The Colorful World of the Lycaenidae

Growing up in a tropical setting allowed me to experience the greatness of insect diversity. I have fond memories of capturing leafhoppers and planthoppers before I knew exactly what they were. I remember bright red ladybugs, large green katydids, and the buzzing blur of dragonflies, but it was always the scaled-wing insects that captured my eye. Beautiful butterflies of many varied sizes and colors fluttered their wings in the morning and dizzy moths flew around the lights of my home at night.  

When I joined the Triplehorn Insect Collection as a student employee, I expressed my love for Lepidoptera to the curator and my interest in learning how to properly handle and curate them. Soon after I started working at the collection, we received a large donation of butterflies from David K. Parshall, a retired schoolteacher and former president of the Ohio Lepidopterists. While processing that donation we focused on organizing and databasing. That allowed me to develop my butterfly curation skills. After my college graduation, I continued working at the collection as a staff curatorial assistant. Because of my passion & newly developed Lepidoptera curatorial skills, I was assigned various curatorial jobs in that group, first with moths, and later with butterflies. I initially worked with some genera that were already partly organized, such as the Ringlets (Erebia (Family Nymphalidae, Subfamily: Satyrinae, Genus Erebia) and the Orange Tips ( Anthocharis (Family: Pieridae, Genus: Anthocharis), before transitioning to the family Lycaenidae. 

Commonly called gossamer-winged butterflies, Lycaenidae is the second largest family of butterflies, with over 6,000 species worldwide. Adults are generally small, with brightly colored, and frequently metallic, wings. The legacy Lepidoptera collection at OSU, which dates back to the 1880s, contains 152 species and subspecies of lycaenids mostly from North America. The holdings include prominent butterfly private collections, notably those of R. A. Leussler, W. N. Tallant, and Homer Price. Our legacy holdings contained around 8,000 lycaenid specimens; with the addition of the massive Parshall collection in 2015, our total number of lycaenids increased to around 15,000.

As part of the Triplehorn collection’s partnership with the Lepidoptera of North America Network (LepNet) we committed to digitizing the specimen data for a large portion of the legacy collection and for the newly acquired Parshall collection, including the Lycaenidae. A complicating factor was that most of the butterflies in our legacy collection were still stored in, or more likely stuck on, the collection’s original cork-lined unit trays and consequently inaccessible for digitization. In order to digitize those specimens, we had to carefully remove them from the cork-lined trays and place them in the new, foam-lined trays we use today. Due to the fragility of the old butterfly specimens and the frequently poor state of their pins, the process of safely removing those specimens from cork-lined trays can get even more difficult and time consuming.

Tools of the Trade

In order to remove specimens from old cork lined trays we frequently use entomological pliers; sandpaper is used to remove the cork residue stuck to the pins; box cutters are used to cut the unit trays when they are too packed.

Pinned butterfly specimens in an old style cork-lined tray used to store insects in an insect collection.

In the olden days, pinned specimens were stored in trays lined with soft and pliable cork. The cork worked as a perfect pin cushion to keep the specimens safely in the trays and was considered the highest standard for insect collections. However, the once pliable material degraded over time, becoming hard, brittle, and creating a solid bond around the insect pins.

Other challenges we encountered during the re-organization and curation of the lycaenids, besides the cork-lining, include the dense shingling of specimens in a tray, which makes it very difficult to safely handle the specimens; and the faded condition of the non-archival century-old specimen labels that were really hard to read.

At the end of the re-organization we had 74 drawers of lycaenid butterflies. Student assistants and I continue to digitize lycaenids as new specimens are added to the collection.

It has been a pleasure to work on the curation and re-organization the Lycaenidae in the Triplehorn collection. Such a large group surprised me with its beauty and diversity. The rich brown and pretty blue hues of these butterflies were a treat to work with. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to see exotic hairstreak butterflies from all over the globe, with shapes I haven’t encountered before.

The Triplehorn Insect Collection at OSU contains a wonderfully diverse collection of Lepidoptera, from butterflies with iridescent scales, that imitate jewelry on their wings, to those with dark brown wings with a light mint color on the bottom. We don’t often think of insects being affected by climate change or habitat destruction, but when working in the collection we come across species that were common 100 years ago and now are rarely seen, if at all.

The Xerces Blue, a west coast lycaenid, is now extinct due to habitat loss caused by the intense urbanization. Another butterfly, the Karner blue, used to be common along the Great Lakes but today they are endangered. While there are efforts to keep them safe, the world is changing too fast to find them a safe place. (Walsh, 2017). Working on this project gave me a new perspective and appreciation for the lycaenids and for the importance of insect collections.

This was a big project that took a long time and so much care, but I always kept in mind how crucial that kind of work is. These specimens will remain in our collection for the public to see their beauty and to gain a better understating of their importance. Sometimes it is easier to comprehend the nature of something just by seeing it. As we digitize our specimen data, we are creating a map of the geographic distribution of the species in our holdings. Our data, combined with those of other collections around the world, are the backbone of the biological knowledge of species distribution. They serve as guide for identifying new and old species, as well as the histories these specimens hold. When and where they were collected let us know how they change phylogenetically and help us understand their evolution better. In tandem, observing and studying the changes, natural and fabricated, that occur in the world for evolution to happen.

Walsh, R. (2017). Microclimate and biotic interactions affect Karner blue butterfly occupancy and persistence in managed oak savanna habitats. Journal of Insect Conservation, 21(2), 219–230.

Alejandro Figueroa-Ripoll is Assistant Curator at the Triplehorn Insect Collection. Alex was born in Puerto Rico and received a Bachelor of Science degree in 2018 from The Ohio State University. He is a big fan of Lepidoptera.

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