A Case for Preservation: The Value and Constraints of Maintaining Insect Collections in Developing Countries
By Sara Hendery
Documentation is at the core of understanding the past, present, and future.
Insect collections maintained globally provide documentation of the native and non-native insects found within a region or country. They help us not only to preserve, identify, and classify insects themselves but also to explore the diversity and evolution of the ecosystems they inhabit.
Having introduced integrated pest management (IPM) practices in nearly 30 countries over the last 30 years, one of the skills the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management catalyzes around the world is insect collection from the field to the lab to the storage box.
Muni Muniappan, Ph.D., director of the IPM Innovation Lab, says that, despite the immense value of insect collection, disproportionate obstacles stand in the way of maintaining them in developing countries, further contributing to major agricultural and economic losses.
“Insect collections are the treasures of a nation,” Muniappan says. “They play an important role in recording biodiversity, assisting in insect identification and classification, recognizing and managing invasive species, classroom education, and extension activities. They provide local knowledge on prevalent pests in a given area, which is vital for addressing crop production problems. Under-resourced and under-funded, labs in developing countries have far fewer insect collections maintained than developed countries but could benefit the most from them. More resources need to be put toward this effort, as it has global implications.”
Specific resources are required for insect collection, including laboratories with large amounts of space. Insect boxes required for storing collections must be air-tight; poorly built boxes accelerate deterioration of specimens. They also need to be stored under dry conditions in consistently air-conditioned, ventilated, sanitized rooms. Exposure of insects to humidity and non-air-conditioned places could incite fungal infection of the specimens. Once insect specimens are infected by fungi, they are difficult to clean, and it often requires discarding all specimens stored in the box. The temperature and humidity, among other factors, of most subtropical regions, further complicates this risk.
“Dust-free maintenance of insect collections is a big challenge, especially when storage space is scarce in small and under-funded labs,” says V. V. Ramamurthy, Ph.D., a retired entomologist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. “Specimens should be stored in mobile racks that are also dust-free, moisture-free, and fire-proof. It will be a problem these days, especially in polluted environments like those of cities. Additionally, trained and sustained manpower with curatorial capabilities for handling specimens is a must for insect collections. If the collections are to be accountable and financially sustainable, scientific expertise must be built, so that these collections serve meaningful ends.”
In addition to requiring human capacity with maintenance skills, insect collections also open opportunities for human capacity building of young taxonomists, entomologists, and students. They facilitate the development of specialized expertise in specific insect groups and entomology approaches, like impact assessment and conservation. They also serve as resources for extension assistance to farmers and provide an important resource to emerging youth interested in learning about insects. A dynamic insect collection could be the starting point of the next generation of entomologists or for teaching the public to be aware of the insect diversity around them.
Given the IPM Innovation Lab’s focus on decreasing reliance on chemical pesticides while increasing crop production in developing countries, insect collections provide more than the basis of early and ongoing scientific training; they are often the first resource for identifying alternative control methods to crop problems. In the case of managing the spread of fall armyworm, for example, developing insect collections within Africa and Asia provides a roadmap for curbing the pest’s destructive impacts. Insect collections help record the local natural enemies that could be harnessed against the fall armyworm—economically and effectively—that will also not further burden communities with prohibitive costs.
“All processes of biological control, including introduction, importation, and augmentation, can be appropriately pursued with data extracted from archived specimens,” says Ramamurthy. “Likewise, the failure or success of a control method or IPM strategy can be better evaluated with data extracted from specimens in a repository. The specimens in an insect collection will provide data on the endemic nature of species and thus provide the basic knowledge required for prioritizing biodiversity conservation and management efforts. In fact, such collections are essential to support the legal framework of environmental regulations, like biodiversity and environmental protection acts or laws.”
In Muniappan’s experience working in Guam in the 1980s, insect collections were at the core of addressing a potentially major food-security disaster. When farmers in the area began to experience difficulty controlling a leafminer pest on vegetable crops with conventional pesticides, he says, he and his colleagues harvested some infested leaves from the field, incubated them, collected adult flies, and compared them with the specimens in the University of Guam insect collection.
“This process helped us discover the entry of a new pest, the chrysamthemum leafminer Liriomyza trifolii, which had been accidentally introduced and was resistant to most insecticides,” he says.
Keeping Collections Local
Despite numerous constraints that hinder the consistent maintenance of insect collections in developing countries, this wasn’t always the case. When many developing countries secured their independence, collections left by colonizers were not maintained and curated, or, more commonly, the valuable knowledge of indigenous peoples was not recognized initially, and thus the information was lost. African insect fauna may be difficult to obtain, but not because it hasn’t been documented—the information is stored in European museums and libraries in a variety of languages and intellectual traditions that have not yet been synthesized.
“Over 20 years ago, our program started to compile a list of afro-tropical insects and, despite funding challenges, have managed to document a significant amount,” says Sunday Ekesi, Ph.D., director of research and partnerships at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, an IPM Innovation Lab partner. “Documentation of the insects in our region is vital to knowing what information has already been gathered and not wasting time on rediscovery. Insect collections assist in building knowledge gathered over time and documenting any changes in real time.”
Given the increase of extreme weather events due to climate change, the threat of introduction of new destructive insects is high, but the impacts will be felt more by developing countries that heavily depend on natural resources. Insect collections are important components of documenting these changes over time so that the most efficient management methods can be prepared and put in place, ultimately before too much damage is done.
Insect collections provide answers, and increasing the resources put toward developing and maintaining insect collections in developing countries is more important than ever. Especially vital is increasing support for improving facilities and infrastructure to do so. By developing insect collections and digitizing them, for example, information on insects would become far more accessible and shareable, opening exciting and more equitable collaboration between countries.
“It is crucial to increase awareness about the value of insect collections,” says Muniappan. “We must work together to share resources—human and financial—to ensure that we document history properly. That way, local knowledge can inform how we approach the major agricultural troubles of our time and keep future generations from having to re-create the wheel.”
The IPM Innovation Lab is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and housed at Virginia Tech’s Center for International Research, Education, and Development.
Sara Hendery is the communications coordinator for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management at Virginia Tech. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.