Butterflies go digital 1 – the skippers


Skipper buterflies

The term digitization, when applied to the specimens in an insect collection, refers to the process of capturing all the information associated with a specimen — its name, where it was collected, when, by whom, how, etc. — in electronic format.  It is also used to refer to digital image capture of the specimen and the labels.

Specimen data digitization may sound straightforward, just copy the information into a computer and you’re good to go, right?! No quite so. Before label data can be turned into bits and bytes, collecting localities plotted on distribution maps, and species names populating checklists, a lot of careful physical and intellectual preparatory work needs to take place. That’s actually the bulk of the work and the kind of work that takes the most expertise to accomplish.

In an ideal situation, an insect collection would be neatly curated, names updated, specimens intact. In reality, the curatorial status of collections varies from group to group, depending on how much the specimens were used over the years. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Lepidoptera, the group of the butterflies and moths, was never a focus of researchers at Ohio State. Consequently, the OSU butterfly collection was never a priority for curation. The specimens are well preserved, but still stored in old-fashioned drawers and trays, tightly shingled (wings overlapping) to save space, and therefore not very easily accessible.

We started our portion of the LepNet project in August 2016. The first big step for us was to curate the Parshall and the old OSU collection so the specimens can be more easily handled by the data entry staff. That took months of very hard work. Riley Gott, who was an undergraduate student assistant here at the collection at the time,  had an interest in skippers, and had already done an amazing job curating part of that collection. It was only natural that the skippers be at the top of our databasing priorities.

We’ve now reached a milestone  that is worth celebrating: all the skipper specimens in the collection, 15,761 specimens to be precise, are now in our online database and freely available for anyone to consult. Of those, 6,753 are part of the “old collection“, which includes specimens in the Homer F. Price, Richard A. Leussler, and James Hine collections, plus many specimens collected and prepared by Joe & Dorothy Knull.  A small number of the specimens (127) dates back to 1876-1899, and 57%, roughly 3,800, were collected between 1900 and 1969. The newest specimens were collected in 2001. As it is expected in an old collection, some specimens do not carry complete label data. In our case, 17% of the old skipper specimens do not have a year of collection. On the other hand, the over 9,000 skippers in the Parshall donation are much more recent. Most were collected between 1970s and 1990s, and most specimens have detailed locality information.  

Overall, the skippers in our holdings were collected mostly in the USA (~91%), followed by Canada (~4%), and various other countries (5%.)

Distribution of skippers in the Triplehorn collection holdings

Distribution of skippers in the Triplehorn collection holdings

Funding for the databasing of the butterflies in the Triplehorn Insect Collection comes in part from the Lepidoptera of North America Network (LepNet), a collaborative projected supported by the National Science Foundation, and from the Knull endowments to the collection. We are grateful to the amazing volunteers who are working side-by-side with our undergraduate assistants and technical staff on the curation and databasing of the butterflies. They make a formidable team.

We started working on the curation and databasing of various genera of brush-footed butterflies (Family Nymphalidae) and will be reporting on our progress soon. Keep checking back for updates or, better, sign up to receive updates from our blog.

About the Author: Luciana Musetti is the Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

Arting and Sciencing: First Impressions at the Triplehorn – Part 1

I have loved science longer than I have loved art. I was big into rocks and dinosaurs when I was little and as I got older I had my mind set on being an astronomer. I had little interest in the other domains of science (I actually quite disliked bugs). I enjoyed art, did it for fun but wasn’t passionate about it. Then about 8th grade, while practicing coding I discovered animation. I could go on forever about art and animation and how amazing it is but I’ll skip to the relevant parts.

