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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42 thoughts on “The Economics of Insect Collections

  1. I absolutely love this post!!! Oh, it gave me a huge smile as I remembered back to my 2 ENTO college classes that required collections, one in CA in the spring and one in OH in the fall. I hope you become a professor. I think you’ll be great at it!

    • Wow, thanks! That’s about the best compliment I could hope to receive! Becoming a prof has been my goal since I was 14, so it actually means a lot to me to hear that. Glad I could bring back some memories for you too! I hope they were good ones. I selectively forget all of the bad parts of making collections when I think about the many insect collections I’ve done for classes and research projects. :)

  2. Yeah…ummmm…I don’t think I want to take this class. I prefer the insects to go unnoticed. Although I do think I would have enjoyed this class when I was like 7, 8, 9 or 10, I don’t hink I would enjoy it now. I don’t know though…perhaps it would be kind of fun to do. Thanks for the post… :-)

  3. My son had to do this for his Ecology class a few years ago. My freezer was home to a fly he had captured in a golf ball container. (He wanted to see if it would come back to life when he took it out.) I was sure glad when he took his bugs to school finally! I just didn’t care to see them next to the frozen peas and shrimp everytime I opened the freezer door.

  4. Interesting and well written.
    Recently one of my boys has told me that he freaks kids out at school by picking up insects or letting spiders crawl on him. I think this is funny because at home he doesn’t like insects and spiders. Maybe he just prefers them to stay outside of the house!

  5. Pretty cool story, and a great analogy. Basic economics is actually quite interesting and eye-opening, and as you’ve discovered can be seen even in a science class.

    Centuries ago in Holland, for a brief period tulips literally became “money”. It got so out of hand that a “bubble” was created and as they always do, eventually burst.

    I suspect that had your trading session been allowed to continue, beyond what was necessary, and by adding/tweaking it with a few “rules” or regulations, you could probably create an insect example of Keynsian economics – which is in full play right now (and failing miserably).

    Have you considered taking this to your school’s economics program? This sounds like a great project for them to use as a real life example and study.

  6. This post made me so, so happy in the midst of college finals week. It brought back good memories from 9th grade biology in which I had to prepare an insect collection similar to the one you outlined. (For the record, my teacher had a doctorate and now teaches at the university level!) That was over five years ago now, but I do remember bartering for a Red Admiral butterfly. In that class there was nothing to the degree you outlined here, though.

    Your conclusions are fascinating about how quickly this economy emerged and how situational pricing was determined. Thanks for sharing!

  7. As a cultural anthropologist by training (even if I do archaeology now), great job on the observations of non-monetary trade! I’m posting this for all my geeky anthro friends to read, since I know they’ll be interested… *smile*

  8. This is a prime example of the power and beauty of capitalism. Not only that, it shows how people are willing to work together when situations are dire. I don’t know the class, but my assumption is that there are some of the students that would rarely talk to the other.

    However, this situation has also proven another truth often overlooked: that something is only worth how much one is willing to sacrifice for it.

    • Actually, the class was rather small (about 13 people) and though everyone tended to have their 1 or 2 people they spent the most time with, they all talked to everyone else. That’s part of what made the system they set up interesting! There wasn’t a whole lot of altruism even though they were all relatively close to one another by the end of the semester and they all expected a fair trade for their supplies. Intriguing! And I’m not an economist by any means.

      • When I said “talk to each other,” I was using the current teen lingo for “being friends with one another.” Perhaps even though the group is rather small, it doesn’t necessarily dictate their friendship.

        But still, what happened in your classroom is interesting nonetheless.

  9. Fabulous post! Thank you endlessly for blogging about this process. I too was a Systematics/Biodiversity/Evolutionary Biology student (but with Ornithology), and collections are the best part! The trading process is such a great concept to introduce to undergraduates, as it definitely continues…
    I have been involved with Natural History Museums, and this “economic culture” of collections is kicked up a few notches! It’s a whole (nearly cut-throat) process of bartering and trading for prized specimens. At the museum collection I participate in now, there are even “wish lists” for birds we want and from other museums posted!

