Net-winged beetle (Coleoptera: Lycidae) glued to oversized point and pinned with sewing needle, both of which are non good insect specimen preparation practices. Photo by Andy Deans (CC BY 2.0).
How not to pin a specimen, or: how I learned hundreds of entomological lessons by re-curating the PSUC teaching collection. I’ve written about our teaching collection several times already (see posts 1, 2, and 3). Now that I am nearing the end of my effort to inventory and re-house these specimens it’s time to provide my insights and a plea for new specimens.
First, here is the spreadsheet of families I cover in my Insect Biodiversity and Evolution (ENT 432) course. This spreadsheet also accounts for which specimens we have in our teaching collection and which we ones we need badly. I will pursue all leads, so let me know if you can help! We’re happy to offer specimens or other favors in return! Here are a few lessons:
Lesson 1: All entomologists should receive training in how to prepare a specimen. Seems obvious, right? There were so many bad specimen preps in this collection that I was openly and vigorously weeping. See the lycid specimen in the above image: no labels, HUGE point, sewing needle, excessive glue, etc. (On a related note, Hancock et al. (2011) offer a fascinating read about pins, proper and otherwise, in entomology.) Maybe that’s par for the course in a teaching collection, but it shouldn’t be. My mission is now to make sure that no specimens are wasted, that there are no inadequate preparations. Solution: update our specimen preparation SOPs (dried insects, Odonata, wet specimens, slide mounting) and generate a comprehensive list of suggestions for different taxa. We will also reject all donations of substandard specimens (unless ultra rare, of course).
Lesson 2: All entomologists need to be informed about curatorial issues. For example, we have a mix of USNM, Cornell, and <some yet-to-be-determined> storage standards right now in our collections. The vast majority of our cabinets/drawers/unit trays are USNM. But the 8% or so that are different … well, it’s like someone threw a giant monkey wrench into our plans to reorganize the collections. Solution: We standardized all teaching materials on the Cornell system and all research materials on USNM. The third standard is being discarded. It’s a huge, time- and resource-wasting effort that could’ve been avoided had people been aware of these issues. I’m also developing an exercise for future ENT 432 students; they will each be responsible for re-curating designated drawers in the teaching collection and reporting back at the end of the semester.
Lesson 3: Teaching collections should be assembled with input from systematists to prevent high value specimens from being exposed to unstable conditions. There were at least 12 drawers of material—about 17% of all specimens—that were inappropriate for a collection that is frequently handled by inexperienced hands and, at least historically, neglected by collection managers. A few examples:
I found two blues (Lycaenidae) from Burma, collected in 1955. They look similar to local lycaenids and so offer little information to an ENT 432 student. It’s also very difficult to collect in Burma! These specimens belong int he research collection.
This stunning warty leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae: Cryptocephalinae: Fulcidacini) from Brazil is unlike anything we’d see in PA, at least in terms of scale and color. Given its age and exoticness I think it should be housed in the research collection.
A small series of Twelve-spotted Asparagus beetles (Chrysomelidae: Crioceris duodecimpunctata), collected in 1919. It’s a common species, and these are old specimens. They’ve probably served Penn State’s entomology students for almost a century! Time to retire them—and all the other specimens I found from the early 1900s—to the research collection.
Solution: All of this material was removed, freeze-treated, and added to our research collection.
Lesson 4: Specimen breakage is, unfortunately, inevitable in a collection like this. Students usually enter this class with little to no specimen handling experience. I am surprised, however, at their overall resilience. As stated above, some of these specimens have been around for almost a century. Solution: Develop demonstrations for specimen handling best practices and crack down on irresponsible handling. The curation exercise should also instill in these students a deep sense of respect for the collection. They’ll have to re-curate their drawers after the lab(s), which, in my experience, can be quite messy.