The HOPE British insect collection includes specimens from the early 19th century to the present day. This means that some are very old and delicate. Of course, all of the insects are very delicate and easily damaged. Just think about the width of the legs or antennae of some of the insects you have seen in your garden! Not much more than a hair’s breadth! It isn’t surprising then that some of the specimens are showing their age and some are damaged.
In this post, learn how Tom Greenway, Junior HOPE Collections Assistant, repairs the damage and what happens to the bits that can’t be stuck back on!
“It’s always sad to see a damaged specimen but with a little bit of patience, and a mix of PVA glue and distilled water, we can make repairs to get them looking like new again!”
Tom Greenway, Junior HOPE Collections Assistant
It isn’t unusual for the abdomen to fall off, as you can see here! Watch this video to see how we repair specimens.
Sometimes specimens will build up verdigris; a bluish-green crust made by a chemical reaction between the old pin, the insect and oxygen. We use a small brush to lightly remove it. Pins sometimes become rusty or damaged need to be replaced. For that job we use special stainless steel entomology pins.
Any parts that may have fallen off, but can’t be assigned to a particular specimen, are collected and stored in a gelatin capsule. This can be useful for any researchers looking to analyse DNA. The capsule gets pinned at the end of the specimen drawer so that it is kept with the correct species.
A big part of the HOPE for the Future project is re-curating more than one million British insects.
Tom Greenway, Junior HOPE Collections Assistant, explains how he and the team are making sure the insects that make up the unique HOPE collection will be preserved for future generations.
Moving a million insects is a big job! The insects are currently kept in wooden trays inside cabinets in the Westwood Room, upstairs at the museum. We have to move every single insect specimen into new up-to-date storage to preserve the collection for the future. At the moment, we are moving the insects in cabinet 75 which contains members of the order Coleoptera (beetles). There are 151 cabinets in total, each with 20 drawers of insects so although we have already moved around 253,000 insects, there is still a long way to go!
These are some of the tools of the trade!
When working on a drawer, we put it inside a fume cabinet like this one to protect us from a chemical called naphthalene. This was used in the past to help stop specimens being damaged by pests, such as moths, which see the collection as a huge banquet!
Each specimen we move needs a new label containing vital information about the specimen:
binominal name (Genus / species);
the name of the person who discovered the species;
the year it was first classified; and
a location code.
Once a tray is full, we add a data label containing the specimens’ information, along with a checklist number, which in this case relates to the current checklist of classified Lepidoptera (the order that includes butterflies and moths).
We then add each finished tray to one of the new pest-proof drawers. The completed drawers are then ready to go to their new storage space where it will be accessible for teaching and research.
The impact of insects on the natural world is colossal. Without them, the Earth would be a very different place and most terrestrial vertebrates that depend on them directly as food would become extinct. The loss of bees alone might cause the extinction of a quarter of all life on Earth. A total loss of insects would be devastating for the human population.
After 25 years as an academic at Oxford University, George McGavin became an award-winning television presenter. He is an Honorary Research Associate of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, an Honorary Principal Research Fellow at Imperial College, and an Honorary Life Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. As well as his many TV documentaries, George has written numerous books on insects and other animals. In 2019 he became the President of the Dorset Wildlife Trust.
George gave this live online lecture on 4 November 2020 and responded to questions asked by people watching at the time. You can watch a recording of What have insects ever done for us? on youtube.
Crunchy on the outside is a new blog for and by young entomologists.
Interested in insects? Perhaps you saw something we posted online, came to the museum, or maybe we visited you at school for an Insect Discovery Day. However you heard of us, if you’re interested in insects this is the place for you!
We’ll be sharing news about insects and the natural world, people who work insects and help to protect them, what goes on at the museum, and new things for you to make and do. Look out for:
A peek behind the scenes at the museum
Insect related things to make and do
Info about people who work with insects, both past and present
Cool facts and stories about the amazing insects we can find in this country
A chance to have your say regarding what is in this blog and the museum
First dibs on related events
Crunchy on the outside is your opportunity to tell us what you would like from the museum, share your ideas and to get involved. We’d love to hear your ideas so please get in touch using the CONTACT US page if there is something you’d like to see.
Crunchy on the outside is part of the HOPE for the Future project at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.