A Sensational Summer School!

One of the highlights of the HOPE year is the summer school which gives young people a unique insight into both the fascinating world of insects and the equally-intriguing behind-the-scenes work at the museum.

We had to make our summer school virtual in 2020, so we were really pleased to be able to run it at the Museum this year.  The wonderful group of enthusiastic young people who joined us spent a week in August exploring the British Insect Collection and the work of entomologists, developing their skills and doing their own research.

Insight into the Museum

Monday started with an introduction to the world of insects and the ‘Big 5’ British orders, a tour of the entomology department with Collections Manager Dr James Hogan, and some live insect handling. The young entomologists then put their identification skills to the test with some insect hunting with Collections Assistant Louis Lofthouse in the University Parks.

Fantastic Photography

On Tuesday we were joined by wildlife photographer Kirk Mason who showed us techniques to develop our insect photography skills at the Botanic Gardens. The fabulous Merton borders and a sunny day meant there was no shortage of subjects! Look out for a future post showcasing the fantastic images the young people took.

Insect Investigations

On Wednesday and Thursday the summer school moved to Harcourt Arboretum where the group learned about practical insect collection techniques with Collections Assistant Ryan Mitchell. They then devised and carried out their own investigations over the two days, joined by Senior Collections Manager Darren Mann on Thursday.  We also set up a light trap on Wednesday afternoon, opening it the next morning to reveal the selection of moths that had settled inside, including the Black Arches, Lymantria monacha, pictured above.

Showcase sharing

On final day of the summer school, Steven Williams from the HOPE team led the group through pinning preserved insect specimens for themselves. We finished with a celebratory showcase event where our young entomology team shared all that they had done over the week with families and friends.

And there’s more…

Some of our summer school participants were inspired to write their own articles for the blog. Here is Ben’s post, Raising Moths, and we will be publishing more soon. If you’re feeling inspired, why not get in touch using the Contact Us page? Keep an eye on the blog for news of future events at the Museum from the HOPE for the Future Team.

people: amo spooner

Meet Amo Spooner, Collections Manager for Coleoptera, Hemiptera and Small Orders.  Her job, here at the Museum of Natural History, indulges her love of both insect collections and animals in general.   I met up with Amo to find out what sparked her interest in the natural world, how she began working at the Museum of Natural History and what her current job involves.

How did you first become interested in insects?

I have always loved the natural world and have a very vivid memory of being woken up in the early morning by my Grandad who wanted to show me some dragonflies emerging from their nymphs in our pond.  We rushed out to the pond where dragonflies were pulling their bodies out of the last of their nymph exoskeletons and emerging as adults. I kept the nymph skins as a souvenir and even have a tattoo of an adult dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage to remind me of that time.

How did you come to work in entomology?

After leaving school, I went to college to do a First Diploma and a BTEC National Diploma in Animal Management.  At college, I learnt how to care for a wide range of animals from guinea pigs to geckos and helped to run the Exotic Unit.  Once I had completed my qualifications, I decided to train as a Veterinary Nurse.  It was during the final year of my degree that I first volunteered at the Museum of Natural History and by the time I finished University, I realised that I really wanted to work at the museum, particularly with the insect collection.  I moved to Oxford, volunteered at the museum during the day and worked at Waitrose in the evenings to fund my time at the museum. 

After volunteering for around 1000 hours, I got my first paid job at the museum! This was working on a collection of entomological specimens that Oxfordshire County Council had donated to the museum.   Much of the collection was damaged, but it was possible to save some specimens and incorporate them into the wider museum collection. 

What is your role here at the Museum?

I have now worked at the museum for around 11 years and have had several different roles during that time, including re-curating the World Coleoptera collection housed in the Huxley Room.  Now, I am on secondment from my Collections Manager role for Coleoptera (beetles), Hemiptera (true bugs) and Small Orders (Dragonflies, praying mantis, cockroaches, lacewings, grasshoppers and allies), leading the collections team responsible for re-curating the British insect collection as part of the HOPE for the Future project.

(See our blog post on Tom Greenway to find out more about this re-curation.)

Together with one of my team, I am also responsible for looking after the museum’s collection of live insects and other invertebrates.  These include Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, Tarantulas, Stick insects and a Peacock Mantis.  I enjoyed designing and working with an expert to build their new tanks a couple of years ago. 

Madagascan Hissing Cockroach

Can you tell us about any particularly challenging aspects of your role?

One of the most challenging aspects of my job is the battle to protect the specimens from insect pests!  When live insects infest specimen drawers they can cause considerable damage and it is part of my job to ensure that drawers are checked on a regular schedule to ensure any infestations do not get out of control.  This has been particularly challenging during the pandemic when the museum has been closed and access to the collections, even for those of us who work here, has been limited.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I am fascinated by the history of the collections.  For example, my favourite entomology collection in the museum is the Baden-Sommer collection which dates back to the early 1900s.  It is housed in its original furniture, and is really rich in a wide variety of species, including an incredible number of type specimens.  I really enjoy understanding how specimen data labels and pinning techniques have changed over time.  For example, when faced with an undated specimen, the handwriting on labels and how an insect is pinned can give you clues about its age. It’s like being an insect detective!

I take great pride and comfort in the fact that my work helps to keep the collection safe for future generations.  The work that I am currently undertaking on the British Insect collection as part of the HOPE for the Future project is a great example of this, and will result in the collection being accessible to the public online, and available for teaching and research for many years to come. 

Thank you so much, Amo, for some fascinating insights into your role at the museum. Good luck with the Hope for the Future project!

a summer of insect activities

We are open!  After months of being closed due to the pandemic, Oxford’s Museum of Natural History finally reopened in May, and we are absolutely loving the fact that the museum is once again full of life, laughter and learning. 

If you live near Oxford, or are planning a trip to this part of the world, remember to visit us this Summer.  We would love to see you!  We have over 7 million historical and modern specimens, of which around 5 million are insects.  So, if you are interested in insects then this is the place to come!

Visiting the museum is FREE, but please book your tickets here Visit us | Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Why not try our Incredible Insects Trail?

Help yourself to a copy of this trail in the main museum court and journey round some of the highlights of our entomology collection. 

Take your completed trail to the front desk, mention that you heard about it here at crunchyontheoutside.com and you will receive a certificate and an Inspired by Insects badge. 

Remember to keep an eye on our website for information about other FREE Summer family activities in the museum. Events | Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Find us out and about in Oxfordshire

This Summer, we will also be out and about at the following events in Oxfordshire:

Out and About with Insects – Tuesday 17th August, 11am – 3pm, Princess Diana Park, Banbury

Finds us at Oxfordshire Play Association’s Play and Activity Day to learn more about insects and have a look at some of our magnificent specimens close up. Out and About with insects – Princess Diana Park, Banbury | Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Wychwood Forest Fair – Saturday 22nd August, 11am – 5pm, Foxburrow Wood, Witney

Come along and visit our stand where you will find a range of insect-related activities, including insect collecting using specialist equipment.  Find out more at: Wychwood Forest Fair | Wychwood Forest Trust

We would love to see you over the Summer, whether in the museum or out and about at an event. Have a fantastic Summer!

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!