2019 sort session #2

Yesterday was sort session #2, and we’re picking up steam. I recruited Michael Skvarla to join me and a special guest(!) to sort through pan trap samples from New York, collected during our last meet-up with the Ware lab. Here’s the site:

disposable plastic bowls laid down in a meandering row around weeds and bushes; each bowl is filled with slightly soapy water. In the distance is a house with a metal roof and an old barn filled with spiders and wasp nests

Our yellow bowls laid out in a meandering line and catching lots of interesting insects. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

Diapriid city! There were tons of other Hymenoptera in these samples too. There weren’t as many adult spiders as I hoped, though, so I didn’t get to test my burgeoning ID skillz.

I made a lot more point mounts using that Tombow adhesive. I think I might be in love with polyvinyl alcohol. It makes such nice, grippy bonds and it a dream to work with. I don’t know yet how it holds up over the long term or how reversible it is, but it beats shellac by a mile.

I also labeled up a ton of ensign wasp specimens. I have SO MANY EVANIIDS—from Madagascar, Costa Rica, Thailand, Australia, you name it. Tens of thousands of specimens. It’s ridiculous, actually, and most are still filed away in our freezers, unmounted. Maybe 2019 is the year they enter the research stream.

We talk about a lot of things relevant to the Frost Museum, including our collective desire to organize some overnight expeditions. We’ll add that to our list of new years resolutions!

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2019 sort session #1

As planned, the first Wednesday sort session yielded dozens of new specimens for the collection. I chose to sort through an old (2016) yellow pan trap sample from an ENT 432 field trip to Powdermill Nature Reserve. Here’s the locality, on the day the pan traps were out:

dorm made of wood and stone, nestled in the woods

Ravens Roost dorm in September 2016. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Hillary Peterson. Click for original

The pans were in the woods, behind the photographer. I pulled out a variety of cool insects and spiders. Here’s one of the gems, a species we’ve collected consistently at Powdermill. Can you see it?

insects, mainly flies, in alcohol in a plastic dish

Insects collected in southwest Pennsylvania. Can you find the stalk-eyed fly (Diopsidae)? Sphyracephala sp. Photo by Andy Deans. Click for original

For this session I had three main goals:

  1. Feed my passion for arthropods and collections
  2. Grow our spider collection and learn spider taxonomy
  3. Set up a series of point-mounts to test a polyvinyl alcohol-based adhesive and its appropriateness for this purpose

The first goal was definitely met! That was an easy one though. More on goal #2 later, but I have a growing interest in spiders. I spent way too much time keying out three specimens: two linyphiids, keyed as the male and female of an Agyneta sp., and a pisaurid, Dolomedes. I don’t have a lot confidence yet in my abilities here.

Goal #3 will need more thought in the near future, but I am trying to follow-up on my recent review of the adhesives we use in entomology. The short version is that the adhesives entomologists typically employ in prep making—Elmer’s, shellac, and clear nail polish—have flaws that museum conservation experts consider fatal. Polyvinyl alcohol adhesives have recently found their way into the entomologist’s toolbox, but I can’t find very much about them in the museum literature. I think it’s time for a test.

I made a series of point mounts of different taxa, with different cuticular textures and hairiness, using Tombow 52180 MONO Aqua Liquid Glue. My first impression is WOW! This adhesive easily has the best working properties of any glue I’ve used to make point or card mounts. The tackiness and drying time are perfect. The finished mounts seem robust to physical disturbance as well, unlike the mounts I recently made with Paraloid B-72.

I’m a long way off from any rigorous test of point mount adhesives, but these sort sessions may just give me the inspiration and thinking time to design a robust experiment. Let me know if you want to work on this together!

