Accessing Staffordshire Lepidoptera

by Don Steward, Curator (Natural History),

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


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.

Lepidoptera Project


Molly and Gina work at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on a 2 year project to re-curate the Lepidoptera collections. This involves the databasing of the entire World Moth collection in the Hope Entomology Department.

As part of our day to day routine we document drawers of moths to species level. This means we record the genus and species, the author, and how many specimens we have of each species per drawer. Another important part of our role as curatorial assistants is to repair the wings and bodies of any damaged specimens. This also involves the replacement of any old pins that are causing verdigris, which can pull a specimen apart, although we keep any pins of historic importance.

We also look for “lost” type specimens in the collection. These are types that may have been overlooked or are not immediately obvious to the casual observer. Learning to recognize handwriting is a useful skill to have when looking for types. We then check the appropriate literature to verify its type status and move the specimen to the type collections. So far we have found over 50 putative type specimens.

Type specimens aren’t the only interesting thing we find while recurating collections. Specimens collected by Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Henry Walter Bates have been found in the moth collections, as well as drawings of caterpillars by Frederic Moore, 5 species of extinct moths and most recently, a butterfly from Tonga that was collected on the H.M.S. Challenger expedition in 1874.
We also are responsible for handling enquiries about the Lepidoptera collections. This includes artists, researchers, students, and interns and can be in person or via email. We have also facilitated a 6 week internship to work on the Sudanese butterfly material.


Gina: At the moment I’m currently working on the family Noctuidae, which is the largest Lepidoptera family. To give you an idea of how large, I’m nearly done with this family but have documented over 30,000 specimens. My favourite aspect of this job is detective work. The handwriting on old labels attached to specimens can tell you a lot about the history of a specimen and the collector. It takes a while to learn someone’s particular style of handwriting, but once you do, it can open a world of information for you. For example, we have a lot of type specimens described by Francis Walker. By recognizing his handwriting, we know that a label marked with his hand may possibly be an overlooked type specimen. Label shape and colour can also tell you who might have handled or determined the specimen in the past. John Obadiah Westwood, the first Hope Professor of Entomology, often put blue, diamond shaped labels on specimens in his collection.


Molly: Throughout the project both of us have been presented with different challenges as we are working on different families and they often require specific treatment. You can’t treat Cossidae the same as Pyralidae. Due to the size difference, although the basic requirements are the same, Cossids tend to be more robust.

I am currently working on Pyralidae and I’ve heard numerous anti-moth comments: “Didn’t realise you were such a fan of the 70’s”, “Oh look, more beige moths!” There are many more comments, including the popular reference to a drawer of Lepidoptera as “flying stamps.” Phooey. Moths and butterflies draw people in, they are family friendly and are often the first port of call for amateur naturalists. The Lepidoptera Project has over 700 followers on twitter. That works out at just over 100 new followers a month. Moths might be beige, but they sure are popular.
You can follow us Twitter: @hopeulikemoths