I’ve been collecting insects for a long time. A really long time… like, almost my whole life! In the beginning, as a child and adolescent, I collected everything—a so-called “general collector.” Sadly, none of the collections I made during those formative years survived—lost to curious cats and benign neglect. I loved hunting for insects but hadn’t yet learned the importance of collection maintenance and preservation. This changed once I began taking entomology courses in college, and in fact the oldest personally-collected insects in my present collection are from my Entomology 201 “Introduction to Entomology” course taken during my junior year in 1978.
Entering graduate school in 1980 began my next phase as a collector—learning to specialize. With more than three-quarters of known life on earth being represented by insects (and perhaps, conservatively, 95% when considering all the not yet discovered species of insects), attempting to build a collection focused on all groups of insects is barely less ambitious—or feasible—than attempting to build a collection representing all life on earth!* If one wishes—as I did—to make meaningful contributions to insect taxonomy, they must specialize in a particular group—typically a family but sometimes even more restricted to certain subfamilies, tribes, or even genera. Although I was still not quite ready to narrow my focus to that degree, I was already leaning towards beetles, especially longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) (this despite the fact that leafhoppers were my thesis subject).
* I am reminded at this point of the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, when asked if he was an entomologist, replied “No man can be truly called an entomologist, sir; the subject is too vast for any single human intelligence to grasp.” In ‘The Poet at the Breakfast Table: II’, The Atlantic Monthly (Feb 1872), 29, 231.
My interest in longhorned beetles grew even stronger after I finished my degree and began working as a field entomologist for the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Part of my responsibilities included detecting, identifying, and providing recommendations for control of insect infestations in commercial nurseries. Woodboring beetles—primarily longhorned beetles but also jewel beetles (family Buprestidae)—were among the most difficult to control and, to me, interesting of the nursery pests that I encountered. These quickly gelled as my focus groups, and nearly 40 years later I still study them seriously, although for various reasons I eventually began focusing my primary efforts on jewel beetles while working on longhorned beetles as a secondary interest.
If, by now, you have the impression that I stopped collecting insects in other groups, you would be mistaken. While I may have been (somewhat) successful in focusing my studies on woodboring beetles (let’s forget for now my later diversions into tiger beetles—family Cicindelidae), I have been spectacularly unsuccessful in restricting my collecting activities just to those groups of insects. For years after I ‘supposedly’ specialized in woodboring beetles, I continued collecting insects in other groups—primarily but not exclusively beetles, and the farther afield I go from my home state of Missouri, the less discriminating I become when it comes to deciding what insects to place in the bottle. Of course, while I pin and label all the specimens I collect in these other groups, I cannot effectively work with them; with rare exceptions, I lack the knowledge, literature, and reference materials necessary to identify the specimens or, more importantly, synthesize and disseminate the findings to the broader scientific community. Thus, the specimens accumulate in my cabinet—waiting to be seen by somebody with the knowledge to determine their significance. Until that happens, the knowledge they represent is locked away; hidden.
In recent years, I have begun making an effort to change that. Four+ decades of being a serious insect collector has given me the opportunity to establish relationships with entomologists whose specializations run the gamut. Each of them could make far greater use of the specimens I have collected in these other groups than I ever will, and I have begun reaching out to them offering access. The photos shown here represent one such group—the leaf beetles (family Chrysomelidae). It has been more than 30 years since anybody specializing in this group has looked at the specimens I’ve collected, and in that time I’ve not only collected numerous specimens from my home state of Missouri but also from extensive collecting trips across the U.S., Mexico, South America, and even Africa—enough to fill six Schmidt-sized boxes! Surely, within this amount of material, there are specimens representing significant records or possibly even new species and just waiting for a discerning eye to spot them. Shawn Clark at Brigham Young University graciously identified the specimens in these boxes, and in return for his efforts he was allowed to retain anything of interest to his research.
A similar situation exists for other groups of insects that I have accumulated a wealth of specimens over the past several decades: click beetles (family Elateridae), currently being examined by Paul Johnson at South Dakota State University; darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae), currently being examined by Aaron Smith at Purdue University; and weevils (family Curculionidae), currently being examined by Robert Anderson at the Canadian National Collection.
It should be noted that, eventually, my entire collection will end up in a public research collection, where it will be accessible at any time to any researcher. Nevertheless, I still take satisfaction in knowing that I don’t have to die before significant specimens in my collection belonging to groups that I don’t study can come to light.
©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021
2 thoughts on “What does 30 years-worth of leaf beetles look like?”
Wow, this is impressive. It represents a drive I understand well, expressed to its fullest; the spirit of entomology, personified. You’re a guru. A hero, maybe!
I don’t know about guru or hero, but I truly appreciate your comment. I like to call this an example of long-term stick-to-it-ness!