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.

New beginning for butterflies & moths

Butterfly backlog at Ohio State

Butterfly specimens from the 1880’s that have been just mounted and still need to be sorted

The first curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection at Ohio State, Josef Knull, was appointed in 1934, over 82 years ago. The core of the collection at that time was mostly the working collections from faculty and students, and the large Wenzel Beetle Collection that was acquired in 1925.

Now, Joe Knull was a ‘beetle guy,’ specialized in wood-boring beetles. He collected all insects, including butterflies and moths, but his main efforts were concentrated on the Coleoptera. Joe’s wife, Dorothy, had a PhD in Entomology from Ohio State. Her interest was the leafhoppers. She studied under the supervision of Herbert Osborn and collaborated with Dwight DeLong. Together these three specialists left us a massive collection of leafhopper types that is second only to that at the U.S. National Museum in Washington, DC.

By the time Joe Knull retired the collection had grown to number over 1.5 million specimens, most of them collected and preserved by Joe and Dorothy (as a volunteer) in their 28 ½ years of service. After Knull came Charles Triplehorn, another ‘beetle guy’. He was curator for 30 years and had many students. No wonder we have such a significant beetle collection!

The OSU collection kept growing. We became one of the largest university insect collections in the country, an active research and education facility focused on insect taxonomy and systematics, and a valued resource to scientists in the USA and abroad. But we have never been known for our Lepidoptera collection. It’s just how the chips have fallen. The insect groups that were actively being studied by faculty or students, especially beetles and leafhoppers, grew faster, became well-known, were borrowed and studied by more scientists. To be fair, three significant Lepidoptera collections were added to our holdings over the years: the Tallant, the Leussler, and the Homer Price collections. But still we did not become known by our Lepidoptera collection … until recently.

Since 2011, we have received various small to medium size moth and butterfly donations, some quite important, like the Asher E. Treat Moth Voucher collection. In 2015 we received the massive Parshall Butterfly Collection (see my blog posts here  and here), with over 50,000 mounted specimens. As a result of these donations, we currently have many cabinets marked ‘Miscellaneous Unsorted Lepidoptera’ that have yet to be separated to family, genus and species. Unfortunately, we lack the expertise and the money to do that ourselves.

And there, my friends, lies my problem and the reason why I’m writing this. Our goal is to digitize the specimen data for all our butterflies and moths so the information is available online to anyone interested in Lepidoptera. But before we can do that, we need help to tackle the curation and identification of our Lepidoptera collection.

I am reaching out to the members of the Ohio Lepidopterists Society, a group that uses and understands the value of insect collections, in the hope that some of you will be interested in helping us achieve our goals.

Lepidopterists can help the OSU insect collection by providing identifications for some of our many unsorted butterflies and moths. Or by simply helping us reorganize them. There is a lot of manual labor that goes into the curation of a collection: moving specimens (sometimes repairing them), labeling unit trays, drawers and cabinets, and organization. And the final stage of publishing all the data on the Internet also takes labor in transcribing specimen labels, putting latitude and longitude values on collecting localities, and uploading to the database. There aren’t enough hours in a day that would allow me, personally, to do everything. But volunteers can have a tremendously positive impact, especially experienced volunteers.

Collections document the biodiversity that makes the world such an interesting place, and in the long run help us to understand nature and to make wise, evidence-based decisions on conservation and enhancement. Please contact us if you are interested in donating some of your time, energy, and knowledge to help improve our Lepidoptera collection.

If you’re unable to make a gift of your time, you can also do the next best thing: please consider a monetary gift to our Friends Fund. The money goes directly to the collection for the support of student workers and for the purchase of specimen trays, drawers, pins, etc.

Thank you!

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of the Ohio Lepidopterists Newsletter as “A new beginning for Lepidoptera at the Ohio State Insect Collection.” Posted here with minor editing.

About the Author: Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist who studies parasitoid wasps & and the current Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

Jan’s one year anniversary

The day after Christmas in 2015 I received an email message from a Jan Nishimura with the subject line “Do you still need volunteers to catalog specimens?”  She had read the August 2015 Columbus Dispatch article “Making a dent in a backlog of bugs” and was interested in volunteering to help us tackle the collection backlog.

Of course I was delighted. Very few gifts make a Curator happier than someone willing to invest their time, energy, and knowledge to help maintain and enhance the collection.  When Jan came over to visit for the first time I felt like I was getting reacquainted with an old friend. Her personality is so warm and welcoming you cannot help but like her, and she’s got this laugh that makes you want to relax and listen to her.