    (P.S. I document my adventures in Natural History Museum collections and other science-y endeavors on my Tumblr at if you’re interested! …Shamless self-promotion)

  10. So fun and interesting! I remember my sister collecting bugs for a college class. She included a nest of some kind (I think it was a spider) and when she had to get graded, the nest opened up and her collection then included thousands of baby spiders! Lucky for her it was all contained under the glass!
    Thanks for the post!

    • 200 insects? Bloody hell that’s a big collection! My aquatic ent students have to have 80 specimens and I think that’s plenty big. It’s a whole lot of work to grade that many insects too so I can’t even imagine what grading several 200 specimen collections would be like. Yikes! Bet it felt good to turn it in though.

      • Species is used liberally… We could use some of the same genera but from different locations, although couldn’t do that a lot or our diversity aspect of the mark would suffer. And we could use multiple life stages of the same species, so for example the larva and adult of a damselfly, and each of those stages would count as a sepearte species. And we only had to ID to genus (because really, species is impossible in some taxa anyways) but if thought there was a couple different species could lable them Genus sp. 1 and Genus sp 3. And we could trade with others or have outside sources for getting the insects, as long as we ID’d it ourself and gave the collector the credit for providing it. But yes, a lot of work. I enjoyed it though. There were only 4 of us in the class, but the prof did have to mark them himself.

  11. Love it. Love it. Makes me want to go home and help my little sister with her insect collection. Or make one of my own just for fun! A welcome surprise to read this morning, thanks to you being Freshly Pressed. Congrats and thanks for sharing!

  12. A very interesting post. This gives me an idea for the architecture students next semester. When I was studying Masters Programme in Sweden we had to study behavioural pattern of animal species for one of the projects. The project was on Environmental Impact Assessment of a Residential Neighbourhood which was proposed on an abandoned air-strip located near the forest area. The study was intended to identify how the proposed residential housing complex along with a railway corridor and a highway affects the movement of animals. What should be the mitigation measures and how the design could be changed in order to accommodate nature since the area was right next to the forest. We didn’t study the micro organisms, probably being a cold country there were very few or we missed? Only were aware of those which are deadly. However, I think along with animal species, insect species should be analysed, especially those which are 24×7 in flight mode, in order to chalk out a beautiful and balanced design.

  13. Neat story. I find it interesting that you have a hard time getting your hands on earwigs there; maybe it’s the dry air? They’re as common as dirt here in Louisiana.

    I have an insect-collecting story, but it’s not as fascinating as this one. One of my entomology classes (I think it was a survey course, because I’m pretty sure I only had that and medical entomology in my undergrad) required an insect collection as a portion of the grade. One night I was at a friend’s house and I ran across something that I hadn’t seen before, so I collected it on the spot and brought it to school later. It turned out to be a microcoryphian and no one else had one that semester. I actually kept it after the class ended (most of the specimens ended up in the department’s collection) and it’s still at home in alcohol. I’ll probably end up donating it to LSU at some point–for an insect that’s been preserved for over 15 years it’s in remarkably good shape.

    • Yeah, I lived in Colorado for many years and earwigs were all over the place there. They’re just not that common in AZ though. The entomologists who have lived here for ages will tell you there all over the place, but that’s just not true. They’re not exactly rare, but you really have to put some effort into finding them. In CO, you flipped a rock or moved a log and you were practically guaranteed to find one!

      Glad to hear that you kept your microcoryphian! I find that my students all tend to have one insect that they really love, the one they can’t live without once they’re done. But kudos for donating your collection too! I think that any students who aren’t going to use their collections after the class – or at least display them nicely – should do just that.

  14. Oh makes me wonder what happened to my butterfly collections… i went on my own independently, got a place of my own in the metropolitan and left my precious butterfly collections back hometown, and went i returned, baaaaaaam! they’re nowhere to be found! great insect collection, and kinda itty bitty scary!

  15. Pingback: They’re all bugs to me! (Circus of the Spineless #58) | Cephalove

  16. Great fun post! I teach 5th grade science, and one of my favorite pastimes is listening in on the kids during class. I could easily see an insect-based currency system developing.

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