Collection assessment!

CAP logo

We are very excited to announce our participation in the 2018 Collections Assessment for Preservation (CAP) program! The orientation materials even include a press release for us to use, which is pretty helpful (and it’s where I ripped off most of the text below). We’ll post more details as the process unfolds, but here’s the gist:

CAP helps museums improve the care of their collections by providing support for a conservation assessment of the museum’s collections and buildings. The museum will work with a team of preservation professionals to identify preventive conservation priorities. The final assessment report will help the museum prioritize its collections care efforts in the coming years.

I’m supposed to insert a quote from the director, me, here regarding the Frost Entomological Museum’s goals and/or how CAP fits into our greater strategic plan. Let me just say (ahem, write) that we take conservation very seriously. Part of our mission, in fact, is to “… preserve in perpetuity the collections of the Department of Entomology at Penn State and its partners”. Our NSF CSBR grant helped us take a GIANT leap towards that goal, with new storage units, as did my participation in the ECN’s collection management workshop in 2016. The latter experience really encouraged me to finalize our collections management policy document and our collections procedures (see “policies” link in menu above). More below from the press release:

“Simply by applying for the CAP program, the Frost Entomological Museum has shown a commitment to preserving cultural heritage,” said Tiffani Emig, Programs Director for FAIC. [And presumably natural history; we don’t have much in the way of “cultural” objects –ARD]

The CAP program is administered by FAIC through a cooperative agreement with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal grant making agency that supports museums and libraries.

About FAIC

FAIC, the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, supports conservation education, research, and outreach activities that increase understanding of our global cultural heritage. Learn more about FAIC at 

About IMLS

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and approximately 35,000 museums. Our mission is to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement. Our grant making, policy development, and research help libraries and museums deliver valuable services that make it possible for communities and individuals to thrive. To learn more, visit and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram .

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Cleptes purpuratus – a new species and subfamily for the Frost collection

After I’ve spent a few days in front of a computer working on presentations or papers, I need to see a real insect. That can be difficult during the winter when few insects are active outdoors in Pennsylvania, so the next best thing is looking through samples that I or others in the lab have collected in years past. There’s also something relaxing about sorting through samples, a zen-like quality that can come over you as your poke around and look at all of the different insects that can help reset your psyche after monotonous or stressful work.

With this in mind, a few weeks ago I was looking through yellow pan traps that Carolyn had collected in Wasatch County, Utah in July 2016. I pulled out some ants and other groups that are of interest to me that aren’t well represnted in the Frost Museum collection, at least in terms of species from the Western US. Then I saw it, a strange-looking wasp that I couldn’t immediately identify to family. Considering that’s that Penn State pays me for (insect ID), the times I can’t identify an insect to a gross level like family are not especially common and always a time for excitement. I had some ideas, perhaps a cockroach wasp (Ampulicidae) or something similar, but would have to curate the specimen and examine it using a better microscope.

Lateral view of mystery wasp, which was eventually identified as Cleptes purpuratus.

Under higher magnification, I could tell immediately this wasn’t a cockroach wasp. The mandibles and overall look weren’t right. But I still didn’t know what it was. However, turning the specimen around and examining the wings gave a clue. The wing veination indicated the was was some kind of chrysidoid.

Cleptes purpuratus, dorsal view. Wing veins outlined in red on right.

Five of the seven extant families that comprise Chrysidoidea are present in North America: Bethylidae, Chrysididae, Dryinidae, Embolemidae, and Sclerogibbidae. Embolemidae and Sclerogibbidae are species-poor families that are rarely collected and don’t look like the mystery wasp. Dryinidae look more similar, but most females have chelate (i.e., pincer-like) foretarsi, which this specimen lacks; they also have 10-segmented antennae, while  this specimen has antennae with 13 segments.  Bethylidae can have 13-segmented antennae and are diverse in North America (~200 species), but have elongate heads and are often ant-like in appearance. They also have 6 or 7 visible abdominal segments, while this specimen only has 5.

The only family left is Chrysididae, the cuckoo wasps. The chrysidids that most people are familiar with are metallic green with coarse sculpturing and can roll into a ball due to the underside of the abdomen being concave. These chrysidids belong to the nomative subfamily, Chrysidinae.

Chrysidinae cuckoo wasp, which is the group most people are familiar with. Photo by Wasrts, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons,

However, there are two other chrysidid subfamilies, Amiseginae and Cleptinae, which are not often collected. I’d collected a species of Amiseginae in Arkansas (Amisega kahlii, which parasitizes stick insect eggs) and knew it wasn’t that subfamily, but had never seen a cleptine chrysidid before. Could it be Cleptinae?

Head of Cleptes purpuratus specimen. The sulcus (groove) down the middle is an important character that separates Cleptinae from Amiseginae.

