Role of the Amateur
Amateur entomologists usually engage with insects in one of the following ways:
Biological recording and conservation
Entomologists who record insect species perform an important function. By monitoring and getting to know their local species, they are in an excellent position to spot any unusual population changes that can reflect environmental changes.
Amateur recorders often get involved in surveying nature reserves or sites due for development, and in this way they can contribute substantially to conservation and protecting biodiversity.
For example, amateurs currently run a network of 85 moth traps across the UK, recording common species. The network is coordinated by professional entomologists at Rothamsted Experimental Station, and this 'joint venture' between amateurs and professionals has shown long-standing traps have shown that the numbers of moths in the South East of England have fallen by 30% over the past 35 years. Elsewhere in the UK, moth numbers have actually risen during this period.
Many people like to learn about insects and record them in their gardens or in the countryside, rather like 'twitchers' record birds and birdsong. Indeed, many bird spotters turn to entomology once they have exhausted the species of birds they can log.
People in this category usually specialise in particular orders of insects. Unlike birds, which number a few thousand species, there are over a million described species of insects in the world (and many more waiting to be described)! Many people start with butterflies (57 varieties in the UK) before 'graduating' to moths (some 900 species of larger British moths, and another 1500 'micros') and then to other orders.
Traditionally, collectors have amassed reference collections of dead insects, stored in cork-lined drawers in cabinets. While a reference collection of insects can be useful, the widespread availability of affordable digital cameras is gradually making the physical collection of specimens less necessary.
Just as 'birders' and serious ornithologists study bird behaviour and biology rather than just merely record them, there are entomologists who study insects in great depth. Some of these - such as the Late Dame Miriam Rothschild - have made substantial contributions to insect science. Professional entomologists often consult with amateur specialists who have expert knowledge about particular insect groups.
It is worth mentioning that many knowledgeable amateurs who have embarked on the study of insects late in life have ended up becoming experts in specific insect orders, contributing their own unique skills and experience to insect science, and sometimes authoring widely-regarded reference books on their chosen entomological speciality.
Keeping and rearing insects
Whatever your age, you can rear and keep insects in captivity. Stick insects are a good example of pets that children learn to rear and look after, while learning about nature at the same time.
The AES has published caresheets describing how you can look after some commonly kept insects. Native insects, such as caterpillars you find in the garden that later become butterflies, are also a source of fascination for the young entomologist.
Next: Entomological equipment