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New Year’s resolutions

I used to post an annual list of New Year’s resolutions for the collection when I was director of the NC State Insect Museum, complete with an assessment of how we did with last year’s resolutions. Not sure why I dropped this habit when I moved to Penn State, but I think it’s time to resurrect it in some form. Here goes …

Overall I think we’re doing pretty well at the Frost, at least in terms of maintaining good policies and procedures, digitizing the collection, and making upgrades to storage infrastructure. We’ve come a long way since 2012, when we started a big effort to modernize the Museum. That said, here are two things I want to work on in 2019:

Resolution 1 – Grow the collection

One activity where we are underperforming is collecting. Not just collecting but actually making proper specimens and accessioning them into the collection. I.e., we aren’t growing the collection at a sufficient rate. Here are the concrete steps I intend to take to make it happen for us this year:

  1. Collect regularly on my property. I live on >13.5 acres of woodland, which has yielded all kinds of crazy taxa, just from my haphazard collecting. Time to set up a transect of pitfalls, a Malaise trap, and regularly sampled pan traps.
  2. Establish a regular sort session. Wednesday afternoons (negotiable) are reserved exclusively for specimen sorting/prep’ing/curating. All are welcome!
  3. Coordinate with PDA entomologists to capture, sort, and prep specimens from residues that result from extensive sampling across the commonwealth.
  4. Take advantage of my state parks permit! The Entomological Society of Pennsylvania organizes these permits, but I had only one species to add to their list for 2018. Whipple Dam, Greenwood FurnaceBlack Moshannon State Parks are some local favorites, and they are localities Stuart Frost frequently visited. More on that later.

Given the emerging reports on dramatic biodiversity declines — e.g., in HaitiPuerto Rico, Canada, and Germany — it’s critical that we collect more data and specimens now.

wooden drawer filled with small cardboard trays. each tray has a foam bottom into which insect specimens are pinned. This drawer is about 80% full of weevil specimens

Room to grow! Most of our drawers now have 25% expansion room, and we’ve added an additional 500 or so empty drawers for expansion, all thanks to our NSF CSBR grant (DBI-1349356). Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

Resolution 2 – Make progress on moving the Museum

This resolution is a bit more difficult to characterize and establish benchmarks for, but we need to relocate the collection and public space ASAP. The CAP assessment last June revealed serious deficiencies (none really surprising) in Headhouse III, a building that was not designed for natural history collections storage. The good news is that we appear to have our administration’s ear, and there is an active search for new space. The bad news is that we’ve put our re-opening on ice … indefinitely. Relocating a collection of this size is not a small undertaking — we could use your help! — and I still have a lot of lobbying to do. I’d like to see us make it into the next Penn State Capital Plan, maybe as a combined collections storage building? I think we all could use help!

New photos of insects hang from wires against the wall; there is a placard with information about the photographer, Matt Bertone

New exhibits at the Frost. Will they see a public audience soon? Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

Of course I have many other goals for 2019, including one to post more frequent updates here on this blog. We do have some big news already, but I will save that for later this month or maybe February, when it’s finalized. If had to add one more resolution it’d be this:

Bonus resolution – Collect (or at least see) Atypus snetsingeri

Pennsylvania hosts the only species of Atypus, a group of purseweb spiders, in the New World. It happens to live only in greater Philadelphia. Hmmmm … (looking up and stroking my invisible goatee) Anyway, it’s an incredible species, named after the late Bob Snetsinger, a former arachnologist and jack-of-all-trades, who was on faculty in our department. We just digitized and recurated our collection of paratypes (below). Now I need to see this critter in real life! This species has had me obsessed with spiders for the last nine months. Seriously. SO COOL.

to glass jars filled with small glass vials and alcohol. each vial contains a spider specimens and some paper labels

Largest collection of Atypus snetsingeri in the world. These spiders apparently occur only in greater Philadelphia. How weird! Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

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The Twelve Days of Christmas: Entomology Edition

On the twelfth day of Christmas, a museum donor gave to me….

Twelve giant moths,

Eleven giant-sized unit trays (dang, need one more for the moths),

Ten drawers of Halictidae,

Nine springtails a leaping,

Eight wrong IDs,

Seven diplopods a swimming (in ethanol),

Six empty cabinets,


Four calling visitors (“Do you know what this insect is?”),

Three French papers,

Two jugs of ethanol,

And a tiny fly for us to ID!


Seasons Greetings and a Happy New Year from all of us at the Frost Museum!


And a tiny fly for us to ID! Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

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Insect Biodiversity and Evolution (ENT 432) – 2018 edition

It’s that time of year again! The fall 2018 semester has ended, and I have another ENT 432 immersion to macerate and digest. As posted here before (see my 2016 summary and 2017 reckoning), I like to make notes-to-self at the end of the semester, while the experience is still fresh in my memory. Most of these issues are also at GitHub albeit with a bit less introspection. Here goes …

Darts ☹️

Let’s start with a few things I need to improve. This list seems to get shorter every year, which is good!

