To collect or not to collect, that is the question

In recent years, this has been a much debated topic with many picking their sides and sticking to them. Some see no problems with collecting whereas others find many issues with the idea of collecting. The goal of this post is to lay out various reasons why one might choose to collect Odonata versus reasons to not do so.

Why collect?

  1. You cannot confirm the identification in the field/with a camera. As a beginner, this can be hard to determine what is actually identifiable in the field and which you would need a specimen. However, there are several species of Odonata (and most other insects) that you just cannot identify in the field. We are working on a list of groups you will want to collect as they cannot be confirmed without the specimen in hand (certain meadowhawks, spreadwings, darners, basketails, many damsels). Stay tuned.

    For example, many of the meadowhawks have contentious ID’s until they are examined microscopically. Especially the Ruby , Cherry, and White-Faced meadowhawks. Photo by MaLisa Spring

  2. You cannot know what you lost if you do not know what you had. If no one ever documents the species then we will never know we lost it. Even with photo documentation, having the extra physical record saves us the backup copy of all of the digital data. We are hoping that all of our databases last forever, but systems fail and data can be lost or degraded over time.
  3. Future generations can see a species, even if none are left in the wild. Perhaps a bit of a downer, but species go extinct every day. There are several species of insects that used to be common across the Midwest such as the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) or the Nine-spotted Ladybeetle (Coccinella novemnotata) that are now restricted in range. I grew up having never seen these in the wild, yet our museum records show they used to be somewhat common.

    The nine-spotted ladybeetle (Coccinella novemnotata), which is now rare in the US used to be a rather common sight. This specimen was found in Minnesota, one of the few populations remaining. Very similar to the Seven-spotted ladybeetle (Coccinella septempunctata) which is an invasive species. Photo by MaLisa Spring

  4. Archival of genetic variability in a museum. You cannot extract DNA, heavy metals, or trace elements from a photo. Having a specimen to extract DNA or heavy metals helps us understand population dynamics, species descriptions, potential pathogens, or even natal habitat.
  5. Taxonomy is a work in progress. What is currently thought to be one species might actually be four species only distinguishable by some obscure character not observable via photo. If you have a specimen archived in a museum then you can go back through and determine which species you have. Some examples of taxa I expect to be reworked in the future would be Macromia and Sympetrum.

    There is a lot of inter-species variation in Macromia and many “hybrids” identified, which raises questions about the validity of the species concept. Photo by MaLisa Spring.

  6. The adults are going to die at the end of the year. If they have already given most of their reproductive output, then there is less harm to future generations.

Why NOT collect?

  1. You do not have landowner permission. Do not collect where you do not have permission to collect. We have created a landowner permission letter if you decide to search for dragonflies and damselflies on private lands. Please submit landowner permission letters at the end of the year. On public lands you often need a permit, so make sure to do so in advance. Some parks have granted the Ohio Dragonfly Survey permission, but please contact MaLisa Spring ( to be sure. If you are applying for permits, please let MaLisa Spring know so we can get an idea of where sampling is taking place. One exception to requiring a permit is National Forests (which are different from National Parks or State Forests). Non-commercial collections are allowed, but best to have a copy of the following letters that mention allowing insect collecting: Original USFWS letter and 2011 Update. See the updated Ode Locations page to get a general idea of places to look.

    Just as we all should know not to trespass on private land, you should always collect with permission of the landowner. Make sure you have permission from the right stakeholders so you do not get into trouble down the line. Many public parks and other natural areas require collecting permits. Make sure to start early in the season so you are not left sitting at the edge of a pond unable to catch *insert your target Ode here*. Photo by MaLisa Spring

  2. You do not have supplies. If you are in Ohio, we are providing certain collecting supplies (glassine envelopes, archival envelopes, archival paper, acetone) on the caveat that all specimens must be submitted to regional coordinators to be included in the survey and then archived in a museum for perpetuity. Nets are a matter of personal preference. Some are happy with standard insect net from Bioquip, but others rave about Rose Entomology Nets or even dip nets from your local outdoors store.
  3. You do not have the time to properly label and archive them. This is a pretty good reason to not collect specimens. If you do not have the time to properly preserve (dip in acetone, dry, then label) your dragonflies and damselflies, then perhaps it is best to avoid wasting life. For an explanation on how to preserve specimens, see this guide.