Luckily, a few years ago I bought a copy of Bohart and Kiimsey’s (1982) “Synopsis of Chrysididae in America North of Mexico”, which has keys to the subfamilies and species of cuckoo wasps in North America, as well as distribution and biological information. Working through the keys, I found that yes, this is indeed a cleptine, specifically Cleptes purpuratus. The species is known from California, Nevada, and western Utah, so while this specimen was collected a bit east of the known range of the species, it’s within reason. They parasitize species of Neodiprion , which are sawflies that feed on pines and other conifers.

All-in-all, a really neat beast that is a new species and subfamily for the Frost collection and me personally.

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Happy 209th Birthday, Darwin!

Charles Darwin was born on February 12th, 1809. Last year, I had the pleasure of taking a class taught by Benoît Dayrat focused solely on reading and discussion Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, which I would like to discuss today in honor of Charles Darwin on his birthday.

Darwin is most famous for his theory of descent with modification, but he also had early ideas about kin selection, where natural selection favors behavior by individuals that may decrease their chance of survival but increase that of their kin (who share a proportion of their genes). Though he was one of the greatest scientific thinkers of the 19th century, he was limited by the scientific knowledge available to him in his day; he wasn’t aware of continental drift, and thought that all species spread by migration only.

A statue of a young Charles Darwin, which stands at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in NY. Photo by Nathan Siemers (CC BY-SA 2.0). Click for source.

Darwin anticipated that his book would not be well received. He thought very carefully about how to overcome this, developing his ideas and collecting data for over 23 years. In his writing, he presents both well-known facts and data from his own experiments to prove his points, but he goes much further than this.

He crafts his writing to build a convincing argument that relies on logic and reason as well as fact. He introduces his ideas very slowly, and repeats them over and over so that the audience can become accustomed to them and understand them fully. In some cases, he asks questions and then accompanies the audience along a logical trail of thought until they come to the same conclusions themselves.

Darwin anticipates the weaknesses in his theory. He presents these weaknesses as “grave difficulties” to his audience, but this is often an exaggeration; after presenting each “grave difficulty”, he then explores the issue in detail, taking it apart piece by piece and showing how the “difficulty” actually fits into his theory of descent with modification. Oftentimes, he is even able to show that the issue at hand can only be explained by descent with modification. By the end, they are hardly “grave difficulties” at all, but arguments proving his point.

An illustration of a bat from Charles Darwin’s “Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, 1839–43, vol. 1, Mammalia”. Image from APS Museum (CC BY-NC 2.0). Click for source.

Darwin takes every opportunity to attack independent creation, spending a large portion of one chapter dismantling the idea that an eye is a perfect structure that could only have been created by divine means. He compares the eye to a microscope— though it may seem to work perfectly, it was not created in a single day. Instead, it was the result of many modifications to a structure over the course of several years. In another section, Darwin points out that bats are the only native mammals found on marine islands, and asks why a divine being would only create bats there and no other mammals. He says that this is clearly not the product of divine influence, but the result of migration; bats can migrate to places other mammals can’t.

Darwin thought that we should not marvel at the perfection of nature because there is no perfection in nature (he asks that if nature was perfect, then why would a bee die after stinging?). The reason there is no perfection in nature is because all organisms are a product of their history, not perfect creation.

Darwin believed that a species was just a variety that became more distinct over time. If Darwin were alive today, he would say that it is impossible to discover species because they are undiscoverable; the term “species” is arbitrary. We should not focus on what the qualities or essence of a “species” is; instead, we should wonder about its history.

An illustration from the The Boy’s Own Paper, 1892, showing several varieties of fancy pigeons. Charles Darwin bred pigeons himself, and discusses them several time in his “On the Origin of Species”. Image by seriykotik1970 (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

The class I took on Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was an enlightening experience for all involved. Other students in the class were impressed by the sheer amount of experiments Darwin did and data he amassed over 23 years. Many of his experiments involved pigeons, which we joked were Darwin’s favorite, though there was one memorable experiment in which he tested if snails could travel to other ponds by clinging to the legs of waterfowl. Darwin tested this by suspending a disembodied duck leg in a fish tank full of snails.

Personally, I was impressed by his rhetoric and the eloquence of his writing. Darwin’s mastery of the English language is extraordinary, and his skill as a science communicator is something that needs to be acknowledged more. He put an incredible amount of thought into every word he wrote. A perfect example of this is in the ending: the last word of the book is “evolved”. It is the first time that this word is mentioned in the entire book, and it is the word he chose to end it on.

Special thanks to Benoît Dayrat for teaching me about Charles Darwin!

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Learning about life from dead insects: What morphology can teach us about a new species of wasp from Costa Rica

How much can you tell about a wasp’s life when all you have are dead specimens that are over 30 years old and smaller than a grain of rice?