On January 13th, 2016 Jan started volunteering at the collection. In the weeks that followed, she learned about specimen databasing and also helped with a few general tasks.  She was very interested in the parasitic wasps (“so many, so tiny”).  Since the mini wasps are a very big portion of our backlog, and she was interested, I suggested that she tried her hand at mounting specimens.  She struggled a bit in the beginning (everyone does!), but she persevered and kept practicing.

One year has passed since Jan has started volunteering at the Triplehorn collection. She’s now very good at mounting parasitoid wasps and has learned how to mount beetles as well. She’s become one of the team and has been making awesome inroads into the collection’s backlog.

We cherish Jan’s contribution to the collection and her friendship. Thank you, Jan! Happy 1 year anniversary! Here’s to another great year!

About the Author: Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and the current Curator  of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

In memory of Zachary Franczek

Zachary J. Franczek

Last week we lost our co-worker and friend Zachary J. Franczek. He passed away unexpectedly on January 1 at the age of 22. I still can hardly believe.

I first met Zach on August 18, 2015. He was a Geology major, but had a strong interest in biodiversity and conservation. He told me he had about 8 hours available each week and he wanted to volunteer at the Triplehorn Insect Collection. He came highly recommended by my colleague Nicole Gunter of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History where he had been volunteering over the summer. I gave him a tour of the collection, and we had a lovely chat. He asked questions about curation and the kinds of skills one needs to become a curator. He liked the idea of working in a Geology collection one day, maybe even study fossil insects.  Zach started volunteering at the Triplehorn collection on Tuesday, August 20. Since he already had some experience with data entry, he breezed through our basic training. Within a month he was already taking on more advanced tasks and excelling at them.

When I asked the undergraduate students in the collection to write a quick bio that I could add to the collection’s website or to our blog, Zach sent me this:

“My name is Zach Franczek and I am a Junior at The Ohio State University. I am currently pursuing a B.S. in Earth Sciences with a specialization in Geological Sciences. Previously, I volunteered at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History helping to database their collection of parasitoid wasps. My experiences at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and The Cleveland Museum of Natural History have opened my eyes to the world of entomology, and I look forward to learning more about this discipline of science in the future.” Aug 27, 2015.

In the fall of 2015 our beetle databasing project funds became available, and my first act was to offer Zach a paid curatorial assistant position. He was a gem, the quality of his work was top notch, and we wanted him to continue working with us. Zach’s main responsibilities were specimen data transcription (copying the label information from the specimen labels) and georeferencing (finding geographic coordinates for collecting localities.) That’s tedious work, but he did not mind at all. He liked to see the result of his work, “the dots on the map.” He entered a total of 6,485 specimen into the collection’s database. That’s a whole lot of specimens!

While working side-by-side on one curatorial task or another, Zach and I had many stimulating conversations. We talked about loads of subjects, ranging from general insect biology to music to environmental activism to social justice to science policy. He was interested in science as a process. He had decided that he really enjoyed doing research, and he planned to enroll on a doctoral program after graduating from OSU. In recent months we had been discussing his research interests, his plans for graduate school, and the elements of a good statement of purpose for his application.

I have many memories of Zach, and some of the ones I cherish the most are related to his study trip to Utah in June 2016. For the two months before the trip we did not talk about anything else, it was all about the trip. We went over the academic goals of the trip, exchanged ideas on potential itineraries and stops along the way, and talked about all the gear he needed to get. Every week I would ask him if he had everything he needed, and he’d tease me (he knew I’m an early packer) by saying ‘Oh, no! I’ll be packing until the evening before‘. We even came up with a soundtrack for the long drive out west. When he left I asked him to send photos and to keep us updated on his adventures, and of course he did (photos below by Zach Franczek).

Zach wrote this when he sent the photos:

“I hope everything is going well! Here are some pics from our campground in Moab, Arches National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park!

I climbed up on some places where I probably was not allowed to get some of those pics, but it was worth it! We hiked for almost 15 miles on the day we went to the parks in 100 degree weather. Only got a little bit of sunburn*! The only bugs I have seen are big colonies of ants, but I’m sure I will see more soon! Feel free to use any of the pics too! I’ll be sure to keep you updated with how everything is going!” June 5-6, 2016. 

* The reference to sunburn is Zach teasing me for telling him probably 500 times to watch for sunburn in the desert.


Working and interacting with Zach was a privilege. He had a sharp mind and was keen to learn all he could. He was kind, easy-going, and smiled frequently. He was an excellent employee and a cherished co-worker, always respectful, attentive, and helpful. He was generally quiet, but loved a good debate. Zach Franczek was one of us, part of our family, and we miss him greatly!

About the Author: Dr. Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and the Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection. All photos by the author unless credited otherwise.