Collecting Arthropods

Want to learn about far away places, their peoples and the world of nature around them? Collect stamps. Surprised?

Many collectors now specialize in stamps known as topicals - stamps that feature or include certain design elements, or celebrate specific occasions or events. Topicals have always been around, but traditionally they were defined in political terms, like countries, rather than in subject terms, like cats. Every stamp issued can be fit into some topical category, although some categories are smaller than others. Stamp design, led by small countries who valued the collectors' dollars, has improved considerably. Today's new stamps often have some educational value, and in many cases, some advertising value as well. Topicals can add an interesting new dimension to one's interests.

Among the natural history designs, birds and plants are very popular. Tropical islands feature their local marine life. Endangered species appear on many stamps. While portraits are common, many stamps include additional information. For instance, the archerfish from Singapore squirts water at a dragonfly, one of its prey species, and the Malachite Kingfisher from Lesotho perches with a dragonfly firmly held in its beak. Interestingly, scientific names are often added.

Among the insects, butterflies are depicted most often, with beetles a distant second. The honeybee is probably the single species shown most. Perhaps surprisingly, insects from all the orders appear. For instance, there are just over 100 stamp designs related to dragonflies, many with these colorful insects as the main theme. Dragonflies are featured on stamps from Japan, Mali, Pitcairn Island, Botswana, Poland, and Germany to name a few. A Turkish series shows insects used for biocontrol together with their prey. One stamp shows the Vedalia Ladybird Beetle and the Cottony-cushion Scale; in California, this ladybird controls the same scale. Many countries have commemorated the struggle against the malaria parasite and its insect vector, the mosquito. St. Helena takes credit for the world's largest earwig on one of its stamps.

Perhaps the strangest arthropod set was issued in 1980 by Mozambique. Each stamp shows a tick, in living color, and an animal, presumably the tick's host, in gray and white. If you ever need to know what an elephant, giraffe or water buffalo tick looks like, give me a call. At least one other country has featured a tick on a stamp. To this date, I have seen more ticks depicted on stamps than spiders.

Information on the natural history of distant areas is often hard to find locally, and sometimes just as hard when you are there. Stamp collecting provides a way to learn about other areas easily and inexpensively (of course you can always spend lots of money if you want to). Stamp shows and sales occur regularly in San Diego.

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Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)
Chula Vista Nature Center, 1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910-1201