Sunday, September 22, 2019

Can "Enting" Be a Thing?

The short answer is "yes." The more appropriate answer is "it has to be." There is precedence in other scientific disciplines for actively engaging the public, and training people in proper techniques for observation, identification, and documentation. Entomology is lagging behind at a time when we are desperate for more information. Insects are more than a little challenging compared to vertebrate animals, and present unique problems, but let's recognize and address those shortcomings now instead of waiting until it is too late.

Birding and Herping and Enting, Oh, My!

Birding, the scientific and recreational observation of avian organisms, has been around for decades, if not a century or more, and is experiencing a renaissance of sorts thanks to the likes of Jeffrey Gordon, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, and a host of other ornithologists and experts who make a point of recruiting new "birders" to the ranks. Jason Ward is among the new generation of birders making birding more popular and inclusive than ever.

.... if birds are everywhere, insects are "everywhere-er-er."

Meanwhile, "herping," the seeking of reptiles and amphibians, is also a popular hobby that contributes substantially to our collective understanding of the abundance and distribution of snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, turtles, and their kin. There are rules for how to undertake the activity with minimal stress to the animals, and maximum reward for the participating humans. Collaborations between professional herpetologists and amateur enthusiasts are common and encouraged.

"Ent-ers" observing a hornet nest from a safe distance

So, in light of the success of birding, herping, and other wildlife-watching, why not "enting?" The appeal of birding is said to come from the fact that birds are everywhere, and so are instantly observable anywhere. Well, if birds are everywhere, insects are "everywhere-er-er." You don't even have to leave the average home to find them, nor even look out the window. Just point a flashlight into some dim corner of the basement. Ok, maybe start somewhere less spooky....

The Void and The Fun

Entomologists lament that they have little data to chart the abundance and diversity of insects over time, but are reluctant to admit that citizen scientists can inform that discussion in any fashion. The scientific community either wants data or it doesn't, and there are only so many professionals to go around. Most of those experts are busy identifying potential crop pests or inventing new ways to combat existing pest species.

Given the irritating connotations of "bugging," not to mention the scientific inaccuracy of such a term if it were applied to insect-watching, "enting" is probably the most all-encompassing and appropriate name for the observation of insects, and by extension arachnids and other arthropods as well.

© Amanda Accamando
"Mothing" during National Moth Week

"Mothing" is already a recognized pursuit, usually involving deployment of a blacklight and/or mercury vapor light, a reflective white surface such as a sheet, and a camera or phone to record whatever is attracted. Sometimes mothing involves "sugaring," painting a fermented bait onto tree trunks. "Oding," pronounced "O-ding," is the quest for dragonflies and damselflies. This ideally requires a catch-and-release technique such that one can document the external genitalia of male specimens, often the only way to achieve a solid identification beyond genus.

The Obstacles to Overcome

One enormous hurdle that must be overcome is the insistence of some professional entomologists that the only viable records of a species are those that involve a collected "voucher specimen." Collecting, and imaging of live specimens, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two complement each other. Photos often give more context than specimens because the host plant may be included in the image, a certain behavior depicted, or even the ecosystem itself be recorded. This is especially true for quality videography, but still images are also valuable. Lastly, if you cannot identify something as unique as a Filigree Skimmer dragonfly from a photo, then I question your credibility as an authority.

Filigree Skimmer dragonfly, male

While some scientists must be convinced of the capacity of the public to aid them in truly scientific investigations, the public has to be convinced they can be brought up to speed in ways that can make them the most effective contributors to the cause. One impediment to embracing insects as wildlife is the lack of "common names," the English labels assigned to some species, but completely absent for most invertebrate species. Species are assigned standardized Latin or Greek (or combination thereof) names by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. They abide by strict rules governing such things as name "gender," and engage in exhaustive research for historical synonyms and other matters that affect the naming of species. Tasking the commission with the creation of English names is simply asking too much.

A Plea For a Common Names Initiative

It may be worthwhile to create a complementary body that does precisely that: generate standardized English names for insects, arachnids, and other arthropods. It would be no small feat, involving at minimum the translation of the Latin and Greek. While the Entomological Society of America has a Common Names Committee, we need something bigger. This could help the public understand just how descriptive and appropriate (and sometimes whimsical) scientific names can be, while making the study of the organisms more user-friendly. Further, it would enhance the appeal for conservation measures if the insect had a more easily-pronounceable name for media relations. In some cases, common naming rights could be auctioned as a conservation fundraiser, probably with fewer objections than the same mechanism for generating scientific names for newly-discovered species.

