have had an enjoyable and informative experience. One little girl texted her grandad every time she identified something!
    I see Max's material as just a different approach to enthusing the young in the natural world. Matt addresses many concerns in his comment.

  5. Thank you for your positive comments and useful analysis, Matt. Especially valuable coming from you, and much there for consideration and that I will refer to. Referring to your last point, the NHM is not the producer or even a retailer of the magazine, it is simply a product that we endorse and fact-check. While I can certainly verify that the species are abundant and not covered by CITES, I have not investigated the supply chain for each. Nor have I investigated the origin or sustainability of the paper, ink, plastic etc. of this or of any other such product. That you ask only about the insects, does remind of the "intentional vs. reckless" fallacy that you so eloquently debunk above.

  6. Max, I suspect that trying to apply rationale and logic to counter a negative emotional reaction will surely be bound to fail. It's chalk and cheese. That said, whilst I understand the necessity for education, this instance does have the whiff of 'the end justifies the means' about it.

    Mind you, I don't even net dragonflies, let alone ponder the arguments for taking voucher specimens, though plenty of cultures happily eat the larvae. Aye, it's a minefield, right enough.

    Thank you for taking the time to eloquently explain the Museum's stance on a tricky subject.

  7. Thank you for a wonderful, eloquent response to my hastily written rant. I'm sorry to say I remain unconvinced about the value of this in educational terms - to me, based outside the UK I am completely out of tune with 'how it works' in the UK, but if it is like this or has to b like this I am even sadder than previously. I was compelled to write the blog as my 11 year old son was upset by this and alerted it to me, he is schooled and always has been in France. If this different educational system prompts him to question such publicity then for me it is a better education system.

    Perhaps the PR (including the changes on the reallife bugs website subsequent to my blog) should in future take the time to try and disseminate your comments next time a batch of mass produced wildlife is available to be sold to kids.

    Further thanks, Pip

    1. "If this different educational system prompts him to question such publicity then for me it is a better education system."

      Although with only a single data point your experiment can hardly be considered a conclusive evaluation of French versus British educational systems...

  8. I'm not sure if Matt Shardlow's alternatives of 'deliberate' and 'reckless' are valid. Deliberate vs unintended seems preferable. The argument is analogous to the well known thought experiment involving saving the lives of five people on a railway line, unaware of an approaching train. Would there be a difference between pushing a large man in front of the train to stop it, and rerouting the train onto a different line away from the people, but knowing that the large man is on that line and will be killed? Many people would say there is an ethical difference.

  9. Dear Max

    As Graeme indicates this topic is a coincidence of ethics, emotions and logic. All of these facets are legitimate, and all should be considered properly.

    While the outcome is important so is the motivation - so intention and responsibility are important issues. By way of an example, sentencing guidelines around taking a human life reflect the carefully considered and long established judgement of society. The moral importance attached to intent is clear for these crimes, sentences for attempted murder are long and can be 35 years, while sentences for causing death by dangerous driving are much lower – max 14 years. For offences involving intent there are further aggravating factors that can make the crime and sentence worse, these include:-

    • Commission of the offence for financial gain
    • An attempt to conceal or dispose of evidence
    • Failure to respond to warnings or concerns expressed by others about the offender’s behaviour
    • Abuse of a position of trust

    ‘Real life bugs’ is a magazine that educates and sets an example to young people about bugs, so it is really important that the messages and facts it gives about bug related ethical issues are as clear and correct as the information about anatomy and ecology. This is why people are focussing on the ethical issues around the sourcing of the bugs, rather than whether it is printed on recycled paper.

    When a trusted organisation slaps its logo on a product that is, as you say, an endorsement. Clearly the motivation for the NHM to endorse the magazine is to further your educational objectives and the NHM has not received any fees, payments or royalties from the magazine. The NHM endorsement adds to the importance of being certain that the sources of the bugs are clear, and are sustainable. In correspondence with Buglife the distributors have stated that “The Natural History Museum endorses and supports the series and approve the list of insects and their origins.”

