Jan 062015

Natural History Collections are the Libraries of biology. They collect, protect, and maintain the specimens that allow us to understand how the natural world works, and then they make them available for people to use, study and enjoy, usually for free. Every specimen is irreplaceable, a priceless first edition that allows us to explore, interpret and compare the unique ways in which evolution, ecology, and the environment have shaped not only the species we share this planet with, but also ourselves.

Imagine a library without a librarian. What do you suppose would happen? For one, there wouldn’t be any new books added for you to borrow, enjoy, or learn from, so you better like the classics and not be interested in keeping up with the New York Times Bestseller List. That’s assuming of course you can even find the books you’re interested in, because without someone to make sure they’re kept in their proper spot and order maintained, shelves will devolve into chaos, and it won’t be long until insects, microbes, and the environment begin to decompose the entire collection into piles of poorly organized dust.

The same is true for biological collections, only the librarians are called curators. Without a curator, a natural history collection is nothing more than a poorly organized pile of dust in waiting. No museum in their right mind would allow the very core of their existence decompose like this, would they?

The Royal British Columbia Museum is thinking about it. The CEO of the museum, Professor Jack Lohman, is of the mind that the Entomology Collection no longer needs a paid curator, and that the money earmarked for employing one could be better spent elsewhere in the museum. He couldn’t be more wrong.

The last entomology curator, Dr. Robert Cannings (who happens to be a dipterist who did his PhD at the very lab bench that I’m doing mine at now) retired in 2012 after a 32 year career as Curator of Entomology. He has stayed on as Curator Emeritus, but the museum has yet to hire his replacement, and has now publicly stated that they likely won’t.

Let’s return to our library metaphor again for a moment to illustrate how poor, and unprofessional, the decision to let the RBCM entomology collection go without a curator is. According to their website and this information sheet put together by the collection staff (PDF), the entomology collection at the RBCM was established in 1886, and now holds roughly 600,000 specimens. Compare that to the Canadian Library of Parliament, the most prestigious library in Canada that is attached to our Parliament Buildings and which serves as the official repository and resource for our government. It was founded a mere 10 years before the RBCM entomology collection, in 1876, and also houses 600,000 items today. The difference is that Library of Parliament employs 300 people to keep it running and functional, while the Royal British Columbia Museum Entomology Collection currently employs 1 collection manager, and has been deemed undeserving of a curator to maintain its esteemed history.

That is unacceptable.

But it’s not too late. Professor Lohman has agreed to hear arguments for why the entomology curatorship position should be filled, and will delay making a final decision until January 22, 2015.

Natural History Collections matter. Entomology matters. Curators matter. Please join me in letting Professor Lohman know that this is not an issue that should even be negotiated, never mind cut outright. Write him a letter (his address & email are below). Tweet at him using @RoyalBCMuseum and share why museums and the collections they maintain matter to you; tweets including the museum’s Twitter handle seem to go directly onto the front page of the museum website for all to see!

Stand up for entomology research in Canada. Don’t let 129 years of natural heritage turn to dust.

Write to:

Prof. Jack Lohman

Chief Executive Officer

Royal British Columbia Museum

675 Belleville St,

Victoria, BC V8W 9W2


And send a copy to:

Peter Ord: Vice President, Archives, Collections, and Knowledge


Jul 022014

Even though all specimens in a natural history collection (should) have a label explaining where, when & how they were captured, sometimes that doesn’t include the full story behind how a specimen came to rest in the collection. Consider the following.

While enjoying a few cold beverages on a hot summer’s evening on the porch of a friend’s cottage, our conversation was interrupted by the *thud* of a beetle bouncing off the siding. Attracted to the lights of the cottage, a Lucanus stag beetle found itself suddenly the highlight of the evening, and I quickly scooped it up and placed it into an inflated Ziploc bag, intending to photograph it once I got home the next day.

Things got busy though, and I ended up stashing the baggy & live beetle in my backpack to take into the lab and photograph instead. The next morning I walked to work, told my lab mate about my great beetle find, and pulled the Ziploc bag out to proudly display my specimen. Rather than a glorious reveal however, and all I had in hand was an empty Ziploc; apparently the beetle had had enough of waiting around and had chewed its way to freedom!

I proceeded to empty my backpack, searching every crack & crevice in search of the missing stag, only to conclude it had not only escaped its plastic cell, but also my zippered backpack as well! As I sat and wondered where it may have made its dramatic escape (perhaps the greeting card store in the mall I had stopped at on my way in to work, a scenario that I couldn’t help but giggle over) and cursed my beer-induced logic that a Ziploc bag was sufficient to imprison a two-inch beetle with formidable jaws, I resigned myself to the fact that I had been outsmarted by the Houdini of the beetle world.

A few nights later, while sitting on the couch at home watching late-night TV, I heard what sounded like plastic shooting across the laminate floor, emanating from where where our cat, Callie, was playing across the room. When I got up to see what trouble she was getting into, low and behold there was my missing stag, skittering across the floor after a playful thwack from the cat! While certainly dead, considerably dried up, and covered in an embarrassingly thick coating of dust from spending time under the furniture, it was also miraculously complete, not even missing its lamellate antennae or fragile tarsi.