The Future is Now

What can we agree on, then? Surely we see the value in encouraging and rewarding public curiosity about arthropods, and the potential viability of public contributions to scientific knowledge. Between Master Naturalist curricula, and advanced naturalist workshops, we can coach the ardent entomophile in the art of insect and spider identification, equipping them with the tools necessary to achieve meaningful, reproducible results. Do scientists really need to be convinced that these are worthwhile exercises?

Bugwatching can be a social pursuit, too.

It is highly encouraging to see the influence of social media, spearheaded by the most youthful generation of scholars, in sparking public interest in insects and related invertebrates. Facebook groups are full of stories of how once-fearful entomophobes have been converted to insect- and spider-lovers and advocates. Time to take the next step and turn these friends into scientific allies. Let the "enting" begin.


  1. I once read a very interesting thoughtful article about the lack of common names - Is it the egg or the hen when it comes to public interest? Are there no names because the public is disinterested? For that argument speaks that pretty, popular insect groups like Butterflies and Odes have common names and a gremium that regulates them. Also, countries with a more insekt-interested populace, like Germany, do have more accepted common names. It's more difficult in a community that dislikes insects so much that it rather calls a roach a water bug than giving it it's own name. But Butterflies and Dragonflies are also groups with very limited species numbers, and their members are relatively easy to observe and recognize due to patterns, lifestyle and size. Do you really want to waste your time naming all kinds of night active, subterranean, black little Carabids that are difficult to identify by a specialist with a scope, or equally black, night-active Diplotaxis species that have to be separated by pulling genitalia of collected specimens? And how many beetle species? 350 000 or so? The other problem I see is that you would lose the advantage of the binomial structure of the scientific name (or you'd have to construct similarly structured common names). And since very often I get stuck with my ids at the genus level, I am very glad to be able to say at least Diplotaxis sp. which is correct but leaves it open to further investigation.'The same hold true when I travel: scientific names help me to still either name a bug that happens to be as circumpolar as humans, and if it's not, I might at least have a name for a higher taxon, and that name will be internationally applicable.. Do you think I, as a European, would have slipped rather comfortably into an entomological America if I hadn't come here with a basic knowledge of scientific names that still worked (even if you guys pronounce them funny so while i totally agree that more public interest would be great and citizen scientist's input could be helpful, introducing hundreds of thousands of freshly coined names (per language) does not seem a worth while solution.

  2. Hmmm. Eric, let me know if this would be an ethical form of enting: a woman just told me that she brings caterpillars - and eggs if she finds any - to her indoor mesh "cage". She feeds and raises them til they emerge as a butterfly,then lets them go. Is this acceptable?

  3. I just returned from the backyard with my son (9) who was describing the behavior of all the spiders and insects, and was lamenting that he couldn't be nocturnal too. I would love to see resources and ideas to encourage his enting. Thanks for the commentary.

  4. I've been taking people "beeing" for quite awhile now—they love it!

  5. I ent all the time -as much as weather cooperates. so I'll adopt "enting" as an answer for anyone asking me what I am doing. And, we do need a common name for all of the ents. I am told that "eyes glaze over" when I use Scientific names. but common names suffer from differences between regions and wouldn't a standardized common name suffer a similar fate as the Scientific one?

  6. We don't have to have *any* name for it, but I do find "bugging" a bit demeaning in some way, like it is "beneath" some other person's pursuit of vertebrates, if not a waste of time completely. I was bullied a fair amount as a kid for my interest in insects (a "sissy" thing to some of my peers), and even as an adult I would get random derisive comments from strangers for carrying a net ("Fairy!" I remember vividly, shouted from a passing vehicle). I want the damn stigma removed.

  7. The National Park Service has been conducting Bioblitz events for several years now. Maybe good science, but definitely good fun and it brings quite a few people into the fold. A review article:
    Here at the University of Arizona, we have the annual Arizona Insect Festival that brings in quite a few people, especially children, and inspires some.
    And I know of a really good, well-illustrated, guide to the common and many not so common insects: Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America by some terrific writers and great photographers. Also there are a couple of photo guides to insects of a few national parks:
    and others.

    1. Thank you for the compliment, and for the links!