For the past several years we at the Triplehorn collection have been on a mission to improve the storage conditions of and facilitate access to all our beetle specimens. Thanks in great part to the efforts of Joe and Dorothy Knull, we have a beautiful, carefully built and organized beetle collection, but the materials that were once state of the art are now in need of replacement. Recurating the beetle is a massive undertaking considering the size of our holdings (over 1 million beetle specimens) and the current curatorial status of the specimens.
Before we dive into our curation process, let me provide some background info for those who are not familiar with insect collections. Dry insect specimens are typically mounted on a metal (ideally stainless steel) pin. Pinned specimens are stored in unit trays (topless boxes of standard dimensions, ideally with only one taxon per tray). A set of unit trays is stored in a glass-topped insect drawer. Finally, drawers are stored in cabinets. In our collection the insect cabinets are loaded onto wheeled carriages that allow us to compact the rows of cabinets when not in use.
This nested storage system helps to protect the specimens from insect pests and environmental factors (like light and humidity) so we can keep them safe in the long run. It also greatly facilitates organization so we can more quickly and easily find the specimens when we need them.
In order to pin specimens within a unit tray, the bottom surface of the tray must be lined with a material that the pin can penetrate and that holds it securely in place, somewhat like a pincushion. Traditionally that material was cork, typically 1/4 inch (1/2 centimeter) or so in depth. Most of our cork-lined trays date back to the 1940s, but a significant portion is at least 20 years older.
When the trays were first made the cork was probably very soft and malleable. However, over time the cork has hardened and become brittle. Pushing a fine insect pin into it frequently causes the pin to bend. To add insult to injury, insect pins used way back when were not stainless steel and tended to rust around the area that contacts the cork. As a result, our pinned specimens stored in old cork-lined trays for several decades are stuck to the bottom and usually can only be safely removed with the aid of entomological pliers.
Another layer of complication is that, due to ever-present space constraints, the specimens in the collection were packed together as tightly as possible. The smaller the specimens, the more densely packed they are. Drawers containing over 1000 specimens are not uncommon. It’s actually amazing to see how perfectly aligned the specimens are. It takes a lot of skill to do that! But alas, those meticulously packed trays are now a big problem that we must overcome.
As we space out the specimens to allow for safer, easier access and future addition of a barcode label, the specimens occupy a lot more space than they initially did. We expect the beetle collection to occupy 50% more space after it’s all properly curated.
Our immediate goals for the project are 1) to transfer all the specimens from cork-lined trays to new archival quality foam-lined trays and 2) to space out the specimens to allow easier access.
This all sounds very simple, right?! Move specimens from one tray to another and be done with it. But the devil is in the details. (link to thread on Twitter). Most of the specimens are firmly embedded in the cork. So much so that we must use a pair of pliers to gently pry the specimens off the cork (link to video on Facebook). Because the trays are so packed, we frequently must cut the sides of the unit trays to effectively use the tools. Once removed from the cork, old pins might have so much cork and rust attached to them that we must scrape and sand the pin tips before we can place them in the new foam-lied trays.
Step-by-step of the process of removing specimens from the cork-bottom trays. Top row, L-R: Most trays are cut on one side to allow easier access to the specimens. Middle & bottom rows, L-R: When the cork-bottom is completely loose the worker might choose to remove it from the tray. The specimens are moved to a foam pad in the same order they were in the original tray. Dirty or corroded pin tips must be sanded using the finest sand paper available (yes, if we are not careful we do get our fingers stabbed) and finally placed in the new tray.
Insect curation is time-consuming and demands skill. Most of our curatorial assistants are undergraduate students. When first hired, most have little or no experience handling dry pinned insects, let alone the old, fragile, and scientifically important specimens we have in our holdings. Therefore, the training process is especially intense and a bit nerve-racking for both trainers and trainees. It takes 3-6 months to train new assistants on the basics of curation and record-keeping. Given the nature of the curation process student assistants work in collaboration with collection staff, volunteers, and other student assistants. It’s a lot to learn in a short period of time. It’s fair to say we all are work really hard.
Over the years many students have worked in specimen curation here at the collection. Some of our former student assistants have continued working with insects after graduation, some have become professors and research scientists at other universities. Others have gone into the business world. Many continue in contact with us after they graduate and move away. Our current team includes students majoring in Entomology/ Agriculture, Accounting, Biology/Zoology, English, and Environmental Sciences. Surprisingly, there is not necessarily a tight correlation between STEM majors and the skills needed to be a good curatorial assistant. Some of our best workers have come from other fields such as political science, art, and engineering. Patience, care, and attention to detail are the prime traits we look for and value. The experience that students gain while helping curate the collection is unique and at the same time highly applicable to other work and study environments. The contribution each of the undergraduate curatorial assistants make to the collection will be here long after they graduate.
The current phase of the Beetle Curation project at the Triplehorn Insect Collection is funded by the National Science Foundation – Award # 2035537
About the Author: Dr. Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.