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Staph we did this summer

Posted by Blaps Nov 30, 2014

Emeline Favreau, our long-standing volunteer and recently graduated MRes in Biosystematics from Imperial College, London, and Josh Jenkins Shaw, also a long-standing volunteer and MSc Entomology student at Harper Adams share a little of what they did at the Museum this summer.

 

We have been quite busy this summer investigating the diversity of beetle infra-order Staphyliniformia. This is the group of Coleoptera whose popular members have short elytra (Staphylinidae), like the devil's coach horse. Using the same method as in the Biodiversity Initiative, we have used their DNA to unveil the evolutionary relationships between species.

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The Devil's coach horse, Ocypus Olens, Müller, 1764

 

The idea was to understand the evolution of this group, as scientists have yet to pin point the exact placement of some families in the tree of life, like Pselaphidae for example. If we identify the close relatives to the Pselaphinae, we would be able to understand how this family evolved from a common ancestor. How would this common ancestor look like? What would have been its preferred habitat? What would it have been eating? These are the questions we want to answer.

 

In the laboratory, we first get the DNA from Staphyliniformia specimens and we spend (quite a lot of) time on a computer to figure out their evolution from molecular data. We use algorithms that convert the DNA into meaningful data, which in turn is used to create the tree of life (see the recent research on all insects). And this is when Josh comes in, as a fantastic volunteer in the molecular lab and here at Origins:

 

“I'm Josh, a volunteer in the molecular systematics lab at the NHM but I have previously volunteered in the beetle collection during the summer of 2011. Now I'm bringing the two areas together to complement each other.

 

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Josh might be a little confused; this looks like the ladybird section; or is he just looking for out-groups?

 

This summer I've been working with MRes student Emeline Favreau trying to understand the phylogenetic and evolutionary relationships of the infra-order Staphyliniformia (that is the series that contains the Histeroids, Hydrophiloids and Staphylinoids - basically a lot of beetles - more than 74,000 described species!!)

 

Other than looking at DNA sequences on a computer and scratching my head a lot when faced with using odd computer programmes, I have been trying to identify specimens which have had their DNA sequenced already. Building phylogenetic trees is brilliant, but they only really make sense when the end points (nodes) have a name at the end! Identifying beetle specimens is often made much easier when you have a reference collection to hand, so it's rather fortuitous that the Coleoptera collection is two minutes' walk from where I've been based!

 

I also assisted Beulah with putting together a Staphylinid loan which mostly consisted of specimens belonging to the genus Bolitogyrus - a geographically interesting lineage, but they are also extremely cool looking!

 

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A collection drawer packed full of Bolitogyrus!

 

I recommend having a read/look at the photos in a recent taxonomic revision by Brunke & Solodovnikov:

 

A revision of the Neotropical species of Bolitogyrus Chevrolat, a geographically disjunct lineage of Staphylinini (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae)

 

This revision uses NHM specimens and also describes many new species. Some of the NHM specimens were collected over 100 years ago and form part of the BCA collection.

 

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Ladybirds getting in on the act once more! Emeline at last Christmas' Coleoptera party...Happy Christmas!

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Dr Livingstone I presume?

Posted by Blaps Oct 23, 2014

Max Barclay, collections manager for Coleoptera and Hitoshi Takano, leader of the Coleoptera section's Africa expeditions including extensive exploration of Tanzania and Zambia,  tell us about a very exciting find for us... Dr. Livingstone's beetles...

 

Livingstone on the Zambezi

 

David Livingstone returned to England a national hero in 1856 after becoming the first man to undertake a trans-continental journey from the port of Luanda on the Atlantic Coast of Angola to Quelimane in Mozambique where the Zambezi River meets the Indian Ocean. He published a book of his travels in 1857 titled Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa selling a remarkable 70,000 copies making him a very wealthy man. With the huge amount of public support behind him, he persuaded Lord Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister to finance an expedition to the Zambezi River to open it up as an ‘economic highway’ to allow cotton and sugar to be grown in large quantities on the floodplains of this river. Livingstone abhorred slavery and had hoped that it could be banished through legitimate commerce.

 

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Dr David Livingstone at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park

 

 

On the 10th March 1858, Livingstone set sail from Liverpool docks with his team which consisted of his brother Charles, naturalist and medical doctor John Kirk, geologist Richard Thornton (who came with a glowing recommendation by President of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison), artist and storekeeper Thomas Baines RA and engineer George Rae.

 

Within only a few months of arrival, the expedition was doomed. On his earlier voyage down the Zambezi, Livingstone was told about, but did not investigate, a set of rapids known as Cahora Bassa (in modern day Mozambique). This set of rapids made it impossible for any vessel to sail up the river even at full flood at the end of the rains. Despite this disappointment, he navigated a tributary of the Zambezi, the Shire River, and became the first Westerner to accurately document Lake Malawi.

