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Beetle blog

3 Posts tagged with the conservation tag

This is the first in a series of blogs about the Museum’s Biodiversity Initiative and its ambitious endeavour to research novel ways of describing insect species (though naturally our priority is beetles!) in tropical forests around the world. We endeavour to bring together DNA methods and traditional morphological taxonomy to help us make statements and answer questions on species richness and turnover, diversity and distribution as well as simply increasing our knowledge of the incredible (and seemingly infinite) diversity of species in the world’s most threatened of habitats, primary tropical forest.


Project assistant Julien Haran unwittingly demonstrating the scale of the forest in Santa Fe National Park.


As fieldwork and collections co-ordinator for the Panama project I had to make sure that any fieldwork we undertook was approved and regulated by the relevant authorities. As one of the world’s foremost institutions in natural history, we are governed by a strict code of practice and adhere to international regulations on Access and Benefit Sharing and the Convention on Biodiversity.


In order to fulfil our obligations to the countries and institutions we collaborate with, a permit will be agreed upon setting out the conditions and commitments we must abide by in order to collect insect specimens for scientific research.


On our collecting trip to Panama in March and April 2014 we were fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with the University of Panama, and Panama Wildlife Conservation - without their assistance this project would not have been possible.


Fast-forward four months and today is an exciting day. Finally, after months of tense negotiations with international couriers, many phones calls, texts and emails flying between Panama and the UK, we are finally expecting a very large package of carefully preserved insects…Those long minutes spent on hold to our excellent couriers listening to 'Aint no river wide enough' - on a loop, paid off...



The very wide and deep river we crossed everyday to get to our field site. Foreground, Luis Ureña, one of the project leaders in Panama and background, Julien Haran, with hopefully dry underpants!


So, this is a backwards way of introducing a major project on beetle genetics and Natural History Museum collections development but most importantly a very big thank you to all the amazing people and organisations that helped us realise this project.


In particular we want to thank Vayron De Gracia & Bernardo Peña who we kind of left behind in the field in Santa Fe NP once our three weeks of collecting were over! As part of our commitment to collaboration with Panama, it was important to us to exchange expertise and knowledge; essentially capacity build. Our intention was to collect in the dry and rainy season which meant being in the field for at least 2 months (my tolerance for roughing it extends to three weeks maximum!) and also there is always a financial constriction on how much time we can spend in the field.



Vayron de Gracia with a fancy lizard (photo bomb Julien Haran!).



A somewhat nervous looking team we are about to leave behind to continue collecting. From left to right: Vayron Cheffin's Father, Bernardo, Julien, Cheffin, Senior Pastor; and most importantly, the faithful Rosinante!


It was an ideal situation to find two excellent, willing and able biology students from the University of Panama; eager to accompany us on this trip into the darkest interior of Santa Fe National Park to a locality previously never collected for insects before.



Learning all about yellow pan traps.


Vayron and Bernardo didn’t seem to mind living in a chicken pen and eating SPAM for weeks at a time (more on that in later instalments!) so they proved the ideal field companions! We trained them in biological recording techniques and beetle family identification which helped them to put the theory learned on their university course to practical use in the field. When we left (just on the edge of the dry season) Vyron and Bernardo stayed on for another five weeks to continue collecting using the methods they had learned from us.



Here's home for eight weeks!


lunch-image_jpeg700.jpg'Lunch' on the go - combining beetle-sorting and lunch.



Arguably a more sanitary lunch break in the field with one of the project leaders, Eric Flores (left foreground).



Learning how to process insect samples in the field (no sign of lunch!).

Here is what they have to say about their experience working on a Natural History Museum fieldwork expedition (all good of course!)


And thank you Vayron and Bernardo; we can’t wait to start working on the specimens and finding out more about the beetle biodiversity of the beautiful country that is Panama!


Report on the training of Panamanian field assistants

By Vayron De Gracia & Bernardo Peña


The collecting of insects developed in the Santa Fe National Park, allowed us for the first time to learn about collecting methods and about the traps used to capture insects in tropical forests. This was the first time we worked with these type of traps, in understory (FIT and Malaise), upper canopy (SLAM), on the ground (Pitfall) and Winkler traps (leaf litter); and the Yellow pan traps at ground level to capture other orders of insects such as Hymenoptera.


As undergraduate biology students at the University in Panama, we have only been taught about trapping for aquatic insects. Another important aspect was the way the traps were deployed on a plot by plot grid system that can be used in any tropical forest anywhere in the world, not just Panama. We did not know about this methodology to capture insects, in summary this was all new knowledge for us.


Julien, Bernardo and Vayron light trapping, with fierce competition from the moon!