    It is not particularly reassuring that there are no CITES species involved, other than the some butterflies, the only arthropods on the list are two species and one genus of tarantula, three scorpions, one genus of stag beetles and one species of scarab. Generally species are only added to the list when the country of origin becomes aware that there is a problem, as most invertebrate trade is poorly monitored this does not happen often. While it is reassuring that all the 85 species ‘are abundant’ this is definitely no guarantee of sustainable sourcing – the prawns in our mangrove examples are not rare species, it is the production method that is damaging.

    The difficulty here is that a number of conflicting claims have been made about the source of the bugs by the distributors and endorsers and they cannot all be true.

    So what do we know about the source of the bugs?

    Are they
    1) All “grown on farms specifically for the series” as claimed by the magazine?
    2) All “genuinely bred in captivity in a sustainable manner without introductions from wild populations” as claimed by the Natural History Museum?
    3) Are some periodically harvested from the wild - a “piece of rainforest in a tropical country” - as you claim?
    4) Are some ranched?
    5) Are some collected from a variety of wild sources?
    6) Or - Don’t know?

    Incidentally, ranching insects involves more than simply harvesting them out of a rainforest with light traps. Ranching is the process of planting and maintaining large amounts of the foodplant of a particular insect into the ecosystem or around human habitation and then harvesting the insects from these plants.

    Perhaps if all the specimens are wild caught, but sustainably so, then this is acceptable, I think it would be for many people, although others would still be uncomfortable.

    Which of the 85 species are the NHM certain are sourced sustainably without environmental damage?


  10. Great to see such a healthy discussion on essentially a philosophical matter. As an environmental ethicist with strong biocentric consequentialist leanings, I would advocate the intrinsic value of each living thing as an individual, that all life is within our greater moral community but that given robust empirical and rational argument, all life may not have equal standing (because we humans are part of nature and have needs).

    In short? That if we intentionally take life, our cause must be great, our reasoning robust and positive consequences be measurable and justifiable.

    Ecoliteracy is certainly a noble and, in my view, an immediate cause. And I advocate for it to become mainstream. But in the case of plasticising dead insects for sale with magazines, I remain unconvinced. A good collection of photographs (even 3D) can offer so much, and better still to see a healthy insect in its habitat. I AM easily convinced, however, by the extrinsic AND intrinsic value of holding public taxonomic collections for educational purposes, and Max is invaluable in his contributions here.

  11. On Friday I was at a Science Uncovered event, opening the museum up to the public during the evening. A small boy came up to me, about 9 or 10, pointed to a beetle in one of my display boxes, and identified it (correctly). He was proud of himself, and I asked him how he knew, and he said he had one in 'his collection'- by which he meant the collection from this magazine. It turns out that he had asked his parents to come to the event because he wanted to see insects, because of reading the magazine. Maybe this boy will become a natural scientist, maybe not- but whatever he does, he will take into the world a greater appreciation of insects than if he had collected toy trucks or soldiers... he was a city boy, and from a group that is poorly represented among science graduates in Britain today- it to me was a reassuring moment. I am not a stone cold killer- I rescue wasps from swimming pools and help snails across the road- but I do believe that if nature is to survive something has to enthuse such kids to care about it, and if they live in an apartment in an inner city, that has to be something they can hold in their hand..

    1. Charming and validating story, I strongly agree that letting children play with bugs, dead and alive is to be encouraged, with some ethical guidance where appropriate.

      However, I also feel strongly that trade in bugs must be sustainable and not damaging to the environment - that is not clear and is particularly not clear with the "Real Life Bugs" product.

      Still awaiting a response to my comments above, Buglife would like to help the NHM understand the source of the bugs being sold.

      Inspired by this debate I am currently putting together a little series of blogs on the broader topic:-

      To Kill or Not to Kill That is the Question
      Part 1 – The Value of Life
      We all do it, we all kill bugs, but what are the ethics of doing so.




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