Callie, Stag Hunter

Callie, Stag Hunter

A week soaking in ethanol on my desk (out of reach of the cat, who was unimpressed with me confiscating her new toy) to rehydrate, and voila, a perfectly good specimen ready to become a part of the scientific record! It’s impossible to predict how this specimen may contribute to our understanding of biodiversity and stag beetle biology in the future, and while its official label data will provide future researchers the necessary context to use this specimen as a data point, the full story of how this beetle wound up in our collection is yours.

It just goes to show that there’s more to a specimen than meets the eye, or the label.

The escaped Lucanus stag beetle (Lucanidae), pinned, labelled, and ready for science.

The escaped Lucanus stag beetle (Lucanidae), pinned, labelled, and ready for science.

Dec 062011

Ryan FleacrestLet me start by saying that when I went looking for a song for this week’s Tuesday Tunes, I didn’t expect to find such a gem as this. All I wanted was something simple that would allow me to segue into some very cool insect news, but what I got instead was one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard, but which actually has some relevant biology included in the lyrics. That being said, consider yourself warned: there’s cool science ahead, but also some really, really, bad music!

The University of California Davis insect collection announced yesterday (with future taxonomic publication to come I assume) that they collected specimens of Bombus cockerelli Franklin 1913 for the first time since 1956. Collected again from it’s extremely restricted known range (a 300 square mile plot of land in New Mexico), this species is understandably rare in insect collections. There has apparently been considerable debate amongst Bombus experts over whether B. cockerelli represented a unique species or whether it was a variant of the much more common Bombus vagans, and with museum specimens 50+ years old, there has been no ability to compare DNA between species. Lead researcher Doug Yanega implies that molecular evidence obtained from these new specimens supports B. cockerelli as its own species, and it will be interesting to see in future publications how this species fits into the larger Bombus picture! Doug has some succinct comments on why it shouldn’t come as a surprise to rediscover an insect species thought to be “lost”, so I’d highly recommend giving the press release a read!

Bombus cockerelli from EOL.org

Bombus cockerelli courtesy of EOL.org (CC-BY-NC-SA)


Moving on to this week’s “killer” song, if you grew up in the late 90’s (or had offspring doing so), you’re probably familiar with the musical torture stylings torture that was Aqua, the Danish pop band responsible for the hit song Barbie Girl. This week I bring you another musical instrument of torture, Bumble Bees:

Well, did you catch the surprisingly accurate lyrics as pertaining to pollination biology? From the “Wham bam, thank you mam” insinuating the correct sex for flower visiting bees, to the fact that bumblebees regularly leave “donations” of pollen while “invading” deep flowers, the song is actually pretty good for biology. Even though it sounds horrible, Aqua get props for taking the time to pen some pollination biology into their “music”!


If you haven’t had enough, this song is available on iTunes – Bumble Bees – Aquarius

Nov 132011

The true ESA conference doesn’t start until tomorrow, but today marked the start of the Entomological Collections Network meeting. This is where curators and researchers of natural history collections come together and discuss new ideas or trends in the maintenance and advancement of insect collections.

The morning session was largely focused on the different programs available for specimen databasing, highlighting the similarities and advantages for a variety of different programs and testimonials from users. Ranging in price from free to several thousand dollars per year, these programs all do largely the same thing, with some room for customization depending on the curators preferences. If you’re looking at starting your own collection and are anticipating it to include many thousands or millions of specimens, then this was the symposium for you!

The afternoon started off with discussions of a relatively new movement in the insect collections community; mass imaging and digitization of specimens. By using a variety of technologies and even more databases, many institutions are striving to make virtual representations of their holdings available online so people can explore and utilize data remotely. You can learn more at the following websites:
NCSU Insect Collection

The North Carolina State University Entomology Lab is also running a survey to learn how entomologists and those interested in insects use the internet. You can take the survey here.

The final session of the day revolved around the practice of specimen loans, and about those researchers who may be a little slow with repatriating loaned specimens! These 4 talks were some of the most entertaining talks I’ve heard in awhile. Victoria Bayless from the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum started it off by classifying loaners from the hoarder who returns nothing and who can’t bring themselves to part with borrowed specimens to the lazy loaner who couldn’t be bothered, to the saint, the researchers who return loans promptly and include flowers! Mike Ferro also briefly discussed a new idea of a community loan wiki, showing who’s borrowed what from where. It looks like a pretty neat idea which has a lot of potential if accepted by the taxonomic community!

Next, Peter Oboyski of the Essig Museum of Entomology at Berkeley discussed some potential policies for dealing with loan requests where material will be used for molecular analyses. He made some excellent points regarding the potential destruction of specimens and how collections should demand GenBank Accession numbers for sequences from their specimens (to attach to the specimen database entry) and also raw genomic DNA if they have the facilities to properly store it.

We next heard from a confessed loan scofflaw, Zack Falin of the University of Kansas Insect Collection, who offered up some reasons why someone might not be the perfect loaner.

Mike Ivie, the curator of entomology at Montana State University finished up the session by discussing how we should all prepare our loans for the “bus” situation. This is literally a situation where a researcher dies suddenly (ie hit by a bus) leaving their loans behind for colleagues or family to sort out and return. It was certainly an excellent reminder to properly label my own loans, although it was a bit sobering hearing some of his tales of dealing with these situations himself.

A decent banquet meal with plenty of interesting discussion with other Dipterists and a few Neuropterists rounded out day 1.

The big show starts tomorrow, and I’ve got to put the final touches on my presentations for the day. Looking forward to some good talks tomorrow!