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.

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!