    Messy or improperly archived material is the terror of a museum collection manager. We want you to be able to do things right the first time so your specimens will last hundreds of years (and not end up looking like they were thrown haphazardly in a box.) Photo by MaLisa Spring

  4. It is a federally endangered species. At least in Ohio, the only federally endangered species of Odonata that might be here is the Hine’s Emerald. If you think you found a specimen, take several photos, but do not collect it. Instead, please contact MaLisa Spring ( and Bob Glotzhober ( IMMEDIATELY so we can work on getting someone with the federal collecting permit up there. Note: in Ohio there are several State Endangered and Threatened species that you should also avoid collecting until the Scientific Collecting Permits are obtained. The list of State Endangered species is updated every five years. For more information about the Hine’s Emerald, we have created a half sheet handout that differentiates the Hine’s Emerald from other species. This factsheet will be available at various events, but you can also print your own copy.

    The Hine’s Emerald was originally found and described in Ohio. The paratype (the original specimen used to define the rest of the species) is housed in the Triplehorn Insect Collection. Photo by MaLisa Spring

  5. You are ethically opposed to sacrificing another organism. I do not have a good response for this one. I know that this is a challenge for some people and I do not want to push others to do something they find unpleasant or goes against their beliefs. Personally, I now only collect for research purposes. My personal collection is mainly things that were found dead as I see little point in collecting* if the specimens are not going to be available to the scientific community and future generations. I have a large research collection that is slowly getting incorporated into the Museum of Biological Diversity that currently represents 190+ species of bees found in Ohio, several of which are state records. I will be doing the same with all of the Odonata specimens I collect during my tenure as the State Coordinator.
  6. You might harm local populations by over-harvesting. Ideally, this would never happen, though there are rumors of some overzealous Lepidoptera collectors deliberately wiping out a population to drive up collection prices. For our survey, we restrict collecting to four individuals of the same species per site per day. I tend to lean towards one specimen per species per site and rarely revisit a site enough to warrant the per day restriction. Sometimes there are tricky species that look really similar so you have to grab several specimens just to be sure. Do your best to communicate with your regional and state coordinator if you plan on doing a lot of collections so we can try to avoid sending others out to that region to collect. Generally this is not a problem as invert populations are so large and have short generation times, but better safe than sorry.

Chances of wiping out an ode population are unlikely unless you are in an endangered habitat (fens, bogs, seeps) that is found nowhere else. Then you must be extra cautious about what you take. In the case of this Violet Dancer, it is a pretty safe bet that there are more of them. Photo by MaLisa Spring

The grey area:

So you are or know someone who might be opposed to collecting specimens. You can still help the survey by reporting photo observations to iNaturalist or if you have permission, collecting larval shells after the larvae have emerged from the water and become adults. By collecting cast shells, minimal organisms are injured, but there is an increase in the time it takes to identify.

The shells are not the easiest to spot, but once you know where to look you will start seeing them everywhere! Photo by MaLisa Spring

Your car is a killer. Sure, you notice if you unintentionally hit a coon or possum, but can you say the same for invertebrates? Every time you drive somewhere, you are hitting hundreds or thousands of insects. Sometimes you are unlucky enough to drive through clouds of insects, which no one enjoys. You could collect from your car since they have already been dispatched, but the challenge is location information. The more you can slim that down the better. Interestingly, research has been done on which speeds are most likely to take out a dragonfly, so if you really want to help out those endangered odes, try going just a little slower (where it is safe to do so).

A particularly eventful trip led to several clouds of “bugs” now smeared across the windshield. Photo by MaLisa Spring


Additional Collections Readings:

Insect Collectors Oath – PSU

Collectors Code of Conduct from the Joint Committee for the Conservation of British Invertebrates

Why do entomologists kill insects? A non-taxonomist’s perspective 

Involuntary Bioslaugther and Why a Spider is Dead

Jungle search gives global count of arthropods

Why We Kill Bugs – The Case for Collecting Insects

Permits: Where do you need them?


*With the exception of collecting to learn identifications. Collecting is an integral part of the learning process for some taxa as they cannot be identified via photos (see most beetles, flies, and bees).