If you have a morphologist and a good microscope, you can actually tell a lot.

When we took a look at four tiny wasps collected in Costa Rica in 1985, we knew immediately that we were dealing with a new species. It was clear that the species belonged to the genus Dendrocerus based on the dark patch on its wing, called a pterostigma, and the numerous long branches of the male antennae.

However, we didn’t know of any Dendrocerus, or any wasp in the superfamily Ceraphronoidea, that had a row of mesoscutellar spines, shown with an arrow in the picture below.

Dendrocerus scutellaris male, with an arrow pointing to the mesoscutellar spines. The male also has elaborate branched antennae that could be used for finding mates. Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

What could these mesoscutellar spines be used for?

Like many wasps, ceraphronoids are parasitoids, meaning that their larvae feed on a live host insect. Some are endoparasitoids, which lay their eggs inside a live insect so that the larvae can eat it from the inside out. After they’re done feeding, endoparasitoid larvae may stay inside their hosts body to complete their development. Once they are mature, the adult wasps will then push or chew their way out.

A. Dendrocerus scutellaris female, with a black arrow pointing to the mesoscutellar spines. The female does not have branched antennae like the male. B. Closeup of the mesoscutellar spines. Photo by Carolyn Trietsch (CC BY 2.0). Click for source.

Dendrocerus scutellaris is the only known ceraphronoid with a series of mesoscutellar spines, but this is not the only feature that sets it apart: whereas other ceraphronoids have pointed mandibles, D. scutellaris has blunt, flattened mandibles. With its blunted mandibles, D. scutellaris cannot chew its way out of a host.

This may be why the wasps have these spines; while emerging from their host, the wasps may rub the spines against the host’s body to help break or saw their way out. Similar structures have been found in other insects, including Hymenoptera and Lepidoptera.

For more about these wasps, check out our new publication:

Trietsch C, Mikó I, Notton D, Deans A (2018) Unique extrication structure in a new megaspilid, Dendrocerus scutellaris Trietsch & Mikó (Hymenoptera: Megaspilidae). Biodiversity Data Journal 6: e22676.

This material is based upon work supported by the U. S. National Science Foundation, under Grant Numbers DBI-1356381 and DEB-1353252. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Introductory Entomology Instructional Kit

In an old cabinet near the collection room, in a lab that used to be where most entomology classes were taught, reside several sets of long-forgotten 35 mm slides and cassettes.

4 upright boxes, each containing a 35mm slide carousel

Slides from the Introductory Entomology Instructional Kit, produced by the Entomological Society of America and Brigham Young University. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

I mostly ignored them since coming to Penn State, as they weren’t part of the Frost or my lab’s legacy. However, it’s clear now that they’ve been abandoned and are ripe for exploration and repurposing. I was intrigued by the names on the boxes—Carpenter, Wilson, Gilbert, Locke, Metcalf …

old skool cassette tape

Cassette tape of a Robert Metcalf lecture on insect control, part of the Entomological Society of America and BYU’s Introductory Entomology Instructional Kit. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

These are GIANTS of entomology! With a bit of digging, I figured out that we had in our possession almost two complete sets of educational materials, developed by the Entomological Society of America and Brigham Young University. The Introductory Entomology Instructional Kit was published in 1973 and cost $300 (about $1,700 in today’s money). I am dying to listen to these cassettes while working my way through the slideshows. They’re clearly outdated, but to hear the voices of these famous entomologists and to get a sense of state of entomology around the time I was born … Well, it would be amazing.

We flirted with the idea of transferring these materials to digital formats—scan the slides, transfer cassette audio to mp3, and maybe put them on YouTube if we could get permission—but that would be a lot of work, and I fear for the state of these cassettes. I haven’t tested one yet (I don’t even have a tape player anymore!), but my understanding is that magnetic tape is not archival. The life span can be as short as 10–20 years, even under ideal environmental conditions. I suspect these cassettes were played extensively in the years following 1973, and the cabinet they’ve been stored in has weathered many unfortunate events (e.g., extreme humidity from repeated flooding). If I try to play one will it fall apart?

We also thought about incorporating the slides into our exhibits somehow, probably as a back-lit, stand alone window treatment:

35mm slides against a window. the slides show insects and text about insect classification

Slides from the Introductory Entomology Instructional Kit. Could we use them in an exhibit? Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

35 mm slide, held between thumb and forefinger, of E. O. Wilson at a lab bench

Photo of E. O. Wilson, who narrates the “Social Insects” portion of the Introductory Entomology Instructional Kit. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

Of course we’d want to do this in a way that protects these slides from degradation, and we’re still researching this. I wonder if ESA and BYU have the original recordings and photos in their archives. Do any of you readers have these kits?

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