Insects are endlessly fascinating creatures, but thought of by most people as nuisances or pests. Though some are bothersome, they are no less interesting to those who will stop and study them. As an entomologist, for the past four decades, I have been collecting insects, with and without a net. The net-collected specimens by me and several of my more avid colleagues are tucked away in neat rows in tidy, wooden drawers in several insect museums. The bright colours of many 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 – my insects collected without a net span the world of insects on stamps, whose charm and colour are everlasting.
For nearly 400 million years, insects have been the most dominant animal group on earth and the most successful in the evolutionary history of the earth – this is not lost on designers of postage stamps, who have deemed insects worthy of prominence as stamp subjects. But insects started to appear on stamps much later than other larger and more attractive animals. For those like me, who are both entomologically and philatelically inclined, the combination of both pursuits into entomophilately (the collection of insect-related stamps) can be a very rewarding and educational hobby.
This article addresses insect stamps issued throughout the world, with an emphasis on issues from India.
If one flips through the pages of a stamp catalogue, it becomes apparent that insects are a popular theme. As uncommon philatelic subjects, they can find a ready welcome in almost anyone’s thematic collection, as insects can form a fascinating study and several sub-themes can be chosen.
Of the world’s 866 issuing entities, 332 (38%) have issued stamps depicting insects. Of the 195 countries recognised by the UN, only 3 – Myanmar, South Sudan and Timor-Leste – have not issued an insect-themed stamp. More than 20,000 insect stamps have been issued worldwide depicting more than 2000 different kinds of insects. Although at least 25 different major orders of insects are represented, butterflies and moths are the champions, appearing on nearly two-thirds (67%) of all insect stamps.
Insect stamps have included everything from the attractive to the destructive and from the interesting to the odd and ugly. I have found entomophilately to be a very satisfying hobby, and continue to be amazed at the numbers and variety of these insect stamps – a delight both artistically and entomologically – being issued.
First Insect Stamps
The earliest postage stamp to feature an insect was issued by Nicaragua in 1890, depicting a small honeybee hive along with the ‘Goddess of Plenty’. The first stamp to feature a butterfly was issued in 1891 by Hawaii, featuring a butterfly brooch in the hairpiece of Queen Liui-uokalani, the last reigning monarch of Hawaii.
The first taxonomically identifiable butterfly on a stamp was issued in 1950 from Sarawak, representing a birdwing, Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana). It is the national butterfly of Malaysia.
Nomenclature and a New Insect Order
The issuance of the stamp depicting Othreis toddi (in litt.) released by Cuba in 1961, to celebrate Christmas, has a particular interest for both the philatelist and the lepidopterist. The species was named after Dr. E.L. Todd of USA. In the stamp, it was written in litt. (= in litteris), which in Latin means in correspondence, communicated in writing, used for an unpublished source acknowledgement. The illustration in this stamp does not constitute one of the requirements of ‘availability’ in terms of International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. So, this philatelic entry into the intricacies of Zoological Nomenclature was judged invalid. The species was later described by De Zayas in 1965 in a research journal, and the name Othreis toddi De Zayas (Lepidoptera: Erebidae), became available in nomenclature only then.
South Africa issued a stamp and a special cover and cancellation on Mantophasmatodea (a new order of insects) in 2008, coinciding with International Conference on Entomology
Building Relationships between Countries
In 1994, Mexico issued a stamp using the Monarch butterfly to signify and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of a diplomatic relationship between Mexico and Canada. This butterfly species has been migrating from Canada to Mexico for millions of years, to escape the harsh winter of Canada; their great-grandchildren then return back to Canada. The stamp formed a good symbol of the relationship between the two countries.
Two butterfly stamps were issued by Jersey (Great Britain), of species recorded both in Jersey and China, each representing two ends of the Palearctic Region. They were issued to celebrate exchanges between them to explore each other’s natural resources, cultures and ways of life.
Insect Stamps from India
The first stamps featuring Lepidoptera from India were released in 1981, and consisted of four stamps of butterfly species endemic to the Indian subcontinent.
Endemic Butterflies of Andaman & Nicobar Islands
Eight species of butterflies are endemic to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, of which two species belonging to the family Papilionidae – Andaman Mormon (Papilio mayo) and Andaman Clubtail (Losaria rhodifer) – were portrayed in four stamps released in 2008. Andaman Clubtail (mentioned as Pachliopta rhodifer in the stamp) is a rare endemic species of the islands. Andaman Mormon is the first endemic butterfly described from Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
Special Cover on Bangalore’s Butterfly Park
The first butterfly park in the country came up in Bangalore in 2006. Situated in Bannerghatta, the park has live, fluttering butterflies. A special cover, ‘The Butterfly World’, with an illustration of the Common Jezebel (Delias eucharis), an Andaman Clubtail stamp, and a pictorial cancellation featuring a Malabar Banded Peacock, was released in June 2009.
The silkworm is the larva or caterpillar of the domesticated silk moth, Bombyx mori, and is a primary producer of silk. Karnataka is the leading silk producing state in India. To mark the Rural Stamp Exhibition ‘RURAPEX-78’ held in Melur, Karnataka, in Jan 1978, a special cover was issued with the meter showing a silkworm, a mulberry leaf and a cocoon, with the slogan “Grow More Silk”.
Honey bees have appeared in more postage stamps than any other insect. A commemorative stamp and first day cover (FDC) were released during the 2nd International Conference on Apiculture in Tropical Climates, held in 1980. The honey bee has also often been used to symbolically represent industriousness, savings, cooperative living, etc.
Ladybird Beetles (Coccinellidae) are commonly yellow, orange, or red, with small, black spots on their wing covers. This group of beneficial insects is very popular on stamps from different countries. A set of four stamps on Ladybird Beetles was released in 2017 in India. It would have been very apt to give the scientific names of the species instead of just mentioning ‘Ladybird Beetle’ on each stamp. None of these are truly native species of Indian origin, though over 600 species of Ladybird Beetles are known from India.
Mosquitoes and Malaria
Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease affecting humans and other animals, and caused by the protozoan Plasmodium. The disease is transmitted by an infected female Anopheles mosquito; the major vector species in India is Anopheles culifacies. India released a commemorative stamp on 07 April 1962, with the WMY emblem as part of the fight against malaria.
Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932) was a British medical doctor in the Indian Medical Service, who did extensive research in trying to understand the transmission of malaria. Sir Ross was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902, for his work on the transmission of malaria. A stamp on Sir Ronald Ross was released on 20 August 1997, marking the centenary of his discovery of the malarial parasite.
Special Covers on Insects
Insect stamps have been issued to celebrate useful insect species, alert us to the battles against the harmful ones, or simply to portray the varied and wondrous shapes and colours of insects. Insects are 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.
Our country boasts of being one of the megadiverse countries and is home to several species of insects, and it would be appropriate to feature more of them on our stamps. Care and diligence is essential in projecting the appropriate flora and fauna in our stamps.
Admire insects on stamps. Do not stamp them out.
*All images in this article are courtesy the author.