Sorting Out My Summer – My Triplehorn Collection Volunteer Experience

For many people, the memory of the whirlwind of college tours in high school is muddied, the details weathered away by time. For me, however, in 2019, before I had even been accepted to OSU, I booked a visit to the Triplehorn Insect Collection. The experience still sticks with me to this day – I was absolutely floored by the scale of the Collection and the work done here. I knew that I wanted to be able to get involved with the Collection someday as an OSU student.

Years later, when considering what I wanted to do with my summer, one possibility became clear – volunteering at the Collection. Having interned at a museum collection in the past, as well as simply being interested in the Collection, I was very excited to be accepted to volunteer here this summer. I hadn’t returned to the collection since that trip 4 years ago, so I was ready to see the Collection in a more involved way and aid in its operation. I believe that the work that collections like this do is incredibly important, and I hoped to be able to contribute to the cause.

My first task as a volunteer in the Collection was adding donation labels to the large collection of insects received from OSU ATI at Wooster in 2018. To an outsider, “put little green labels on hundreds of ancient insect specimens” might seem like menial busywork. However, it’s anything but. As with any work done with collection specimens, a high level of care and attention must be put into anything involving the handling of these decades-old insects.

A drawer containing trays in which dry pinned insect specimens are stored.

A drawer of specimens from the OSU ATI collection.   

Pinned specimens, especially the very old and very small ones, are exceptionally fragile. Another obstacle can be the pins themselves. As these specimens are often over 50 years old, many pins are made out of materials that are not as sustainable in the long term as what we have access to now. Some pins are not strong enough to be pushed through a piece of paper on their own.

The labels themselves also require special attention to their positioning on the pin. In order to maximize the amount of space in each unit tray, and ensure specimens are not damaged when being removed in the future, the labels must be positioned to take up as little surface area as possible under the specimen. When handling such a wide number and diversity of specimens, it becomes apparent how valuable they are to our collective understanding of any given species of insect.

A lot of my time here has also been spent with Jenna Dunham, an undergraduate curatorial assistant at the Collection. We have been working to organize part of the large collection of longhorn beetles (family Cerambycidae). The process involves separating specimens by species and bio-region, adding temporary labels and alphabetizing the trays, before permanent labels are printed out.

Keeping an insect collection clean and organized is critical for its usefulness in the future. Decades ahead, after everyone involved in this process has left the collection, the contents of each box must be clear and easily understandable by anyone needing to use them. The final result has all of the specimens neatly lined up with clearly visible labels indicating the basic information about these beetles. Having this clarity of information is as important to the usefulness of a specimen as the state of the insect itself. It doesn’t matter how pristine an insect specimen might be, if you can’t tell where or when it was collected, it won’t be of much use to anyone.

Another key part of my work at the Collection was refreshing the alcohol and storage of the wet cockroach holdings. A wet specimen is anything that is stored in alcohol rather than on a pin. Alcohol evaporates over time, especially in some of the less than ideal vials the specimens were initially stored in decades ago. Many of the older containers had rubber stoppers that degraded over time or lids that didn’t have enough of a seal to prevent the alcohol from evaporating.

The cockroach specimens are taken out of their original vials and transferred to new ones with better seals and lids that will prevent the alcohol from evaporating or the lid from disintegrating. Not only are the actual specimens themselves preserved, but the labels might require upkeep as well. For the lot I worked with we had to replace the name of the collection the specimens came from (Frank W Fisk Collection) because the ink had faded or was peeling off the paper. New labels were printed out to replace the old ones and preserve the information associated with the insects.

Wet specimens are prone to degradation, due to the nature of how they are stored. The older specimens are stored with materials that were acceptable for the time, but show their flaws decades later as the alcohol evaporates from the less than airtight seals of the old vials. It’s not that the original curators were using subpar storage techniques – the march of time has simply provided us with better options, which must be used to preserve these older specimens. Perhaps in another 50 years, someone else will have to transfer these same specimens to new vials as well. This kind of upkeep is crucial to the long term preservation of the specimens.

Over my summer volunteering here, I have had a great experience with the Triplehorn Insect Collection. The work done here is extremely valuable and necessary to preserve decades of knowledge and research related to insects. I found myself recalling a quote from an article I read about natural history collections – that they are “scientific discoveries in waiting”. This is certainly true, from my experience. When handling specimens that are from 20, 50, even 100 years old, it’s hard not to reflect on the importance of preserving these insects for the future.

In the weeks I spent volunteering here, I saw only a fraction of the amount of work it takes to keep everything in a collection of this size running. For every specimen I added a label to, or every drawer I organized, there are hundreds more specimens waiting to be taken care of. Taking in the scale of the collection here, I was reminded of a quote from a paper I read by Charles Pettitt: “Natural history collections should be regarded as scientific data in waiting.” I was reminded of this quote often during my time here. Much of the work I did was for the benefit of someone in the future who might need to use the collection. Who might be looking at preserved cockroaches decades in the future or for what purpose they might be used for is, of course, unknown to me. But the specimens and the data will be there. My experience volunteering at the Triplehorn Insect Collection has been nothing but positive. I thank Dr. Musetti and everyone else at the Collection for giving me the opportunity to volunteer here.

About the author: Miabella Centuori is a junior at OSU and an entomology major.  Outside of volunteering at the Triplehorn Insect Collection this summer, she also works at the OSU Insectary, taking care of the living arthropods there and participating in outreach events with them.