Insects and Ethics

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

– George Orwell, Animal Farm

Posted by: Jessica Devitt @Colette_Keeha

I genuinely like insects…okay let’s be truthful, I love insects, or more correctly arthropods, I don’t discriminate. I think that their gormless little faces, with vacant-looking eyes, are utterly charming. I think that they are incredibly industrious, intelligent, remarkable little creatures, and they always have my attention. I know that I am guilty of anthropomorphising them and I know that it this might be irksome, so my apologies in advance.

This love naturally ended up becoming a life-long passion to work with insects in any capacity; if I had my way completely I would be raising endangered insects and writing about them, that would be the life!  However, the majority of work related to insects is around the damage that they can do to agriculture, native environments, the economy, freshwater systems…and the list could go on.  So excluding, controlling or eradicating (usually) invasive insects as a part of biosecurity, and invasive species management, is often where a lot of us entomologists earn our living.  Don’t get me wrong though, I understand and appreciate the need to keep invasive insects at bay, I love insects, but my love is not blind.

So in my day-to-day student life, there are times when I have to kill my insects, like when I had to freeze the remains of my entire Hadda beetle colony; they are invasive so could not be released…that was a sad day. These instances of insect homicide got me thinking recently about insects and the ethics of killing them and/or using them in research. I have several questions like, do they feel pain? Or a ‘version’ of pain? And is our current use of insects in research without the need for ethics approval morally okay?

Spider meme

Might need a bigger gun. (Meme Binge, 2014)

The use of animals for research in New Zealand is controlled under the Animal Welfare Act 1999.  Under the Animal Welfare Act (1999) it is an offence to ‘manipulate’ an animal, meaning to subject an animal to something that interferes with the animal’s normal behavioural, anatomical or physiological integrity, without being an approved code of ethical conduct holder (National Animal Ethics Committee, 2012).  If the code holder is say a research institution, and you are employed by that research institution, then you are in general terms covered by their code (ANZCCART, 2017a).  I put the word ‘animal’ in quotes here because the definition of an animal under the Animal Welfare Act it (1999) is a living animal that is a vertebrate, some invertebrates are included, such as crayfish, and squid but this definition of ‘animal’ does not apply to insects and most invertebrates, such as spiders.  Several insect species are however covered under the Wildlife Act (1956) in New Zealand due to the fact that they are endangered species, such as the giant wētā (Deinacrida spp.)

giant weta2

Giant wētā. (Moffet, 1991).

In terms of consciousness it is generally agreed that vertebrates are sentient as in they have the ability to subjectively feel and perceive experiences, they are conscious, and self-aware, hence they also have the capacity to suffer (Bekoff, 2013).  However, some of the methods used to justify animal consciousness or sentience, such as behavioural responses and neurobiology, are poorly fitted to answering the same question with regard to insects (Merker, 2016).  In saying this Klein and Barron (2016) argue that insect brains are functionally comparable to the vertebrate midbrain (an evolutionary ancient part of the brain in vertebrates), and that subjective experience, as a component of consciousness, is a construct of evolution, hence it is plausible that those animals that came before vertebrates, the invertebrates, would also have the capability of subjective experience (Klein & Barron, 2016).


The insect brain. (n.d.)


Milton the roach. (Daisy_Dazzy, n.d.)

The premise of using the human experience, our behaviour and neurobiological responses to pain as an analogue for how animals feel pain is inherently biased (Klein & Barron, 2016), but what other methods could we use?  Nociception is often cited as an analogue to show pain in vertebrates as compared to the human experience of pain (Adamo, 2016). Nociceptors, are specialised sensory receptors that detect harmful stimuli and signal the brain to react in a way that will minimise harm to the body, however ‘pain’ in itself is subjective (Fein, 2012).  Humans, other vertebrates and insects have nociceptors, and insects do react by altering their behaviour to harmful stimulus, although whether they are in distress from the stimulus is impossible to tell.  In saying this Adamo (2016) points out that the behavioural reaction of insects to harmful stimuli coupled with avoidance to harm are some of the same parameters used to justify distress in vertebrates, so why then is this not more considered by ethics committees and researchers?

when entomologists attack

Disturbing scene. (Kim, n.d.)