Jessika sketching a beetle while looking through a microscope

One of the first things I did when I got here was to try and draw small beetles through a microscope

My interest in teaching science through art is a more recent development and I think the seed was planted when my high school English teacher, senior year, mentioned offhand that I could do art for interactive textbooks but I didn’t think or pursue this idea for the longest time. It was in college, at CCAD (where I am currently a junior), that I started to find my path and what I liked making. As you can imagine, most people studying animation want to go into classic entertainment. And while I never dreamed of working at Disney, I did (and still do) love making silly cartoons but I could never get super passionate about it.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do and how I’m going to do it. For the longest time I didn’t even know what to call this educational animation I wanted to do, and people had a hard time understanding what it was that I was talking about. I’ve recently found the title I think fits best and it is “Science Communication”. But to be a Science Communicator, one has to know science and I, being the stereotypical art student, knew nothing about anything. I was into geology and stars as a kid but I still hardly had an understanding on those topics, and has zero insight into everything else that science encompasses. So, I knew I needed to learn about scientific subjects in order to create educational animation. Not too long after this revelation, I found the OSU Triplehorn Insect Collection and lucky for me, they love (and have a history of) taking on artist interns!

Jessika mounting insects at a microscope

Learning how to mount wasps that were a millimeter long (it was very difficult)

Working at the collection and being taught about the world of insects by all the helpful staff has been overwhelming at times. I failed to mention earlier that not only did I fall in love with art at the start of high school, I also fell out of love with learning science (I’m looking at you Chemistry); the classes were hard and I received my first F’s. So, it was like learning all over again why I didn’t become a scientist. But it was also exciting to see other people so passionate about the tiniest of insects. The students and entomologists are just as enthusiastic about beetles as I am about pencils. I am surrounded 24/7 by people who are all passionate about art and creating, it was refreshing and a good reminder to see people being passionate about other (tiny!) things.

A wasp under a microscope with a sketch of the wasp larger in front of it

A shot of a drawing I did using the Camera Lucida, an old method used to create scientific drawings before cameras

One thing I was not expecting to learn at this internship was how insect collections work and function and what the curation of such a place is like. Going in, thinking back to it now, I honestly didn’t know what I expected to learn. Probably just the different types of bugs, the orders, genus, etc. And while I did learn a little about that, I learned more about the parts and how they vary species to species. A lot of this came from pinning bugs, something I wanted to kind of do for a year or two now but never really looked into it and it turns out it can be pretty fun (if the bug is big enough at least)!

As the internship chugs along, my hand has been too, drawing the specimens but with no specific plan for an animated short in mind. I still have a lot to learn and discover, especially about the nearly invisible parasitoid wasps. I will be working in the Triplehorn collection until December 2017, researching and consulting with the entomologists about what stories need to be told and figuring out how to tell them so it’s engaging. These ideas will be explored in later blog posts here on The Pinning Block.

 

About the Author: Jessika Raisor is a Junior Animation Major at Columbus College of Art and Design. You can follow her work on Instagram at @jessikaarts. She started her internship at the Triplehorn Insect Collection in August 2017.

Researching Pelecinids – Part 5

On August 10, I traveled to Zaleski State Forest with Dr. Norman Johnson and Dr. Luciana Musetti to collect Pelecinus polyturator specimens for my research. The area we visited has come to be known as Pelecinus Cove due to the relative abundance of Pelecinus wasps in the area.

image of Pelecinus Cove

The author searching for Pelecinids at Pelecinus Cove, photo by Dr. Luciana Musetti

Upon arriving at Pelecinus Cove, I could clearly see why Pelecinids are attracted to the locality. Adult Phyllophaga beetles tend to lay their eggs in the soil near trees. Pelecinids then parasitize the larvae that hatch from these eggs. However, females are not able to navigate their abdomen through the soil to oviposit if the ground is covered in grass or other dense vegetation. Therefore, the ideal location for a Pelecinus wasp would be a wooded area with mostly open ground. Pelecinus Cove definitely fits that description.

Equipped with insect nets and killing jars, we trekked through tall weeds and swarms of mosquitoes in search of the large parasitoids. Several minutes into our expedition, we noticed that not many insects were present other than a few moths and a lot of mosquitoes. We used our nets and feet to stir up the weeds in hopes of also stirring up resting Pelecinids. Unfortunately, even after an hour and a half of searching, there were no Pelecinids to be found.

