On our way back to office from lunch one afternoon last summer, something caught my friend’s eye. We stood around a planter full of purple flowers in front of a large apartment building on the Upper West Side, blocking traffic to discuss the significance of a wasp. I work in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum Natural History. Though I am not an entomologist, I work with pinned insects collections and during the summer many of my colleagues leave the city to go collecting throughout the world. That afternoon, however, was the first time I thought that the insect population in New York City could offer anything interesting to serious researchers. Though the wasp in question turned out to be not significant after all, several of my friends from work regularly collect specimens in the city. A friend who studies bees even brings a small, collapsible net and kill jar, a small glass jar with a small amount of poison embedded in plaster at the bottom, with him daily.
There are multiple factors that influence where in the city someone collects. Collection is influenced by an understanding of the ways in which insects interact with their environment. Specific kinds of insects prefer certain kinds of environments, so collectors interested in nesting bees for instance will focus on areas with sandy soil. And, since many insect species prefer certain plants (such as Lysimachia, a kind of bee which will only take pollen from Macropis), collectors will focus their search near the plants associated with the taxon group they are interested. In general, by collecting near unique flowering plants, one can hope to increase the overall diversity of the sample. But despite all this, its practical concerns tend to have the most influence on collecting decisions. People often collect in parks near their homes and offices. Because of this and the fact that recently the staff building the bee collections at the museum have all lived in Brooklyn, the bee populations in Prospect Park are much more well-documented than in Van Cortlandt in the Bronx. According to one researcher, the biggest concern is finding an area that is relatively isolated. People tend to be interested in when they see someone collecting insects in their local parks. “I generally like talking about what I do,” one entomologist told me, “but I also need to be focused when collecting.”
In light of the larger academic discourse regarding the divide between nature and culture, it’s easy to forget that the built landscape of New York City is perfectly natural for the wild animals that live here and that the city itself is a habitat worth studying. It is not just the plants and animals that we manipulate for our own purposes that participate in the interactions between nature and culture that make up this city. To a bee there is nothing uncanny and false about the constructed nature of Central Park, or the carefully chosen flora of planters decorating apartment buildings on the Upper West Side. The city can be as natural as any setting.