If the free use of insects in research was to suddenly become a bigger ethical issue, where the researcher had to apply for ethics approval, this would no doubt create a multitude of barriers in research.  Insects are often used as analogues for other animals, insect farming for human consumption is quickly becoming more acceptable, and people in my line of work, where insects are killed en masse, could be stonewalled.  Naturally I have mixed thoughts about this.  On the one hand, I personally do not always feel comfortable with how I have seen insects treated in research situations, nor am I comfortable with my use of them at times during my career, however I realise that I inherently would choose to destroy an insect over say a puppy if I had to pick one. Further to this, I have avoided the dreaded ethics application process (I have heard it can be difficult), which has meant that I have been able to do a range of experiments with minimal bureaucracy.

In saying all this, I still feel that perhaps as researchers we have had free rein over this for too long now, and that some form of middle ground needs to be established.  The three R’s could be a good place to start, where Replacement (use an alternative), Reduction (use less insects), and Refinement (minimise suffering), are ethical considerations taken when using insects in research.  Further, I also think that housing insects in environments where they can live out their bug lives as freely as possible, along with being disposed of humanely are important.

Now kiss3

Bug Life. (Banane, n.d.)

jessJessica Devitt is a PhD student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and Plant and Food Research. She is researching the respiratory responses of the golden-haired bark beetle to advance fumigation techniques. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs from the University of Auckland, Adriana Najar-Rodriguez and Matthew Hall from Plant and Food Research.


Adamo, S. A. (2016). Do insects feel pain? A question at the intersection of animal behaviour, philosophy and robotics.  Animal Behaviour, 118, 75-79.

Animal Welfare Act. 1999. Retrieved April 28, 2017 from

Banane. (n.d.). Bug Life.  Retrieved from

Bekoff, M. (2013). A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending.  Retrieved from

Daisy_Dazzy. (n.d.).  Milton the roach.  Retrieved from

Fein, A. (2012). Nociceptors and the perception of pain. University of Connecticut Health Center, 4, 61-67. Retrieved from

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). (2008). 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.  Retrieved from

Kim, N. (n.d.). Disturbing scene from When Entomologists Attack.  Retrieved from

Klein, C., & Barron, A. B. (2016). Insects have the capacity for subjective experience. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, 1(9), 1.

Lynch, K. (n.d.) When is an animal not an ‘animal’? Research ethics draws the line. Retrieved from

Meme Binge. (2014). Might need a bigger gun.  Retrieved from

Merker, B. H. (2016). Insects join the consciousness fray. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, 1(9), 4.

Moffet. M. (1991). The giant cricket.  Retrieved from

National Animal Ethics Committee. (2012). Ensuring regulatory compliance in the use of animals in science in New Zealand – the review process. (Occasional Paper No.9).  Wellington, New Zealand.  Retrieved from

Pimentel, D., Zuniga, R., & Morrison, D. (2005). Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States. Ecological economics, 52(3), 273-288.

The Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching (ANZCCART). (2017a). Animal ethics for the use of animals in research, testing or teaching.  Retrieved from

The insect brain. (n.d.). Retrived from

Wildlife Act. (1956). Retrieved April 28, 2017 from



5 thoughts on “Insects and Ethics

  1. Pingback: Recommended reads #103 | Small Pond Science

  2. Some very interesting points, but as much as I love insects which I do passionately, I am very happy that ethically speaking, they are not classified as animals. Research would be impossible. That said all insects in my garden live a free and happy life and are never knowingly killed, not even if they are on my bean plants 🙂


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  4. I don’t believe that insects should be exempt from ethics in science (nor should they be exempt from the wildlife protection acts anymore than fishes…); Not only because I know they can sense things and have chemical/electric signalling capability like any other living thing (our trees are protected are they not?), but, more because WE are human, ethics-absorbing creatures. Insects sing, they dance, they fly, have houses and babies. We use them in lullaby’s for our children. It’s easy for me to make the decision to kill something such as a bug quickly because I have experienced death, pain and torture from a young age, and learnt ‘ethics’ and an aversion to cruelty by doing, not just in theory… Not so for a lot of other individuals, and not all people have the ability to find ethical reasoning inside themselves when such behavior is normalised within a family or community for example. Some rules to establish proper boundaries would be ideal. It is as simple as using a rock to squish the whole bug in the backyard, instead of just pulling its leg off; or being accountable for ones research BEFORE it begins- If one doesn’t have an ethical nor sustainable end point for ones ant colony, don’t start the thing…


  5. First of all, thank you, thank you, thank you! I think insect ethics is incredibly morally important. So thank you for your efforts in this.
    Secondly, if you would be up, I would love to have a conversation with you about this at some point simply because I would love to hear more from your thoughts regarding insect ethics as I’m only recently starting to care and be interested in this beautiful beings and have much to learn.
    In any case, please have a beautiful life!

    All the best,


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