Although the location itself was ideal, we speculate that other conditions were not. Ohio received a lot of rain in the weeks prior to our collecting trip, and the ground was very damp. This may have flooded out some of the Phyllophaga grubs or deterred the Pelecinus females from ovipositing. The number of grubs available to parasitize is a major limiting factor of how many Pelecinus females successfully reproduce, so if fewer Phyllophaga grubs were accessible due to damp soil, then fewer Pelecinids would be expected to stay in the area. The weather was also very cool, humid, and overcast. A little more sunshine and warmth may have enticed the Pelecinids, as well as other insects, to come out of hiding.

Despite the disappointing outcome of the collecting trip, fresh specimens are not completely unavailable. Prior to the collecting trip, I found a P. polyturator female in one of the Malaise trap samples. This exciting find also suggests that there are more wasps in the area that could be collected, so I am keeping my hopes up for more fresh specimens in the future.

image of gel electrophoresis

The author learning protocols for gel electrophoresis

Due to my autumn class schedule that begins next week, today is my last day working and researching at the Triplehorn Insect Collection for the summer. Looking back, I realize just how much I learned over the summer through my research experiences, including the value of DNA barcoding, how to extract DNA and amplify genes, how to collect from a Malaise trap, how to photograph large insects, and the fascinating behaviors of P. polyturator.

Although I won’t be participating in active, ongoing research this autumn, that doesn’t mean there won’t be more opportunity for learning and progress. I still plan to revisit my research regularly, read more about Wolbachia, continue editing my research proposal for the Honors project, and learn how to trim and read DNA sequences. When I return to my regular research schedule (hopefully in the spring), I will be well-prepared to continue where I left off. Thank you for following my research journey this far, and I hope that everyone reading has developed a new appreciation for the intriguing parasitoids of the genus Pelecinus.


About the Author: Hannah McKenzie is an undergraduate entomology major at the Ohio State University. She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and is participating in undergraduate research on Pelecinus wasps.

Researching Pelecinids – Part 4

image of author extracting DNA

The author learning DNA extraction protocols

Over the last several weeks, I have been hard at work with my research on Pelecinids. I continued to collect weekly samples from the Triplehorn Insect Collection’s malaise traps, and I began to practice keying various families and superfamilies of Hymenoptera. I also learned the protocols for DNA extraction, PCR, and gel electrophoresis from graduate student Huayan Chen.

Not every aspect of research, however, is an active endeavor taking place in a lab or in the field. Research also requires a considerable amount of time for reading, writing, planning, and patience.

I am now in the process of shaping my research into an honors project that will span multiple semesters rather than this summer alone. Honors research is a much more demanding ambition than a single semester of research, but it is also a very rewarding experience that will push me to delve deeper into my research topic. I plan to expand the scope of my current research on Pelecinus DNA by also looking for DNA from Wolbachia, a bacteria that can influence sexual differentiation in insects. Huayan and I have already found that Wolbachia is present in several of our wasp specimens. I am also interested in the possibility of geographical parthenogenesis in P. polyturator females.

My current focus is on composing an honors project proposal. The purpose of the proposal is to establish how I plan to conduct my research, what materials I will need, and what goals I aim to meet. The proposal also includes an abstract, which is vital for exhibiting my research to the scientific community, and a literature review, which is important for ensuring the quality and relevance of my project.

The literature review has proven to be the most challenging portion of the proposal. It involves finding and reading the research of others, then synthesizing the information into a concise review and citing the sources in a list of references. Because there is such a vast amount of previously conducted research available to read, picking out the relevant studies and piecing the information together can be a time-consuming process. While searching for material to read, it isn’t uncommon for me to feel a little overwhelmed.

