Famous Flies – Petiver

Yes. That is the title and this is a blog telling you about some of them. I was tasked with the job of hunting through the thousands of drawers, the hundreds of jars and the millions of slides to find the most famous or most infamous of specimens within the Collection at the Natural History Museum London. I have worked on the fly collection at the museum for over ten years now but still regularly come across hidden gems in the collection. Just in the fly collection, we have approximately 3-4 million specimens (when you see jars swimming with flies you will understand why this estimate has such a large degree of error), that have been collected since the early 17th Century from every geographical region around the world. Some of the collectors are recognisable whilst others are less so but have come to mean so much to us who deal with the collection.

So, let me welcome you to the collection. It is arguably the best fly collection in the world – I admit I may be a little biased but please be patient with me. I get very excited about the flies and forget most of my impartiality.

The collection comprises 9000 drawers of pinned specimens, 2,500,000 specimens (or so) in jars, approximately 200,000 slides, and a further molecular collection (both DNA and tissues), frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks at -80oC. Some are housed in the most up to date cases that are appropriate for insect collections whilst others have been kept, preserved in time, exactly as they were when presented to the Museum. This is the case for some of the earliest preserved insect collections at the Museum.

The Natural History Museum was born thanks to the generosity and far sightedness of Sir Hans Sloane. He was an old-school collector and back in the 1800’s he amassed a collection of such importance that folks came from far and wide to visit and study it, including none other than Carl Linnaeus – the father of Binomial nomenclature. Sloane was not a collector of insects or other objects himself but rather a purchaser and receptor of other people’s collections. One of those acquired was from James Petiver, a shop keeper who owned an Apothecary store in London. As well as having herbs and spices necessary for his work, he also collected plants, shells and insects and had a vast network of friends and connections who passed them onto him too.

The boxes of books and the instructions of care.             © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only does the age of this collection merit attention, the majority were collected in the late 1700s, but also the method of storage. For these insects, butterflies, beetles, flies etc, were presented as flattened specimens in books. After ‘drowning’ the insects in ‘spirits’ he would press them between the leaves and here they remained for over 300 years. Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did.

Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only do we have the books but we also have little boxes, and within these there are many insects and arachnids. More importantly for me there are many flies.

We also have little boxes. Lots of little boxes.                   © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This collection has many questions associated with it, including where are the actual specimens from? A common problem and one that has obviously been there from the beginning of collecting. It is interesting to think though that even material that we have held in the NHM for hundreds of years still needs to be investigated.

But to me just looking at specimens of flies that are three hundred years old is quite something. Not all have them have survived – many specimens are ghosts of what they were.

© Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Amongst all of this, there are amazing specimens – some rather famous flies. Shown below are, we think, Eristalis arbustorum – a common hover fly found across Europe. These specimens here are some of the oldest preserved flies on the planet. There is an older collection but the flies are not as well preserved. These little boxes have been inspiring taxonomists for hundreds of years.

Hover flies. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Those hover flies are good but the real gem lies still within the pages of Petiver’s book and it is a rather odd looking hornet robber fly.

The hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This has always been one of my favourite flies and this specimen is arguably the oldest specimen of this species in the world. It would be many years before this specimen even got a name!  And it is amazing to consider that for a specimen over 300 years old that, albeit being a bit squashed and misshaped, that it is still utterly recognisable and has retained its colour. Guess I should get around to entering that data to the British Robber fly scheme….

Written by Dr Erica McAlister, Collections Manager- Flies, Fleas, Arachnida, Myripoda, at the Natural History Museum, London.

NatSCA Digital Digest- January

Colorado potato beetle, Chalupský 2004, Image in public domain

Colorado potato beetle. Chalupský 2004, Image in public domain

It’s the first NatSCA Digital Digest of the New Year, a time when everyone feels new, fresh, and fully motivated to read everything and do everything… yippee!

 

What’s New to Read?

In the prettiest blog I’ve ever seen, the science education whizzes at ARKive bring you ‘The Magical, Mystical World of Bioluminescence!‘.

In a beautifully written article called Hidden Sea Dragons: Discovering new species of ichthyosaurs in museum collections, guest writer to Earth Archives Dean Lomax writes about recent Ichthyosaur discoveries that are bringing him fame and fortune. Maybe just fame, there are no fortunes to be had in palaeontology… but fame is good enough for us.

