Insect Spotlight: Insects Make A Great Gift for The Person Who has Everything

There is a geeky and often latent entomologist in many of us, and this simple fact makes shopping and gift giving all the more easy during the holidays.

As a card-carrying member of this scientific guild, I can attest that the breadth of insect-centric presents is extensive and delightful.

Insects are often the subject for artwork and jewelry, and books on photography and natural history of this group abound. A T-shirt with a witty entomological saying or montage of insects generally hits the mark. But often the most eye-catching gifts involve some presentation of actual insect specimens.

In addition to wall-mounted, artistically arranged specimens of butterflies, beetles and walking sticks, profit-minded entrepreneurs have embedded insect specimens into acrylic or plastic to create any number of daily use items.

Bottle-openers, computer mice, spoon-trivets and jewelry all can be purchased with unwitting insect victims staring back at you – and these are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, human zeal for showy insect specimens has led to the development of an entire industry that relies on the trade and export of rare and spectacular insect specimens from the less traveled places in the world.

A single specimen of a rare jewel scarab or impressive pair of birdwing butterflies can fetch $500 or more on the open market. Sometimes, dealers use local farmers and indigenous peoples to collect the insect specimens, giving them only pennies for specimens that can be sold for hundreds of dollars. Species conservation groups (NGOs) and governments (especially in the tropics) have fought back in a creative way.

The best example is in Papua New Guinea. This island nation in the Pacific is home to some of the grandest and most beautiful butterflies and other insect groups in the world. In the 1970s, the exploitation of these species by collectors became so severe that the government established the Insect Farming and Trading Agency (IFTA).

The IFTA kicked out all of the expatriates who were buying wild specimens from local farmers at ridiculously low prices. But rather than banning insect collection, this government agency has been teaching the farmers how to grow the butterflies sustainably. Essentially, it teaches locals to treat insects as a renewable resource that can be harvested like any other crop.

The farmers place the preferred host plants near the rain forest edge (many of these host plants have only been identified to science because of the incentive of butterfly ranching), and wild butterflies lay their eggs on these plants. The farmers then cage the plants to protect the developing larvae from predators and the elements, two major mortality sources. When the caterpillars pupate, the farmers transfer them to soft cages, where the butterflies eclose. Most meet a hasty death, but a portion of each harvest is released back into the forest to ensure that there are more butterflies to colonize the next set of plants.

These types of programs are reportedly now taking hold in North and South America, Uganda, Madagascar, China, Southeast Asia and Australia.

Insects are so numerous that it seems that they can be collected willy-nilly without harm – I recently finished a study where we collected and identified 40,000 non-pest insect specimens from soybeans near Brookings, and didn’t make a dent in their populations. Although some organizations believe that as many as 29,000 insect species may be threatened or endangered in the United States alone (only 48 of which are actually listed as such by the Fish and Wildlife Service), over-collecting has never been officially documented as a prime factor for driving insect species into dire straits.

Perhaps I only assuage my guilty conscience with this and other excuses as I gleefully chitter at receiving new and creative presentations of insects and insect paraphernalia as gifts. But the fact is that there is no quicker way to be fascinated by the beauty and diversity of these creatures than immersing oneself with specimens and images.

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