This is the first Project of its kind in Santa Fe National Park (SFNP) and it has been an exciting experience to be part of it from the very beginning and to witness how traps need to be deployed -  the organization and methodology used in the field with experts from the Natural History Museum. Moreover, the data generated as a result of this study will be new for the SFNP and for Panama regarding the entomological fauna.


When Google maps go wrong - our plot design; co-ordinates for Santa Fe.


Now we have the capacity to transfer the information to other people on how to conduct insect collecting and to collaborate with other scientist in the future. It was also valuable to deal with the traps and collecting in the following months after the team from the Natural History Museum departed. For example, the harsh climatic conditions, some landslides near the path to the plots, and the damage to the SLAM traps.


On one day of normal field collection, we left the Isleta camp to empty our traps and we were astonished to find the SLAM traps of Plot 1 had some holes in the sheet, and the plastic pots were perforated (see pics). Our first guess was that the guilty guys were crickets and woodpeckers! We were really worried because we were alone in the field and had to solve the problem in situ, after all we were in charge of collecting in the field. Masking tape was the temporary solution to the damage of the traps and luckily it worked out until the end of the dry season sampling in Santa Fe.







Electrical tape saves the day!

Funny note:

Frequently communication was a barrier from the beginning since our level of English was really poor. However there were always funny moments and anecdotes. For example “Chefin” our field guide use to say “Hay cantidad” (There is a lot) of anything he thought could be important for us. At the end this phrase was learnt by Julien Haran who one day working toward the plot claimed: “Hay cantidad”, referring to many cockroaches wandering on the leaf litter…


Exploding the myth

Posted by Blaps Mar 29, 2011

As entomologists it is not only taxonomy that we are concerned with; we collect and study beetles in order to give a name to a species, so that conservationists, ecologists, even policy makers, can make decisions that hopefully will benefit the environment and the little creatures that live within and depend upon it.

However, we practice a different kind of insect conservation here in the Museum, a very specific specimen level conservation which ensures that the specimens we care for (and many of these are over 200 years old) remain readily available to science, to inform the very things mentioned above.


This week let’s look at verdigris. Not the kind of lovely blue-green patina found on Greek statues or the copper paint used to illuminate ancient manuscripts, rather the copper alloy of some entomological pins, which when exposed to the fats and lipids found in an insects’ body (as well as the gases found within an insect drawer), react to cause a ‘filamentous explosion’ of the alloy, and can ultimately destroy the body of an insect.


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Some Cerambycidae affected by verdigris - note the specimen in the centre whose wing is becoming disslocated from the body


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Here is what you don't want to happen - ever! Fifteen years of verdigris growth (specimens retained for demonstration purposes, courtesy of Malcolm Kerley)



So what is verdigris? The name verdigris originates from the Old French word verte-grez, an alteration of vert-de-Grèce (green of Greece), since it was used by Greek artists as a pigment for painting and other artistic crafting.


Here is the chemistry bit:

Verdigris is a green pigment which forms when copper, brass (copper and zinc) or bronze (copper and tin) is exposed to air, seawater or organic substances such as insect lipids over a period of time. Verdigris is primary a copper salt that is commonly found as carbonate, but it also can be found as a chloride (i.e. if sea water is present) and as an acetate (i.e. if acetic acid is present); and less commonly as a formate, hydroxide and sulphate. Secondary components of verdigris are various other metallic salts, organic and inorganic acids, gases and water. All the components are in an ever-changing and extremely sophisticated chemical equilibrium which depends on the environment.



Historically entomological pins were not made of the robust and non-corroding stainless steel we use today. They may have been made from various alloys, including copper, which at the time, would not have been recognised as potentially causing harm to the specimen. This is one of the major pitfalls of caring for an historical collection. With over 9,000,000 specimens, we could spend our lifetimes (and we do) conserving and curating!

We keep our collection in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, but verdigris can still occur, and decades ago, when we didn’t know as much about collections care, specimens may have been kept in an environment conducive to verdigris forming.

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Pins affected by verdigris (specimens removed - obviously!)


One of our curators, Malcolm Kerley, has indeed decades of experience of caring for historical collections. Here he is giving a demonstration on specimen repair to some MSc Students from Imperial College   

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With all our combined experience and knowledge we gave a demonstration at the last Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) conference at The Great North Museum in Newcastle to fellow curators and museum / academic professionals on how to repair specimens.


My colleague Alessandro Giusti, who is a Lepidoptera curator and I showed the various ways specimens can be extricated from their damaged pins and re-pinned onto a shining new stainless steel pin which should survive for another 200 years!


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Alessandro demonstrated the amazing specimen exploding machine (or more sensibly put, ‘the de-pinning machine’) which essentially involves passing an electrical current through the pin, which heats up, in turn melting some of the dried fats from within the specimen. This is actually a safe method of removing Lepidoptera from pins, as other methods could damage the body, and more importantly the scales. (It has been known for the specimen to ‘explode’ when the current gets a bit too racy, but of course, that has never happened to us!)