 

What’s New to See?

The Horniman Museum is getting ready to blow your mind with an exhibition called Robot Zoo. It has a rhino so you need to visit, but in less ungulate-biased reasoning; the exhibition toured in London a few years ago and was one of the most popular and well-attended exhibitions at the Horniman in 100 years. If proof is in pudding, then this pudding looks tasty.

 

What’s New to Apply For?

Wow, it’s January Job City… if you’re an entomologist. There are three insecty positions going right now, how often does that happen eh? Plus, a very exciting post at the Grant Museum to apply for:

The Natural History Museum in London is looking for two natural history positions. The first is a Post Doc working in the evolution of sensory systems in moths, and the second is a Curatorial Assistant position focusing on Coleoptera from Africa. Full details for both positions here.

The Tanyptera Trust and National Museums Liverpool are in need of an entomologist to promote insect and other invertebrate conservation within North West England. Full details here.

And finally, the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, is advertising for a full-time Curatorial Assistant. Full details here.

Accessing Staffordshire Lepidoptera

by Don Steward, Curator (Natural History),

The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, City Centre, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent ST1 3DW

email: don.steward@stoke.gov.uk

In 2013 the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent Museums (PMAG) were awarded an Arts Council England PRISM Fund grant for the purchase of 4 dedicated insect storage units containing a total of 80 glass-topped entomological drawers to provide conservation quality enclosures for a collection of moths and butterflies, part of Designated Natural History collections held at PMAG. The cabinets and drawers were purchased from Preservation Equipment Ltd.

The 4 insect cabinets installed in biology store

The 4 insect cabinets installed in biology store.

Work has started on the long-term task of transferring a collection of c.8000 specimens amassed by the former Staffordshire Lepidoptera Recorder, Richard G. Warren. It is an amazing resource waiting to be utilized. Over a period of 40 years up until the late 1990s Warren collected specimens locally in this County that is pivotal in the north / south distribution of species. The data associated with these specimens is significant in plotting the distribution of Lepidoptera nationally.

Using volunteer and core staff, the Warren collection is now being systematically moved into the new cabinets and drawers that are housed in the dedicated and environmentally controlled biology store within PMAG. The ultimate aim is for each species to be in individual Plastazote-lined card trays within the drawers. They are arranged according the Bradley & Fletcher 1986 indexed list of British butterflies and moths. Already work experience and volunteer students from the Staffordshire University MSc. course in Ecology and Conservation are involved in collection cataloguing and management to extend their taxonomic knowledge.

Lycaenidae being arranged in the new drawers.

Lycaenidae being arranged in the new drawers.

The new storage will facilitate the long term preservation of the specimens, allow access to specimens and the data associated with them. It will standardise access and we hope to continue this approach to other collections in the future to eliminate a backlog of collections held in user unfriendly hinged wooden storage boxes.

Data associated with specimens is being recorded electronically for the first time. This information will be batched in suitable units and sent to the Staffordshire Ecological Record which records and publishes species data in map form to a dedicated website and passes the data onwards to the National Biodiversity Network (NBN).

Mark Ashby, Joanne O'Keeffe and Lindsay Selmes, Staffordshire University MSc student volunteers sorting lepidoptera.

Mark Ashby, Joanne O’Keeffe and Lindsay Selmes, Staffordshire University MSc student volunteers sorting lepidoptera.

Caring for Entomology Collections

The following post is from Emma-Louise Nicholls of the Grant Museum of Zoology who attended our recent Caring for Entomology Collections Workshop

The scarab beetle shows how pins are used to manipulate the legs whilst the specimen is drying, after which it will maintain its shape.

At the NatSCA course Caring for Entomology Collections held at the NHM in London, I not only got to salivate over the swanky slide cabinets that the Natural History Museum now houses, but I also got to pin a scarab beetle from scratch, peer into a liquid nitrogen freezer at minus 196 degrees, see a grasshopper eating a mouse, eat amazing food (not from the nitrogen freezer), and was even rewarded for my endless questions* with a free gift in the form of a rubber gasket. All in all it was a stupendous day and a course definitely worth attending.

