Introducing West Africa’s largest insect collection

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How do you catch all these insects? How do you know they are here? Do you go into the bushes with a net and wave it in the air? There were so many questions that I kept asking as I stood perplexed. “Look around you,” Georg tells me with a look of amusement on his face. I look, nothing. “Lookup”, he directs my gaze. I look and spot what looks like a giant spider at whose sight I wince a little. Georg, amused, lets out a loud laugh, “look again”, he encourages me further. This time I let my eyes roam the entire room, which is about 40 by 40 ft; all over the walls are all sorts of enormous insects.

By this time, I was almost screaming until my eyes rest on a colossal grasshopper and with a little more scrutiny, I realize they are plastic insects – decorations. Georg is laughing, clearly enjoying my scared reaction. “Insects are everywhere; you don’t see them because you are not looking for them. That’s how it starts; we go out in the natural environment and look for them. First, we see the big ones, but as we look closely, we even see the tinier ones”. This is a scene from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)’s Biodiversity Centre based in Cotonou, Benin. It is West Africa’s biggest insect museum or “insect collection” as IITA’s entomologist and biocontrol specialist, Goergen Georg prefers to call it.

I am sure you have as many questions as I had. Insect museum? Why collect insects, how does one collect insects, who on earth collects insects? I put all these and more questions to Georg, a jolly man of German descent who grew up in Morocco playing with spiders and scorpions. Georg was called to a life of insect collecting and study from childhood. No wonder he heads IITA’s insect collection. In a lightly air-conditioned room with blue cabinets lie 366,000 insect species. With a playful look and almost permanent smile, Georg, who laughs easily, eagerly shows me one insect collection after another. Some are quite pretty I must admit. The beetles have a vibrant sapphire green colour, and the house flies in the collection are not nasty pit latrine hopping creatures, they are a luxurious shimmery blue. Why collect insects, I ask as Georg pulls out another blue cabinet to reveal beautiful butterflies; in another drawer, I see spiders, and I let out a gasp. We need to stop looking at insects, so I insist on getting my question answered, why? “I’ll tell you, be patient”, Georg hushes as he pulls out yet more drawers. It’s evident he’s proud of the work he and his team are doing. “Some are pretty rare”, he adds as he pulls out another cabinet. Later, after he’s done showing off his impressive collection, he answers my question, why collect insects?

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