My Week at the Natural History Museum – Day Four: Entomology

Thursday was the penultimate day at the NHM and was spent by visiting the entomology department.  Although technically within zoology (whose collection already boasts an estimated 29 million specimens), entomology is so big all by itself that they have been split.  The collections of insects, arachnids and myriapods comprise over 28 million specimens.  Although a few other institutions hold equally large collections, none cover the breadth and depth of those at the NHM.  Of these, coleoptera (beetles) and lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) are the most represented (together making up more than half of the collection).

Our day started by tagging along on a short (undergraduate) tour of the older collection area where we listened to Max Barclay’s interesting anecdotes and information about the collections and collectors.  This included a trip to the tank room (a part of zoology that we saw earlier in the week).  This time, however, Mr. Oliver Crimmen was there to show everyone the treasures in said tanks.  Always entertaining, he told us many little stories about each of the specimens he yanked out of the large vats of alcohol.  One of them was a sturgeon (of particular interest to me given Hereford’s Royal sturgeon, Svetlana).

Once we were done with the tour, Ben, Gina and I were asked to help in identifying some insects collected in America and stored in alcohol.  We donned some lab-coats and started to sort the sample out until it was lunch time.  Yummy.

After lunch we met up with Alessandro Giusti (whom we had met at the NatSCA conference in Newcastle).  He kindly showed us round the collections pulling out drawers every few minutes to awe us with some incredible butterflies, beautiful moths, huge spiders, menacing wasps or amazingly cryptic stick insects and mantids.  It was great.  I have never been stunned so many times in one afternoon. I’ll let the images speak for themselves (below).

Alessandro showed us a particularly annoying problem that can affect mounted insects: verdigris (click here to find out more).  This can damage the specimens and pins if not treated but it’s not too difficult to do so.  Unfortunately we don’t fully understand why it happens.  It can affect a whole drawer or just one or several individuals within a drawer.  The best way to solve the problem once it has set in is to soak the specimen and once it has softened, remove it from the tainted needle and re-pin.  With lepidoptera specimens, though, soaking would ruin them.  In that instance a current is passed through the pin and effectively burns the hole around the pin slightly so the insect can be lifted free.  There are images showing this being done below.

We were lucky enough to meet Jan Beccaloni for a short time.  Jan is the arachnid curator and she showed us a few of her star specimens and talked us though some of the changed in storage she had instigated in her collection.  Because arachnids generally tend to be ‘fleshier’ than insects they are much better suited to being stored wet.  A few of the specimens we saw looked like they could still have been living, they were so well preserved.

All the images below can be viewed in high-quality on my Flickr page (click here).

The day spent in entomology was riveting and varied (just like arthropods themselves) and it has given me all sorts of ideas and insights with respect to entomology collections.  I’ve always been fascinated by creepy crawlies but I can’t wait to revisit the ones in my museums with this new-found outlook. Next up: mineralogy!

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