CSI: Crime Scene Insects

How can insects help solve crimes? In this video, forensic entomologist Dr Amoret Whitaker discusses her work and how she came to work with some common flies that can provide important clues.

The blow flies that Dr Whitaker talks about are a family of flies (Diptera) called the Calliphoridae. They often have bodies with a metallic sheen and are also known as carrion flies, bluebottles and greenbottles. The fly pictured in the video is Cynomya mortuorum, known as the yellow-faced fly or sometimes, more gruesomely, as ‘the fly of the dead’.

Forensic entomology is just one way in which scientists work with insects. If you would like to know more about different entomologists and what they do, visit the People section of the blog.

Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente

Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, Deputy Head of Research here at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, tells us how he first became interested in natural history. Hear about his work as a palaeoentomologist specialising in the study of insects fossilised in amber, including the discovery of a fascinating lacewing species from around 100 million years ago with an ingenious method of camouflage and defence.

Ricardo’s research into the fossilised lacewing species, Hallucinochrysa diogenesi, has shown that the strategy of covering the body with materials from the environment as a way to camouflage and defend, known as trash-carrying, evolved at least 100 million years ago. Several species of invertebrates use this strategy today, including green lacewing larvae, and some sea urchin and crab species. Can you think of other ways in which insects defend themselves from their prey? Let us know in the comments below or in the Contact Us section of the blog.

Danielle Czerkaszyn

You may already know that the museum contains millions of natural history specimens, but did you know that it also houses a world-class collection of books and journals, plus a priceless archive?  Held in 38 different locations across the museum, the collection of over 20,000 books covers all areas of natural history: zoology, geology, mineralogy, palaeontology, and is particularly known for its collection of entomology books and journals.  In fact, we believe it is the third largest entomology library in the UK after the Natural History Museum in London and the library of the Royal Entomological Society.  

In addition, there is a priceless archive of letters, maps, field notebooks, photographs, artwork and other items of interest.  Where else would you find letters from Charles Darwin, the death mask of the Swiss biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, and the trowel that laid the foundation stone of the museum’s building in 1855.

Trowel used to lay the Museum’s foundation stone

So, who is in charge of this fascinating treasure trove? That job falls to Danielle Czerkaszyn, the museum’s Librarian and Archivist.  I went along to meet Danielle to find out how she came to work at the museum, what her job involves and to learn more about the amazing collection in her care.

Danielle Czerkaszyn

From History to Natural History

Having first completed a degree in History in her native Canada, Danielle came to the UK to do a Master’s degree in Museum Studies.  Following this, she was selected for a place as a Graduate Library Trainee at the Bodleian History Faculty Library here in Oxford and secured her post at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in 2017.  Danielle revealed:

“When I came for the interview, I was asked what my weakness would be in the role and I replied that I didn’t really know a great deal about natural history! The good thing is that I learn new things every day and my knowledge of natural history has expanded!”

As well as a valuable resource for staff at the Museum and other members of the University, the library and archive is open to anyone with an interest in natural history.  On a day to day basis, Danielle deals with many enquiries from the public requesting visits or requests for articles and chapters of books to be provided digitally to help with research.  High-use collections in the library and archive are currently in the process of being digitised which will make it even more accessible to natural historians around the world.  Danielle is also responsible for keeping the collection up to date with new publications and dealing with donations that come in from members of the public. 

Highlights of the Collection

I asked Danielle to choose some of her favourite entomology items from the collection and she suggested two incredible and unique works – one from the archive and one from the library. 

The first is William Jones’ Icones, one of the most scientifically important and stunning works on butterflies and moths ever produced.

William Jones’ Icones

“This work as one of my favourites because the paintings are so

detailed and beautiful. Plus it is completely unique.” 

Danielle Czerkaszyn

Danielle’s second choice is Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Insects of Surinam) published in 1705. 

Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Insects of Surinam) published in 1705

“Maria Sibylla Merian is definitely a figure to be admired as a pioneering role model for women and I love showcasing her work.”

Danielle Czerkaszyn

Check out our blog posts on these incredible items from the collection to find out more:

William Jones’ Icones

Maria Sibylla Merian’s Insects of Surinam

Thank you so much to Danielle for giving us a fascinating insight into the library and archive here at the Museum of Natural History, and for sharing some of the incredible works in her care. 

To find out more about the library and archive visit https://oumnh.ox.ac.uk/library.

Do you have a favourite book on insects? Tell us about it here or in the comments below.

Louis Lofthouse

Louis is a Collections Assistant, for the HOPE for the Future Project, at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History. Here he is telling us about his role and how he first became interested in insects.

Louis mentions that through his job he gets to see rare and extinct insects that you normally might not get the chance to see. Can you tell us about any rare or extinct insects that you know about? Let us know in the comments below, or through the contact us page.

Captivating Cardinal Beetles

Michela Sisti is a volunteer with the Museum’s Entomology Digitisation project. Originally from Canada, she now lives in Oxford. Like many people, she has loved all sorts of creatures from the time she was a child, but the recent lockdowns really brought her close to the natural world again.

She has taken a break from helping to make images of our entomology specimens available online to tell us about one of her favourite insects: the cardinal beetle.

Can you spot the difference between these two beetles? Their bright red exteriors make each an attractive find for nature-lovers. But if you were a small insect, being able to tell these fiery doppelgangers apart might mean the difference between survival and ending up as lunch. 

On the left-hand side is the Lily Beetle (Lilioceris lilii), a lifelong leaf-eater. While it might be the bane of some gardeners, other insects have no need to fear its presence. The character on the right is a Cardinal Beetle, a natural born predator capable of hunting other invertebrates right from the larval stage.

Cardinal Beetles belong to the family, Pyrochroidae. The root ‘pyro’ comes from the Greek word for fire. (Think pyrotechnics – fireworks.) The one I snapped in this photo is a Black-headed Cardinal Beetle (Pyrochroa coccinea) and is found mainly in the south of Britain. Its two cousin species are the Red-headed Cardinal Beetle (by far the most common of the trio) and the Scarce Cardinal Beetle.

On a warm clear day in late spring, you might glimpse one of these sleek hunters perched on a flower petal, soaking in the sunlight. Like many insects, Cardinal Beetles use the sun’s rays to regulate the temperature of their bodies. But there is another reason why these beetles like to idle about on flowers. Flowers attract pollinators and the Cardinal Beetle is poised for ambush. When the moment is ripe it darts forward, sinking its pincer-like mandibles into its prey.

I spotted this incredible insect shortly before I began volunteering with Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History’s Entomology Digitization project. You might say my encounter gave me the bug.

So how to distinguish a Cardinal Beetle from a Lily Beetle? Lily Beetles are rounder with dimpled cases. Cardinal Beetles have larger, narrower bodies and distinctive toothed antennae.

Find out more:

Pyrochroidae | UK Beetle Recording. (n.d.). Coleoptera.org.uk. Retrieved 10 October 2021, from www.coleoptera.org.uk/family/pyrochroidae

Red-headed cardinal beetle | The Wildlife Trusts. (n.d.). The Wildlife Trusts. Retrieved 10 October 2021, from www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/invertebrates/beetles/red-headed-cardinal-beetle

Ashleigh Whiffin

Ashleigh Whiffin tells us about her work as Assistant Curator of Entomology at National Museums Scotland, as well as the slightly unusual way she first became interested in insects, leading to her pursuing a career in entomology.

Ashleigh mentions finding out that carrion insects can help solve crimes. How cool is that? Can you think of any other ways that insects help us? Let us know in the Contact us section of the blog.