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To kill, or not to kill: the insect photographer’s question

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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And now, just in time for your long weekend, an ethics quiz!

Imagine you have an insect, a camera, and a photography project that might involve the death of your little subject. Insects are not universally regarded to have moral standing, of course, yet exterminating them for no reason also seems wrong. Or, it should seem wrong. We insect photographers bump against the fuzzy ethical line whether or not we agonize over it. We owe it to ourselves, if not our buggy subjects, to think about how we treat the animals we photograph.

To that end, consider what you would do in the following situations. In which would you consider killing your insect to be ethical?

  1. The insect is a mosquito, and you are photographing her as she feeds from your arm. After snagging  a decent shot, do you squish the mosquito? If not, do you typically avoid swatting mosquitoes?
  2. Your insect is so active it makes Speedy Gonzalez look like a Sunday driver. Yet, your project requires a close-in face portrait. Do you kill the insect to arrange in a lifelike manner so the resulting image appears alive? Would your answer change if you were being paid for the image?
  3. You receive an inquiry from a pesticide company’s marketing department requiring a photograph of their product killing a cockroach, so the point of the photo is to show the death of the insect. Do you accept the assignment?
  4. The insect is a species you have never seen before. Do you kill it to take a specimen for easier identification? After all, specimens are usually preferable to photographs for identification.
  5. The insect is a species you recognize, but you suspect it might not have been recorded from that particular location before. Do you take a specimen as a physical record of the observation, even if you already logged the coordinates of the photograph?
  6. The insect is a species you recognize, the location is new, but you also know this species is especially long-lived and may take three or more years to reach maturity. Does the biology of the animal affect your decision?
  7. You know enough about your subject to suspect it may be a new, undescribed species. Do you kill the specimen for taxonomic research?

Next week I’ll provide my responses to these scenarios. In the meantime, drop a comment about how you would handle them.

(disclaimer: All non-ironic use of KILL IT WITH FIRE!!! will be disregarded)

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sciencecomedian 7:59 pm 08/30/2013

    Round Two: same questions but substitute “mammal” for “insect.”

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  2. 2. Lou Jost 10:17 pm 08/30/2013

    Population thinking would influence my answers. Is it long-lived, low-density, slow to reproduce, rare? Would my killing it have a significant effect on the population? Is the population in decline? I would not kill a Morpho or a harlequin beetle but might kill a cabbage butterfly if there were a good reason to do so.

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  3. 3. way2ec 1:25 am 08/31/2013

    1. I kill mosquitos, including dumping all standing water, larvae and all. 2. Tough call to kill for a closeup. 3. No video clips of dying things, esp. using poisons, ESP. administered by me. 4-7 Let my photos help in ID, let someone else kill to ID stuff, and with our luck it will be rare and endangered, or first and last in a museum. And at sciencecomedian, a bonus round, plants, especially when found in isolation, i.e. you don’t know what you’re dealing with. And for a plant equivalent for #1, it’s something like poison oak or stinging nettles. At Alex Wild, don’t know if you wanted the feedback here in the comments, and thanks for the exercise in ethics. It really “bugs” the buddhist in me.

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  4. 4. StefDeGreef 8:59 am 08/31/2013

    1. No, I don’t squish, I let it go. She does what her stuff, I do mine. I’m usually using repellent in the Cambodian jungles anyway, so I don’t have to kill anything.

    2. No. Worst case scenario, I put it in the fridge for 10 minutes to slow its metabolism for a minute or two.

    3. I’d refuse most probably.

    4. I’d photograph it under as many angles as possible. I don’t collect anymore. I get an exact position by GPS, get shots of the environment, and forward to experts who may decide to go there to find and collect it.

    5. Same as above – pictures, GPS, behaviour notes, but I don’t collect.

    6. Not at all – I’ll just shoot it and expect to get its next life stage next time.

    7. I’ll shoot as many shots about it again, including host plant. I might eventually collect it if I’ve been expressly commissioned by an University Lab to specifically collect that genus, but not otherwise.

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  5. 5. MorganJackson 12:28 pm 08/31/2013

    Personally, the only scenario where I would potentially hesitate would be #3, because I’m in a situation where any specimens I collect will remain in a properly maintained, publicly accessible natural history collection, and will allow future research questions to be answered. That being said, I’m pretty lax with collecting the specimens I photograph (at times to the detriment of my ability to identify them) unless I’m somewhere unusual (i.e. the tropics – with proper permits of course). I’m also not implying that people not associated with a natural history collection *shouldn’t* collect specimens (I still think they should), just that my situation heavily influences my thought process.

    As for #3, I *might* not take it as a freelance photographer working for the pesticide company, but how about as a research photographer? If a lab is studying the effects of a pesticide, they need to document & communicate their results, which necessitates the situation in #3. Whether funded directly by a pesticide company for marketing or a third-party organization for research, the end result is the same, an insect intentionally killed. I would have no qualms photographing the latter, yet I might debate with myself over the former.

    Heavy stuff.