Despite the challenge, the literature review is one of the most important components of any research project for many reasons. First, it prevents the unnecessary repetition of collecting and interpreting data that another study already collected and interpreted in an identical manner. Second, it provides helpful context for the researcher. By reading about work that others have done on Pelecinus, Wolbachia, and parthenogenesis in Hymenoptera, I will be better equipped to design a procedure that is effective and efficient, or modify that procedure should something not work. Third, I can interpret data from other studies in relation to my own research findings, and vice versa, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of my final results.

image of P. polyturator

P. polyturator female

Although summer semester is coming to a close, I still have several research-related plans before I head back to classes this autumn. I will collect fresh P. polyturator specimens from Zaleski State Forest this August, which is when adults are most prominent in Ohio. These specimens will then be used for DNA extraction, along with several frozen or mounted specimens already in the collection. We also received a generous donation of West Virginian and Canadian P. polyturator specimens, which will be very useful for sampling DNA from a wider range of localities. I will also continue collecting from the malaise traps, keying Hymenoptera families and superfamilies, and reading relevant materials on DNA barcoding.


About the Author: Hannah McKenzie is an undergraduate entomology major at the Ohio State University. She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and is participating in undergraduate research on Pelecinus wasps.

Researching Pelecinids – Part 3

A misconception that I often hear regarding research is that it only takes place inside a laboratory. Although procedures such as PCR and DNA barcoding do take place inside the lab, there is also an in-the-field component that is vital to producing quality molecular research. In order to analyze the DNA of specimens, it is first necessary to collect those specimens. While I research pelecinids in the molecular lab, I will simultaneously learn about the process an insect collection goes through to collect, curate, and document new specimens that can then be made available for research.

image of malaise trap

A malaise trap located at Waterman Farm

One of the most effective means for collecting large quantities of insects in a short amount of time is the malaise trap. These large traps consist of a black mesh base and a white mesh tent. At the peak of the tent is an empty plastic bottle attached to a second bottle full of ethanol. Insects flying close to the ground become caught in the mesh and instinctively climb upward to escape, leading them into the empty jar. The ethanol vapors then knock out the insects and cause them to fall into the ethanol bottle (Vogel, 2017). Not only does the ethanol preserve the specimens, it also makes collection very simple. All one must do is detach the bottle of ethanol and empty it into a storage container such as a Whirl-Pak, then refill the bottle with fresh ethanol and reattach it for further trapping.

The Triplehorn Insect Collection sets up three Malaise traps during the warmer months, one near the Carmack parking lots and two at Waterman Farm. Each trap is set up in a different environment, so each trap collects a different variety of insects. For example, the Carmack trap is located near a pond and collects damselflies, whereas the Waterman Farm traps do not typically collect damselflies because they are located in dryer areas.

Although the traps are mostly intended for flying insects, other organisms such as spiders and ants often climb up the mesh and meet a similar fate. Pelecinid wasps will occasionally find their way into the traps, but it is not a very common occurrence. I will have the opportunity to collect from more Pelecinus-rich habitats later this summer.

I learned how to collect from these malaise traps from Huayan Chen, one of the graduate entomology students conducting research at the collection. In addition to learning how to empty and refill the ethanol bottles, I also learned that I need to cut back the weeds that grow around the traps and how to tie the knot that secures the bottles (a feat which took an embarrassingly excessive number of attempts for me to master). As part of my research experience, it is now my responsibility to collect the specimens from each trap once every week for the next several weeks. Each sample, which must be labelled with the collection date and locality, then gets stored in one of the collection’s freezers.



These samples will eventually get sorted into separate vials for each insect Order. What happens next depends on the goals of the collection. Some vials may be stored in the freezer for future use. Others will be further sorted to Superfamily or Family. They can then be further identified, mounted into the collection and databased, or used in molecular work.

I will use the Hymenoptera from these samples to learn the process of adding specimens to the collection. My plan is to further sort some of these specimens by Superfamily or Family (or even genus!), mount and label them, and enter them into the HOL database. In addition to teaching me the full collection process, this will also provide me with a better understanding of Hymenopetera morphology and identification that will be invaluable for the rest of my research.


Vogel, Gretchen. (2017). Where have all the insects gone? Science, 356 (6338), 576-579.

 

About the Author: Hannah McKenzie is an undergraduate entomology major at the Ohio State University. She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and is participating in undergraduate research on Pelecinus wasps.