This liquid nitrogen freezer is used to store organic material that would degrade at higher temperatures.

This liquid nitrogen freezer is used to store organic material that would degrade at higher temperatures.

The day was split into eight sections that covered how to prepare your specimens, care for and store your collections, and lots of inspiration for what you can subsequently do with your specimens to make them available to a wider audience. We also talked about how to deal with insects that are not so much the specimen type, but more of the wild roaming, likely to eat your specimens variety. Although there is much to say, here are some highlights.

The Digitisation Project is working to re-house entomology collections and give each specimen an individual QR code for fast and efficient data extraction.

The Digitisation Project is working to re-house entomology collections and give each specimen an individual QR code for fast and efficient data extraction.

We were shown an impressive digitisation project that involved taking a drawer of entomological specimens in need of some TLC, applying both remedial and preventative conservation techniques and then photographing each specimen with a unique QR code. The idea is that in the future, the code can be scanned and will link to metadata on the Museum’s database. Knowing how troublesome paperwork for loans can be, this has exciting implications in terms of simplifying the process and decreasing both the time required and the potential for human error in filling out forms and in transcribing the specimens’ labels.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an essential part of any museum staff members’ knowledge base. Even if a full blown IPM plan is not logistically feasible in your building (as it isn’t in the museum where I work), a knowledge of how and why it works is integral to writing a pest monitoring programme that suits your collection. Housekeeping is, of course, the most important part of keeping museum pests at bay, but even in the best kept collection, pests can and do still occur, and knowing how to monitor and effectively eradicate any outbreaks is integral to preventative conservation of your specimens. It was both interesting and very useful to compare and contrast the problems and protocols that are used by the Natural History Museum with those from my own museum and I came away some useful tips.

The scarab beetle in the centre of this image shows how pins are used to manipulate the legs whilst the specimen is drying, after which it will maintain its shape.

The scarab beetle in the centre of this image shows how pins are used to manipulate the legs whilst the specimen is drying, after which it will maintain its shape.

The element of the course I most enjoyed was the opportunity to both pin an insect specimen, and ask endless questions of the suitably enthusiastic entomologists demonstrating the techniques. There are many more methods used in pinning insects and other invertebrates than I had ever imagined, and being able to have a go myself solidified the information as well as making for an exciting day. I can proudly tell you that the scarab I pinned lost no legs and the metal pin was at a (near) perfect 90 degree angle to the base. It’s all in the teaching no doubt.

Despite both the obvious and more subtle differences between the Natural History Museum and other natural history collections and museums, I felt the information given at the course was delivered in a way as to be directly relevant to all collections represented. Having spoken to the other delegates present, it was unanimously agreed to be a thoroughly useful and interesting day.

– Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

* May have been an attempt to silence me

Caring For Entomology Collections

Seminar series to explore basic entomology collections management, curation and conservation techniques.

NHM (Natural History Museum), South Kensington, London 9.30am – 4.30pm Friday 1st November 2013

Cost £34 for members or £49 for non-members (remember that becoming a member is just £15 a year!).

This course will cover all basic aspects of collections management for entomological collections, including storage and handling of specimens, loans and legislation, and specimen preparation.

There will be specialist sessions including Integrated Pest Management, storage facilities, spirit curation, specimen pinning, molecular collections, basic slide preparation, documentation and databasing. Tours of the collection areas will also occur.

The course will be both theory and practical supported by a booklet covering both aspects.

Schedule (TBC):

9:30 -10:00 Introduction and Coffee

10:00 -10:30 Entomological Storage

10:30 -11:00 IPM

11:00 – 11:30 Morning Coffee

11:30 – 12:00 Digitisation

12:00 – 12:30 Data-basing

12:30 – 2:00 Lunch

2:00 – 2:30 Specimen pinning

2:30 – 3:00 Slide preparation

3:00 – 3:30 Afternoon Coffee

3:30 – 4:00 molecular collections

4:00 – 4:30 Spirit collections

Download booking form

Contacts:

For further information: Erica McAlister – e.mcalister@nhm.ac.uk

For booking & payment: Holly Morgenroth – holly.morgenroth@exeter.gov.uk

To become a member: Maggie Reilly – maggie.reilly@glasgow.ac.uk