Why collect insects

As part of the HOPE project, Kate, Rodger and I take insect specimens from the collection out to schools. Two questions I have been asked a number of times are:

  1. Are they real?
  2. Why did you kill them?

The answer to the first question is fairly simple. Yes! They are real insects that were once alive, but are now dead and have been carefully preserved.
The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. The British Insect Collection, at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, consists of over 1 million specimens, collected over a period of about 200 years. I think the real questions are why do we keep this vast assortment of insects and what are they used for?

Identification

When investigating insects, it often is not possible to identify them out in the field, or from photographs. Some insects need to be looked at under a microscope, or even dissected, to tell them apart and identify them to species level. Also, just think how small some insects are, it could be very easy to miss them altogether. As a result, entomologists sometimes use insect collecting methods that involve killing the insects, and taking them back to their labs for identification.

The collection is also used to help with identification. If an entomologist comes across an insect species they have not seen before, or are struggling to identify, they can compare it with those already in the collection. Getting a correct identification is really important. It helps entomologists know if they are talking about the same insect.

Historical record

In the collection each specimen has a label which gives key information regarding where, when and by whom it was found. The collection contains specimens for almost the entire history of British entomology, giving us information on the biodiversity of Britain, during this time. From this we can see how insect populations have changed, for example how the numbers of the different forms of the Peppered moth (Biston betularia) varied during and after the Industrial Revolution. Scientists from all over the world regularly use and reference the British Insect Collection as part of their research.

The collection offers an amazing glimpse into the natural world with dozens of iconic species now considered extinct in the UK, including the large copper butterfly and the blue stag beetle. It also contains many examples of the first British capture of insect species.

Education

We use the collection to help people to learn about the wonders and importance of insects in our world. While it is very valuable for people to see living insects in their natural environment, they often move around very fast. It is much easier to use specimens from the collection to look at and understand the features of different insects.

In my experience of taking specimens into schools, seeing these insects up close in this way not only inspires a sense of wonder, interest and excitement, but also allows those who are more nervous of these little critters to gain confidence as well as understanding.

insects: the meat of the future?

Did you know that around 2 billion people around the world choose to eat insects as part of their regular diet? The practice of eating insects is called entomophagy (say en-toe-moe-fay-gee) and is most common in tropical areas where larger species can be found all year round.  Around 1900 different species are regularly eaten, including beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants, grasshoppers and crickets. These insects are an important part of people’s diets as they are rich in protein and vital minerals and vitamins. 

Across the world, 90% of people are meat-eaters. Of course, most of the meat eaten comes not from insects but from larger animals such as cows and sheep. With the world’s population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, the huge demand for animal protein is growing all the time.  We are using more and more land to farm animals for food, contributing to potentially catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss (the variety of different living things found in the environment).

Herd of cattle graze in a pasture near a village/Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Deforestation / Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

You may think that eating insects sounds disgusting. Many of us don’t like the idea of munching on a mantis or crunching a cricket but, with rising demand for meat protein, could insects provide a solution for this global problem? 

Insects to the rescue?

At the moment, most insects that are eaten come from the wild but there are lots of good reasons to consider farming insects. 

The demand for meat and dairy products has resulted in more and more land being used for farming, leading to the destruction of many habitats. This is having a devastating effect on our planet’s biodiversity as many plant and animal species have nowhere to thrive and many are now under threat. Farming insects, however, needs much less land and water.  For example, 400 square metres of land are needed to produce just 1 kilogram of beef, but 1 kilogram of crickets can be produced from just 30 square metres. 

Another problem with cattle farming is the production of greenhouse gases. Cows and other large animals produce huge quantities of methane; a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.  At the moment, livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the cars, planes and other forms of transport in the world. In contrast, most insects don’t produce methane gas as a waste product. 

Of course, it’s not as simple as just switching from farming cows to farming crickets.  What about the millions of farmers around the world who rely on rearing cattle for their living?  What would happen to all the land that is currently being used to farm livestock?  Is it ethical to kill insects for food?  Read on for some suggestions about where to find out more about these issues and debates.

Find out more

If you are interested in finding out more about sustainability of meat production and consumption, including the idea of eating insects, why not:

  • Visit Meat the Future. This exhibition, opening on 28th May 2021 here at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, looks at the health, environmental, social and economic impacts of meat and dairy production and consumption, and explores the future of food by examining the findings of the Livestock, Environment and People Project (LEAP).
  • Take a look at these videos and articles which talk more about the issue of sustainability in farming and discuss the pros and cons of eating and farming insects:

Should we eat bugs?  

Arguments against eating insects

What do you think?

We would love to hear what you think on this issue. Do you think farming insects is a good idea? Would you eat a beetle burger? Do you think there are other ways to cut global consumption of meat and dairy products? Let us know you thoughts below or by using the Contact Us page.

Make do and Mend!

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. 

MOVING A MILLION!

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! 

Two of the old drawers done… only another 3,000 to go!

These are some of the tools of the trade!

  • Tweezers
  • Forceps
  • Scissors
  • Entomology pins
  • Glue

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!

A fume cabinet provides protecton from napthalene

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.
Watch this video to see how Tom moves the insects

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). 

A finished tray

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.

A completed drawer – looking good!

What have insects ever done for us? with George McGavin

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.

Welcome to Crunchy on the Outside!

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.