The Economics of Insect Collections


As part of the insect systematics class I TAed this semester, the students were required to put an insect collection together.  It was a lot of fun helping them collect their insects by leading collecting trips and watching them curate their collections throughout the semester!  I also got to help grade the collections for the class, the first time I’ve graded non-aquatic collections.  I loved it!

The requirements for the collections were quite reasonable – not exactly easy, but certainly not hard if you put some effort into collecting early in the semester when the insects were still abundantly available.  However, regardless of how much you collect, it’s common to discover last minute that you’re missing an order or you never collected that family you could have sworn you’d collected.  Thus, the students eventually started to trade insects with one another.  As the deadline for the collections grew nearer, I noticed that more and more trades were taking place.  So, I organized an official trading session.  Students could bring their extra specimens (properly labeled) to the classroom an hour before lab and trade them with their classmates for things they needed.


Much to my surprise, nearly every student showed up an hour before class to trade insects!  Most of them had gone through their collections and knew what they had and what they still needed.  Most had a box of their “extras” that they traveled around the room with, hawking their wares in an attempt to procure something better.  They all traded away quite happily and most people ended the trading session with all of the things they needed to complete their collections.  I considered the event a success!

What really fascinated me about the trading session, as an outside observer who wasn’t participating in the actual trading, was the little economy that evolved.   The insects being traded had no value beyond the boost to a trader’s grade they represented, but a whole value system spontaneously developed nonetheless.  Different insects definitely had different values.  Furthermore, the value of these insects changed over the hour of the trading session and according to supply and demand.  Allow me to share what I observed.  From most valuable to least valuable, the initial value system worked like this:

1. Insects that are not found in Arizona.  These insects, regardless of how many were available, were worth the most.  For example, we do not have scorpionflies in Arizona, but one of the students had his brother collect about 30 of them in another state and send them to him in the mail.  The student with the scorpionflies could trade for nearly anything he might want because the only way the other students could get them was through him.  They were thus very valuable.

Alaus zunianus

2. Spectacular looking, rare insects.  People loved the showy insects and they were worth a lot – but only if there weren’t a whole lot of them in the room.  The students with the big showy beetles were able to trade for better things than the students who only had common things to trade.

3. Insects from orders that were hard to find in southern Arizona. Very few of the students were able to collect earwigs.  (I don’t care what anyone says – they’re just not that easy to find in AZ!)  Earwigs are also in their own order of insects.  Thus, the students all wanted earwigs.  Only one or two students had extra earwigs though.  Therefore, earwigs were worth a lot in trade.  Earwigs, stoneflies, fleas, lice, walking sticks – anything that was hard to find or hard to collect in our part of the state was worth a lot in trade.

damselfly adult

4. Insects that are normally common, but weren’t collected by many people in the class. This, I think, was based solely on scarcity.  If the supply had been high, no one would have cared about these.  The fact that only a few people had particular families made them worth more.  For example, hardly anyone seemed to have collected narrow winged damselflies.  They’re very easy to collect and there’s no reason people shouldn’t have them in their collections, but they were largely overlooked.   Thus, their value increased – but only this year and with this group of students.  The insects falling in this group would vary from year to year for sure.

crane fly top view

5. Common insects. Common insects weren’t worth as much as a lot of other things.  However, you could sometimes trade several common insects for a better insect if the recipient didn’t have the families they represented in their collections already.

6.  Things from laboratory cultures.  If someone on campus raised it in the lab or mass collected it in an agricultural field, the insect was virtually worthless, even if it was something that no one in the class would have in their collection if a student hadn’t brought them in.

This initial value system changed throughout the trading session.  At the beginning of the session, people tended to make the biggest, best trades.  That’s when one student traded a scorpionfly to a student for a rare, showy fly and another student traded her extra earwig for a webspinner that she just didn’t seem to be able to collect during the semester.  Later in the class, people started to trade the less valuable things.  Maybe an insect was common, but you didn’t have it in your collection yet either.  It was thus worth trading one of your lesser insects for at that point – or maybe 2 of your insects for three of that other student’s insects.  And then at the end of the session, it became a sort of free-for-all.  People started giving away the worthless things.  A student might have been the only person who brought whiteflies into the class, but he had tons, more than enough for everyone to have one.  No one was willing to trade for those because he had so many.  He eventually gave them away to everyone who wanted them without expecting anything in return.

I LOVE insect behavior.  It’s my very favorite science and something I intend to do for the rest of my life.  That said, I find people almost as fascinating as insects.  The fact that entire mini-economies rise and fall in something as simple as an insect trading session just blows my mind!  I had actually planned to trade a few things myself, but I got so wrapped up in watching the trades (and filming the hellgrammite I posted about a few weeks ago) that I forgot all about it!  Fascinating.  Simply fascinating.

Up next is another Friday 5.  It’s going to be a fun post, so look out for it Friday morning!


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