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  6. 6. tcmacrae 12:16 pm 09/2/2013

    An interesting mental exercise. I’ve thought a lot about killing insects in the context of taxonomic and natural history study, but not photography. As a result, my responses are probably influenced greatly by the former.
    #1. No I would not squish a mosquito that has already fed – the damage is done and she no longer poses a “threat.” I have no problem swatting mosquitoes that are trying to bite me and I do not want them to do so (but prefer repellent if the numbers are significant).
    #2. My personal photographic style preference is to photograph living insects if the subject is intended to be presented as a live insect. If I simply cannot photograph it alive (and this is usually possible if enough effort is given), I would just use an already existing museum specimen – relaxed and posed. But that’s boring.
    #3. Sure, no problem. Insects do not feel emotion or pain, which is the deciding factor for me.
    #4-7. Properly preserved vouchers are critical for both current and future taxonomic and natural history study, and features of their biology that suggest they may be slower to “recover” from collection are largely irrelevant. It amazes me that so many entomologists, much less lay people, have the idea that collecting a single specimen or even 5-10 can severely impact an insect population, since models of population genetics and ecology suggest that insect populations probably need to exceed 500 individuals to be even be viable in the first place. There are only a few, very special cases where insect collecting activities can possibly impact a population (upland habitat specialists with low vagility), and even in those cases taking one or a few vouchers is of no consequence.</rant>

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  7. 7. HBGDave 3:07 pm 09/5/2013

    1. Mozzies: I’m amazed that no one has commented on the ethics of allowing a mosquito to feed on you just for the sake of a picture (and, of course, it would be extremely unethical to ask someone else to do it). If the mosquito has already nailed you, then I suppose you can rationalize the picture (I certainly have when the mosquito had a low likelihood of being a vector), but mosquitoes carry numerous disease causing microbes and even in North America (West Nile anyone, Eastern or Western Equine Encephalitis, La Crosse, Jamestown Canyon or Snowshoe Hare Virus – and now Dengue …) it is stupid to allow them to feed on you if you can avoid it. Not a good idea to squash the blood all over your arm either, but better than letting it go.

    If you have allowed a mosquito to feed on you, then you are obliged to kill it for two very good reasons: (a) the female mosquito will now have the capacity to lay numerous eggs potentially producing more mosquitoes to bite others and (b) if any disease carrying microbes are circulating in your system (and if you habitually let mozzies bite you, then you are a risk), then you may have just created a primed vector.

    Finally, and frivolously, if you are in a park, it is usually illegal to feed the wildlife.

    2. Speedy Gonzalez: The only moral quandary I see here is the fake picture – if you are passing it off as a live insect, then you are committing fraud.

    3. Pesticide Co: If the product is effective and the dead bug was killed by it, then what moral dilemma would there be?. If you don’t like the idea of pesticides, even when they are used properly, then you should stop eating. If you love cockroaches, well, I suppose it takes all kinds, and it would make sense to refuse to kill one.

    4. Possible new record: If you actually want to be sure of the identification, then you should collect the specimen if it can be lodged in a collection. This would make the photo far more scientifically valid.

    5. New record: This is very similar to #4 – if you care about the scientific content of your photo, you should collect the insect and lodge it in a collection.

    6. Long-lived Bug: Yes, I would hesitate to kill a long-lived insect, e.g. a large beetle, from an apparently new locality or even from a known locality. Population size is likely to be relatively low and larger insects usually make for better pictures and a better record. If the insect is a pest, though, I’d be happy to play god, kill it, and turn the specimen in to my local museum or extension agent.

    7. New species: Again, it depends on your interest in the science. I would certainly collect it and deposit it in a museum.

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  8. 8. Capularis 7:31 am 09/6/2013

    Here is my response, modified from the one I placed on my blog:

    1. I don’t usually ‘squish’ mosquitoes – those that have dined on me – either for photographic purposes or when they have penetrated the DEET barrier – are flicked off.

    2.I don’t photograph dead insects, and I definitely would not pass them off as live if I had done so.

    3. No.

    4. I might.

    5. If I have a definitive photograph or photographs of the species, I would not then kill it for a record.

    6.Yes. If I had such knowledge I would not take a specimen.

    7.Yes. In the unlikely event that I would ever have enough knowledge to ascertain that a bug is an undescribed species, and that it is not possibly subject to the biological limitations as mentioned in #6, I would take the photographs first, and then, if I could collect the specimen properly, I would indeed kill it for taxonomic research.

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  9. 9. wtyler 10:22 pm 09/9/2013

    Most of the time, I’d prefer not to kill the insect. It’s not a strongly held moral position in general, but it’s distasteful. I get pleasure from watching bugs and their behavior, and rewarding them with death is hardly sporting.

    1. Except mosquitos. Unless I know for certain that this particular mosquito is not a disease vector, I swat her.

    2. If I’m just going to post the photos on Google Plus or Facebook, to show how cool I am, I probably won’t kill the insect. If the posting comes with educational content, that’s different. Any serious need for good imagery of this insect, would overcome my scruples about killing it, but I’d try to photograph it live if possible. Being paid makes a difference in that I may have a commitment to provide photographs of this particular insect.

    3. Do I really need to photograph the stage where the roach is in the process of dying? That seems at best very distasteful. I turn down the assignment. I write this as someone who lived for a year in an apartment that was completely infested with cockroaches, to the point where I found them inside my refrigerator. They crawled through the door seal. (That was when I learned what an ootheca was. There were lots of them on display.)

    4. I’m not an entomologist. The fact that I haven’t seen this species before means nothing scientifically. I won’t kill it. If I had professional expertise, and there was a valid scientific use for the specimen, my answer would change.

    5. It’s hard to see any scientific need for the actual specimen, provided I’m confident in my identification. I don’t kill it.

    6. Same as 5.

    7. I’d take the specimen. There’s a significant possibility of new knowledge, and that tips the scales.

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