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Here we have the 'Heath-Robinson' of all de-pinning machines.. the NHM, cutting edge science at its most dynamic...


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A typical example of how verdigris affects Lepidoptera



I demonstrated the dry and wet methods of removing beetles from corroded pins. The wet method involves soaking the specimen in heated distilled water for a few minutes (approx. 60-70°C) until it is softened enough to be slipped from the pin.

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A beetle suspended by a plastazote float in distilled water.


Re-pinning involves allowing the specimen to dry thoroughly and then using a thicker pin than the one previously removed to be placed in the same hole. The labels are placed on the pin in the same order and a further label is added to the specimen to record the conservation measure, as well as recording this on our database.

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Here we both are demonstrating to our enthralled audience(!) Notice complimentary butterfly blouse as modelled by me!


We often retain our historical pins  as believe it or not they can tell us a lot about a specimen / collection, for example, certain collectors only used a certain type of pin (Sir Joseph Bank’s Collection used immaculate (and probably very expensive) pins with hand spun heads which today still retain their original condition!


For more information our protocol on Verdigris specimen repair will soon be made available on the NatSCA website.



Beetles; Czech!

Posted by Blaps Mar 13, 2011

Hello Beetlers,


It's been  a while, but things have been very busy in the Coleoptera section this month, and this is because we have all been occupied by getting ready for the big event that is the Prague Insect Fair! (Please see deliberate pun in title, courtesy of Max Barclay).

Yes, that's right, a whole weekend in March dedicated to insects; and if that's not enough, the good entomologists of Europe and beyond, do it all again in October!

This is a really important time for our department and it's been all hands on deck to prepare beetle specimens ready for transport to the Czech Republic.

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Here are a number of entomologists getting excited about insects...


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And here are some more entomologists - this time really excited...

Where to begin? Well, our over-arching aim in the Coleoptera section is to improve the quality of the collection, in terms of identifed specimens, specimens made available for research, and a far reaching geographical spread of species that supports not only the taxonomic research community but also the ecological and conservation community; essentially our specimens can help inform conservation practice throughout the world - and Prague provides the platform for this to occur.


So this month we have contacted all our colleagues throughout Europe to see if they will be attending the fair, and if there are any specimens from our collection they would like to see - this is our loans system, which facilitates world-wide research in to the specimens held in the NHM's collections. Our colleagues put in a request and we 'process' the loan - yes, it has kind of felt like a very long beetle production line this month. The specimens are exchanged in Prague, along with a few beers and some fascinating exchanges on all things Coleoptera no doubt!



The other job is to prepare all our specimens collected on fieldwork trips for transit, in order that they can be mounted, or identifed by some of the most proficient experts in Europe and the World.

It's not an easy job to carry thousands of insects abroad, so we recruit a number of 'carriers' to get our insect stash out of the country, along with a couple of responsible (?!) members of staff.



Here's some interesting statistics yielded from last October's Insect Fair (too soon for this year's results):

Loans for 34 people (56 boxes) were carried to Prague and we returned with 41 people's pre-existing loans in 62 boxes; this meant we met with and exchanged loans with 58 people from 14 countries!


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Here's Max signing off a loan for some expectant Coleopterists.


We returned with 92 boxes of newly mounted material (insects pinned or carded) which made up a whopping 18,428 specimens!

The total number of specimens identified for us by borrowers from our undetermined material was 2,170 and an additional 1,243 specimens were indentified from unprepared material by specialist mounters.
In total 3,413 NHM unidentified specimens were identified on this trip.
As good will it is the convention to exchange specimens between organisations as 'gifts' and so we received 16 specimens (mainly paratypes) and19 new Holotypes - how generous!.  We also received 226 new paratypes from previously unidentified NHM material.



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Here are a number of 'responsible' members of staff and highly respected scientists , with their 'carriers' from left to right:

Martin Brendell, Donald Quicke, Mike Morris, Howard Mendel, Fran Sconce and Max Barclay

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Entomology’s very own Spice Boys, rocking a ‘geek chic’ vibe, thanks to some cheeky accessories and some luxurious matching luggage (I wish I could take credit for such wit, but sadly I cannot. This is the work of the Entomology Department's inimitable PA Esther Murphy)

From left to right: David Oram, Max Barclay, Martin Brendell, Roger Booth, Mike Morris


The best is that the NHM benefitted by 208 new species names to the collection as a result of this trip!


Can't wait for October!


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Photo courtesy of Rafal Ruta
The Coleopterists have left the building!



Member since: Sep 15, 2009

I'm Beulah Garner, one of the curators of Coleoptera in the Entomology department. The Museum's collection of beetles is housed in 22,000 drawers, holding approximately 9,000,000 specimens. This little collection keeps us quite busy!

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