by Liam Heneghan
In the early 1980s wanting to be a naturalist — a coleopterist, in particular, that most Darwin-like of naturalists — I spent a couple of summer months in Killarney National Park, in Ireland, making a collection of chrysomelid beetles. This was the first of many such collecting trips, part of a series of increasingly violent engagements with the natural world that served as stepping stones that link my life as an Irish teen to the one I live now in Chicago. All of them involved the killing of animals or plants for the sake of science.
The Chrysomelidae had been offered up to me by Dr Jimmy O’Connor, an entomology curator at Ireland’s Natural History Museum (The Dead Zoo, as it was called in Dublin). Apparently, the Irish representatives of this group were poorly known, not having been taxonomically revised since early in the 20th Century. Chrysomelid beetles include a number of notorious pests such as Leptinotarsa decemlineata, the Colorado Potato beetle, but for the most part these insects go about their business without causing us much bother. They are remarkably pretty though, many of them possessing metallic elytra (the sclerotized outer-wing of the beetle) and when you train your eye to notice them you see them as a marvel of shimmer and vivid color. Some of them, the flea-beetles, have greatly enlarged hind-leg femora, so that when disturbed they erupt into action and spring away from you like a glorious idea that thought you had but now cannot seem to fully recall.
Collecting them is easy enough. Using a sweep net, I thrashed my way across the grassier spots in the National Park; in other locations I’d search the under-leaves of shrubs and low hanging plants, catching them on the tip of a wetted paintbrush.
The issue of killing them was quite another matter. After all, I wanted to collect them because I had conceived a liking for them, and was concerned that if neglected, we, the scientific community, would not know, ironically, if these animals needed more vigorous protection. I loved them enough I suppose to want them dead; a couple of specimens of each species at the very least. I was the Noah of death and my ark was a killing jar.
However, when one sees glamorous creatures such as these looking up at you, as it were, from the bottom of the net, the ethical calculation concerning their dispatch is not an easy one to make. Should these few glimmering Isaacs be sacrificed so that others of their kind might flourish. Or perhaps more proximately, since the question of how data might be used is always somewhat further down the road, should they die so that the storehouse of my knowledge could grow?
Perhaps in matters concerning cultural affairs there exists a parallel to Ernst Haeckel’s evolutionary conjecture that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It certainly seems as if the youth are adept at inventing rituals, and sacramentalizing their lives, in a way that seems culturally primordial. Certainly children often are ritualists in ways that those of us who are older have little patience for. So it occurred to me, youth that I was back then, that in the matter of the beetles, though my commitment to their dying was unwavering, the manner in which I put them to death mattered.
The recommended way to kill insects is to pop them in a killing jar: a sealable glass container on the base of which is a layer of plaster of paris charged with ethyl acetate, a synthetic poison. Now, I had learned around that time that the leaves of cherry laurel, if crushed, give off hydrogen cyanide. Crush cherry laurel in your hands and that delicious aroma like toasted almonds that is given off, that’s the smell of a kinder, gentler death. This being the way some plants deal with its more aggressive insect visitors, I thought, therefore, that the crushed leaves of cherry laurel might provide for my chrysomelids a sweeter, more appropriate end. Thus my routine for the summer was to walk in measured paces, sweep at regular intervals, and transfer, when the time was right, insects to a killing jar.