  • Death by slideshow – It’s time to simplify the slideshows that accompany each lecture and get back to using the whiteboard. A couple times this semester I tried to shift into lecture and sketch mode, and I realized how much I rely on slides to (usually less effectively) convey the message for me. Even my handwriting has deteriorated over the years. Part of the problem has been the rooms assigned to my class in the past, which had but one whiteboard that was always covered, in part, by the screen. This year’s room, which was in the newly renovated Ag Engineering building, was a masterpiece, with 360º of whiteboard space. See the photo below. Action items: illustrate lectures with 4–8 slides max, and only then to provide inspiring images of natural history in action or of complex synapomorphies or diagnostic traits (no text!). Make these slides available at the course website.
  • Draw the phylogeny – I always ask my students on the final exam to illustrate the phylogeny of insects and then to map various traits, key opportunities, patterns of diversity, etc. that are further discussed in an essay. I have always provided the phylogeny, which is a slightly modified version of Misof et al. (2014), as a PDF handout on day one and open every lecture with it. The students know they will need to reconstruct it as part of the final – and maybe during their qualifying exam – so we discuss it frequently. Their strategy is often to regurgitate the tree, using mnemonics and other tricks, rather than to think critically about patterns of evolution, including alternative relationships and the evidence for them. This year we tried to draw the phylogeny on the whiteboard using our memories, and it was fun! See photo below. Action item: Open each lecture with freehand illustration of tree, and be sure to add a time scale. Jettison the PDF.
Photo of recently renovated classroom, where desks are ensconced in whiteboards. Students are working in small groups at each whiteboard - one at each wall - to draw the phylogeny from memory

ENT 432 students work in groups to reconstruct the timing and pattern of hexapod evolution. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for original

  • Provide iterative feedback – This course has a lot of moving parts, and I have tried various approaches to providing feedback to students on their collections, databases, field notebooks, etc. I want to make sure that their end products are substantial and contribute maximally to the greater research enterprise. I also don’t want students to get any nasty surprises when it comes to grading time. I tried requiring mid-semester collection checks in the past with mixed success, and this year we moved to a volunteer system – we’re hear to help when you need us! Action item: Require iterative checks (one each?) of collections, field notes and databases. Consider developing a simple rubric and grading these iterative checks.

Laurels 😊

  • The collections were great! I feel a bit like Goldilocks, after trying collections that were too large (stressed students out, resulted in poor preps) and too small (this is an advanced class and a core course for entomology grad students!) I finally found a formula that was just right. The preps were, by and large, immaculate, and the diversity of each collection was rich enough to keep me interested.
  • The discussions were great! I definitely want to replace a few of the papers, but the students seemed engaged and (often) inspired. (Note to admissions committee: keep admitting great students!)
  • The natural history exercises were great! After last year’s experience we developed a scavenger hunt of sorts – short experiences with insect natural history that students would record in their field notes. I also shortened the immersive experience from three to two hours, which I have mixed feelings about. Altogether I feel like the Discover your inner Darwin exercise is about where I want it.
  • I had a great TA! Adam perfectly complemented my skills and made up for my weaknesses. He was always there when students needed him and gave a great lecture on Coleoptera. Thanks, Adam!
small plastic bowl catching wasps in a sand dune. it is partially filled with soapy water

Pan trap in the “dunes” at Powdermill Nature Reserve. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for original

As usual, Powdermill Nature Reserve was a great place for a field trip – excellent facilities and a variety of interesting habitats. I highly recommend this venue and would love to team up with another course for a combined experience! I am open to any ideas, including teaming with a botany, mycology, vertebrate or other course where students strive to interact with nature. We always make gourmet meals, in case you need another incentive to share the experience with us … Send me an email!

students outside a wooden dorm or lodge, collecting insects at a sheet that hangs from rope. it is night time

Catching insects at the sheet. Powdermill Nature Reserve, Raven’s Roost. Photo by Andy Deans. Click for original

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