The Passions and Requests of an Earnest Entomophilatelist

While many countries have been producing postage stamps with insects of bright hues and with thoughtful scientific annotations, India Post's efforts leave much to desire.

Collectors of postage stamps and related items such as envelopes, postmarks and first-day covers are called philatelists. Of them, those who collect ‘topicals’, or thematic stamps and related materials that convey a theme, such as stamps with insects on them, are called thematic collectors. Collectors of insect-related stamps are said to practice ‘entomophilately’. Insects are endlessly fascinating creatures, creatures most people think of as nuisances or pests. The importance of insects to human welfare transcends the grand battles we fight against them to manage them for our own ends. Though some are bothersome, they are no less interesting to those who will stop and study them.

All too often, the common insects we encounter in our daily lives like houseflies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, ants, etc., turn out to be uninvited guests in our homes, gardens and at our picnics. However, as uncommon philatelic subjects, they should find a ready welcome in almost anyone’s thematic collection. Most of us hate them, but some of us entomologists and entomophilatelists love them. Insects have been on stamps for a very long time and in great abundance. From the point of view of thematic philately, insects can form a fascinating study and several sub-themes can be chosen.

For the past four decades, I have been collecting insects, with and without a net. My collections are both a pastime and a profession. The net-collected specimens by me and several of my more avid colleagues are tucked away in neat rows in tidy, wooden drawers in the department of entomology at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru. The brighter colours of several insects fade quickly and voids in the insect collection can be readily seen due to fungi, psocids and dermestids. This is when I began to see the appeal in filling album pages instead of display cases, and so my insects collected without a net span the world of insects on stamps, whose charm and colour are everlasting.

For those like me, who are both entomologically and philatelically inclined, the combination of both pursuits into entomophilately can be a very rewarding and educational hobby. Philately and entomology are both large, multifaceted fields of study. I have found the collection of entomologically related stamps to be a very satisfying hobby, and continue to be amazed at the numbers and variety of these insect stamps that are being issued. The insect stamps are a delight both artistically and entomologically.

While the rest of the world has been producing colourful and collectable stamps of butterflies, beetles, bugs, bees and ants, we in India are far behind and have produced very few stamps on insects. Though India boasts of a megadiverse insect fauna and is home to several species of insects, only butterflies have been featured in Indian stamps while other insects have not received due attention from India Post.

The most notable ones are the four commemorative postage stamps on butterflies released in 1981 and another four commemorative postage stamps on endemic butterflies of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands released in 2008, which were taxonomically identified with species names (illustrated below).

Other than the above, most of the other releases of stamps/FDCs/Special Covers/pictorial cancellations on insects have been of stylised and unidentified insects. From 1955, when the first stamp on an insect (a malaria stamp featuring a mosquito, Anopheles culifacies) was released, and until 2017, when four stamps featuring ladybird beetles were released, there have been 34 stamps, 13 FDCs or Special Covers, eight colour illustrations on FDCs and four pictorial cancellations with insects/insect-related themes featured on them.

Most of them have been in the form of stylised and unidentified insects in “greetings” stamps, “care for the girl child” stamps, stamps on “national parks”, nature, “Swachh Bharat”, “renewable energy”, “Fairs of India”, stamps to commemorate special events like the International Conference on Apiculture, the Asian Track and Field meet, the Golden Jubilee of National Savings Organisation, IBBY Congress, Rurapex, Kerapex, Nepex, Karnapex, Naturepex, Samskriti Diwas, etc. Any avid collector of stamps on insects would have been mighty pleased to see the set of four stamps (illustrated) on ladybird beetles released by India Post on February 23, 2017. It is indeed very commendable that India Post took up ‘insects’ as a subject for the stamp release.

Now, though this set is welcome from an entomophilatelist’s point of view, there is something to be said about them. It would have been very apt to give the scientific names of the species, as was done in the butterfly stamps released in 1981 and 2008, instead of just mentioning ‘ladybird beetle’ on each stamp. The scientific names and common names of the ladybird beetles featured in the four stamps released by India Post along with their country of origin is given in the illustration. None of these are truly native species of Indian origin, though over 600 species of ladybird beetles are known from India. It is only appropriate that we should try to promote and feature Indian species in our stamps, considering the wealth of our biodiversity.

The information brochure released with the stamps does not give any information about the species and just seems to delve on some general information about these beetles, with no relevance in the Indian context. If the proposer did not have sufficient background information on the subject, it would have been better for India Post to get it reviewed by well known peers or subject-matter specialists on Indian fauna and other content before committing to their release. While the rest of the world has been producing colourful, identifiable varieties of collectable stamps on insects, the production quality of these ladybird stamps leaves a lot to be desired.

Top left: Coccinella septempunctata (Linnaeus, 1758) – seven-spotted ladybird; origin and distribution: Palaearctic-Europe, though found in India.
Top right: Coleomegilla maculata (De Geer, 1775) –spotted pink ladybeetle; Origin and distribution: Nearctic-North America
Bottom left: Hippodamia convergens (Guérin-Méneville, 1842) – convergent lady beetle; Origin and distribution: Nearctic/Neotropical-North and South America
Bottom right: Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata (Linnaeus, 1758) – 22-spot ladybird; Origin and distribution: Palaearctic-Europe

Insects are a good subject for featuring on stamps, as for nearly 400 million years they have been the most dominant animal group on Earth and the most successful in the evolutionary history. They are also closely associated with human beings and several human enterprises like agriculture, sericulture, beekeeping, etc. Several aspects of insects can be promoted, like their diversity, characteristics, life traits, behaviour, association with human beings, benefits derived from them, the need to conserve them and, above all, their innate beauty, and that would project a good image of our country and our understanding of the native insect species.

These are the emotions of a professional entomologist, an admirer of insects with a passion for stamps on insects. Care and diligence is essential and would be of great help in projecting our country’s flora and fauna in our stamps appropriately. I trust this outpouring of mine will be taken in the right spirit and future stamp releases on our flora and fauna will address these concerns.

S. Ramani is affiliated with the Department of Entomology, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru.

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