It's been a while but now things have quietened down there is some time to write and reflect on the past summer months that just flew by. Our two interns from Plymouth University, Lucia Chmurova and Lydia Smith , or 'Team LL' as they came to be affectionatley known, have left us, (oh boo hoo) to return to their studies; but there's no such thing as a free on the job taxonomic training internship, so I've asked them to write a few words on the past seven months spent learning this beetling game!
By means of introduction here is Lucia demonstrating the Coleoptera Section Health & Safety protocol:
And here is Lydia with Coleoptera section's pet chicken (actually it's not our pet; that would be completely AGAINST Health & Safety).
Here is what they have to say:
“Seven Scarab beetles vomited up by a Somali woman”!!
This is an example of some of the strange and wonderful things we came across while working in the Coleoptera and Hemiptera section and one of many memories I will have for years to come!
Lucia and I have both been in the privileged position to do our University placement-year in origins for the past 7months.
We were so excited when we found out we could come not only to THE Natural History Museum in London, but to the Bug and Beetle department that I spent the first couple of months feeling so overwhelmed and excited that I felt sick! The excitement has not gone away, but luckily the sick feeling has and fortunately for me there were no unexpected Scarabs involved!
We started off with a stint of slave labour making piles of unit trays and then moved onto mounting Peruvian dung beetles, family sorting, order sorting and beetle identification for a Silwood park project, cabinet expansion project (we counted over 22,000 drawers in the coleopteran collection), recuration of drawers, beetle measuring for Nigel, de-moulding, dissection, making labels for drawers and specimens, testing new traps on Bookham Common and we concluded our placement with mounting and family sorting incredibly beautiful Tanzanian specimens collected by a resident expert! We were made to feel so welcome from our first day at the museum and I am so grateful for the most amazing experience ever.
My favourite entomological story was one Max told us and one I asked him to repeat it on numerous occasions! It was about the missing wing case of a beetle belonging to NHM, but lost when the specimen was loaned to the Paris museum. The collector then donated his collection to the Paris museum and because they had the missing wing case at the time of donation they now have ownership of the wing case while the rest of the specimen lives in London!
I just want to write about some of the highlights; First of all I have been inspired by the sheer depth of knowledge held by the people I have met from both origins and from all other areas of the museum. People’s willingness to answer our many questions and to show us around their collections has been incredible and such a wonderful opportunity. We had the chance to visit the forensic lab, the fish, reptiles and amphibian storerooms, the British reference collection, the imaging lab, the historical books, the Arachnid, Mantid and Mollusc collections and to do a week each of field work with the Soil Biodiversity Group in the New Forest.
Herman’s herbarium books with a pressed frog and plant specimens – one of the oldest books in the museum.
It was really good going to Friday coffee mornings and meeting lots of people from the whole of entomology, I loved going to Nature Live talks and hearing about people’s work and their experiences from their field. Lucia and I also really liked our lunch breaks with Malcolm and his great plethora of hilarious stories.
BioBlitz: The Big Nature Count
We went to the BioBlitz in the museum gardens with Beulah and Roger and helped children sort through trays of compost looking for invertebrates with plastic spoons! I think they were far more impressed by the stag beetle Roger cleverly brought in with him though!
You can just make out the Stag beetle crawling up Roger’s Big Nature day T-shirt!
I was taught to dissect Phalacrids by Mr Richard Thompson on the training microscope. This is a couple of afternoons I will certainly never forget. I watched and listened intently to a man who is to me exactly what the museum is all about, passion, knowledge, dedication and expertise. He introduced me to the idea of making your own tools like bending over the tip of a pin to use as a miniature hook for removing structures form the abdomen and how to keep a beetle the size of a coma motionless while doing so. I saw how important it was to do dissections of these smaller groups when I discovered that the 3 beetles I thought were all one species turned out to be 2 different species. We carefully compared the diagrams in the keys with the structures we had removed and it was quite clear we had 2 species. I will never forget how excited and inspired I was after this experience!
Tanzanian specimen preparation
We spent a lot of time working with Toshi on Tanzanian specimens collected in this year. We helped to sort them from alcohol into orders and also mounted a vast number of them on pins, cards and points.
Here are some beetles that we mounted. You may recognise the Passalid beetles in the 3rd row down because one of them featured in Toshi’s video clip from the field in an earlier blog.
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I can only agree with Lydia and use the same word ‘privileged’ for being able to spend our placement in the Colepoptera Department of the museum. I actually remember my very first day in the museum very clearly and there are certain things that I will never forget. One - the swiping of my pass to get ‘behind the scenes’ and into Origins and ever since I have absolutely loved this very action of being allowed to get somewhere where others were not! It always made me smile when I could use my pass to enter the realm of the museum’s collections.
Two - I remember I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw rows and rows of metallic cabinets that hold one of the most important beetle collections in the world. When I stood at one end of the collection looking down to the other end, it seemed to me as if the cabinets went on forever and never stopped. I could not (and still can’t!) get my head around the sheer number of beetles these cabinets hold (it is believed that there are 10 million beetles!!!). I was just hoping and wishing that maybe one day we will be allowed to open any of the cabinets we wish and find out what they are hiding inside. This day came soon after we arrived at the museum and I think I have never felt more privileged than when I was given my own key to the cabinets of the beetle collection. “This means I can go there anytime and open any cabinet I like!” And I of course made use of this opportunity. Sometimes when I was bored or had to clear my head after working for hours, I just popped down to the collection, opened a few random cabinets and just browsed through the drawers. It made me feel kind of calmer. However, now I am not sure if it was looking at the beetles or the amounts of alcohol or mercury that you breathe in from historical collections that made me feel so calm!
Three - when I first came up to the top floor of Origins I instantly loved it. The picture of the beetle poster on the wall and the view of the long straight corridor is perhaps the most vivid picture that stayed in my mind.
Four, the horrid smell of alcohol-infused dung beetles! I will definitely never forget when Max put a big bag full of dung beetles in smelly, sticky, brown alcohol in front of us and said that now we will learn how to mount beetles. However, as we started to dry the beetles out and uncover beautiful metallic colours, we quickly stopped paying attention to the smell. That smell actually stayed on my fingers for a few days even after we finished mounting them!
Five, the day when I first saw mounted beetles on boards. When I saw those beetles surrounded by 10s of pins, I honestly thought that someone was just really bored (and creative) and pinned the pins around the beetles as a joke. Soon I realised that it was no joke and board pinning became one of my favourite activities I did in the museum.
Six - the historical collections. My placement project included one part where I needed to compare the way beetles were mounted in the past to the conventional way it is done today. Just the very fact that some of the beetles in the historical collections are more than 250 years old is breathtaking. Working with them always made me think about the old naturalists and I wished I could teleport to those times and go collecting and exploring with them! I would have to dress as a boy though to be accepted on board as in those days the term woman-entomologist did not exist! My absolute favourites were dissected beetles mounted by Sharp. I remember how impressed Lydia and I were when Max recognised Sharp’s hand writing on a label in a drawer full of other beetles.
Seven – everyone that works in the Department. I will certainly never forget people I worked with in the museum .With this last point Lydia and I would like to thank everyone for making our placement one of the greatest experiences we have ever had. We have learnt so much and met amazing and interesting people. Special thanks goes to Max Barclay for accepting us as the first placement students, for looking after us all the time and making us feel like we belong there, and for giving us priceless experiences and references. Thank you everyone, we hope we will see you all soon.
Lucia and Lydia.
(No one except us will know that these figures were from L&L's leaving cards, which they have creatively interpeted!) B