Hello beetlers, (and a special 'Ajoh' to our Czech counterparts!)
This week we ask, 'What's the point?' Not an existential question but rather, a special on the merits of 'pointing' beetle specimens.
We are lucky enough to have in our band of ardent coleopterists a young American lady who is expert at pointing beetles (the preferred American way of mounting dry beetle specimens, as oppsoed to card-mounting specimens), and has developed over trial and error a steamy method for one of the more challenging aspects of beetle mounting.
Here is Hillery Warner, our specimen preparator in action:
So ever wondered what you might do with that vegetable steamer that you bought on a whim whilst on a health kick; and now it sits gathering dust on top of a kitchen cupboard. Here's your answer: STEAM BEETLES!
We have a specially adapted appliance for this very job with its own beetle setting (10 mins for beetles; 20 mins for an egg!)
Beetles with their chitinous exoskeleton are extremely tough and so often times, especially with historic specimens that have not been treated to a professional mount, they require 'relaxing'. Relaxing the beetle means that its component parts (in particular antennae and legs) can be moved into a position that is both conducive for the safe prolonged care and storage of the specimen as well as making available and visible the most important identifying features of the specimen.
Currently we have a collection of beetles from Brazil, that has never been mounted. This material is over 60 years old and has been stored in the original packing it was transported in, which are these rather lovely triangular packages. They look charming, but in fact once opened we find very dry beetle specimens further entrapped in cotton wool! If we were to handle them at this dry brittle stage, we would only damage them, as bits that are trapped in the cotton wool would just break off.
Specimens collected around 1961/1962 from Brazil, so far most have been from around Guanabara Bay.
Brazil adheres to the the Convention on Biological Diversity regulations regarding the collecting of biological property. For more information on this follwing this link:
And for more on the Museum's collection and how it adheres to regualtions set out by the Brazilian government follow this link:
In order to mount them safely with minimum damage, we give them a good steam!
Above are some specimens undergoing the steaming process, which usually takes about ten minutes per batch, but this does depend on the size of the beetle. Once the steaming begins the specimens give off a fragrant scent of Thymol (which is found in oil of Thyme...mmm!) and is used as an anti-fungal treatment. We take special care to keep the labels with the specimens at all times (a specimen is no good without its data!).
Once the specimens are flexible enough, the mounting begins. In Hillery's own words, this is why pointing is a good idea:
"… beetle filled mugs masquerading as tea, hot plates, vegetable steamers… oh the places I’ve been and the things I’ve done to relax beetles just to untangle them from cotton so I can then pin and dry them out again!!!
The point of mounting a specimen is to observe, study, and either identify or describe it. The point of a point is to allow you to do as much of this work as possible with minimal actual contact with the specimen (to avoid damaging it / destroying unique physical characters). You don’t want to waste lots of time boiling something off a card to find out that it’s something boring (common) if you don’t have to, but if you identify something on a point that turns out to be something exciting then you can card it for the added protection..."
Image Hillery Warner 2011.
Specimens are mounted on card points that are tipped with a tiny drop of organic glue. They are lined up on a plastazote block, heads all facing the same way and on their backs. The tip of the card has been slightly curved to accomodate the shape of the beetles' ventral surface. The card point is then positioned ideally between the middle and hind leg (see image above) t oallow for optimum visibility of all the beetles' features. Et Voila!
Beetles 'relaxed' and ready for pointing
Card point attaching to specimen
On average it takes about 3.5 minutes to make a point, point a specimen, and label it (minus label deciphering time which can be substantial!). Pinning takes a lot longer - more like 10 minutes per specimen (not counting drying time… or boiling). Currently Hillery's ballpark figure for the number of specimens already prepared are around 4,900 pointed specimens *OR* 1,730 pinned specimens in the last few months. This work is really valuable in improving the quality of the Museum's collection in terms of specimen care and accessibilty to the specimens from worldwide experts.
And to end on a steamy note, some previous beetles that were given the steamy treatment became overnight stars in the Museum's recent Sexual Nature exhibition. These weevils were caught (in the act) in the 1970's and remained in an... um, private place, until Hillery came across them; and was able to conserve them in such away as to record for prosterity that BEETLES MEANS LOVE!
Thanks to Hillery Warner for providing information and some images. Katie Bermingham and Stephanie Unna have also worked on this beetle mounting project.