The expedition was eventually recalled from London as the results could not justify the cost.

The major positives to come out of the expedition were the scientific specimens and observations made by Livingstone and his team.

 

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Hitoshi on the banks of the Zambezi at Ngonye Falls

 

The natural history specimens

 

There were large quantities of natural history specimens (plants, birds, mammals and reptiles) collected on this expedition. In the years following the return of the expedition (1864-1865), many lists and new species were published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. Heinrich Dohrn published on the mussels, George Robert Gray & John Edward Gray on birds/mammals/reptiles, Albert Gunther on reptiles/fish and Kirk on mammals (and birds in the journal IBIS). Many of these specimens are in the NHM.

It is interesting that there were no lists of insects published from this expedition despite the fact that in the very same year (1864), the insects collected by Captain John Hanning Speke on his pioneering trip to the Great Lakes of Africa were published by Frederick Smith of the BMNH.

Livingstone himself writes in the introduction of his book 'Narrative of and expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries' (1865) on p.11 that "the collections, being government property, have been forwarded to the British Museum and to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; and, should Dr. Kirk undertake their description, three or four years will be required for the purpose."

 

But where did the beetles go?

150 years after the 2nd Zambezi Expedition, two beetle specimens were known.kirkianus.JPG

Goliathus kirkianus Gray, 1864; Holotype BMNH 1864-10

This small number is remarkable when one considers that Livingstone’s was a major, government funded expedition at the height of the age of exploration and collecting. For comparison, Alfred Russel Wallace, during eight years in the Malay Archipelago (1854-1862), almost single-handedly collected more than 83,200 beetles, that is over 10,000 a year, and it is hard to spend a day in the collections without finding more of his material. Of course Wallace was not government funded, and collected at least in part in order to pay his expenses by selling his specimens through Stevens’ Auctions in London, a major Natural History auction house that was patronised by the collectors (and indeed the museums) of the world.

If we look at the two ‘known’ Livingstone specimens, the first, difficult to overlook because of its huge size and striking pattern, is a Goliath Beetle described as a new species in 1864 by G. R. Gray who states “Dr. Kirk has, on his return from the Zambesi, added to our knowledge a species of the genus Goliathus, which he obtained as long ago as November 1858 when he picked it up among the hills of Kebrabassa”. Kebrabassa is the same as Cahora Bassa, the site of the rapids that were to doom the whole expedition, and Kirk evidently stumbled across the beetle during the first year of the trip, and dutifully traipsed it around Africa for more than half a decade, bringing it to Gray soon after his return along with a motley collection of other curios. He was rewarded by a very swift description and a name in his honour; perhaps it was all a bit too swift, because Goliathus kirkianus was soon synonymised with the widespread Goliathus albosignatus Boheman, 1857, which had trumped it for priority by 7 years. The Holotype remains in the collection of the NHM, and bears the registration number ‘1864-10’. It was hoped that by following up this registration number in the immaculately written massive, longhand leather-bound registers held in the library, that we could learn more about what else came back from the expedition, but the register entry for ‘1864-10’ (‘presented by Dr. Kirk and collected by himself’) lists only 16 specimens – a motley selection of 11 leaf beetles (‘Cassida’ and ‘Haltica’), a hermit crab with a shell, a locust, an assassin bug, and two caterpillars in spirits! It doesn’t even mention the goliath beetle. It seems that Gray, perhaps in his haste and excitement at finding such a gem in a mixed bag of African oddments, skimped on the paperwork and failed to list the specimen. Of course, this raises the question of what else might have been put in the collection without being properly listed, and may still be lurking there. The registers are much easier to search through than 22,000 drawers of almost 10 million beetles.

This brings us to the second specimen, a common flower chafer Marmylida impressa, found by Hitoshi Takano in a drawer full of the same, common, species but distinguished by a small typewritten label next to it saying ‘specimen collected by Dr. Livingstone’. This label was apparently provided by a curator, probably former scarab curator Mick Bacchus in the 1960s or 1970s, to draw attention to the specimen’s interesting provenance. The specimen itself is labelled ‘Zambezi, Coll. By Dr. Livingstone’ and has a registration number ‘1924-176 E. Y. Western’. Western was a private collector, whose collection of some 10,000 unsorted beetles was presented to the Museum by his daughter after his death in 1924.

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Marmylida impressa (Goldfuss), 1805

That was the end of the story until, in 2014, curator Max Barclay was doing a routine inspection of some old boxes of unincorporated material. Every museum has unincorporated accessions, though in recent years we been systematically sorting, recurating, databasing and incorporating ours into the main collections, where the specimens are safe from pests and available to the world scientific community. After many years of concerted efforts in this direction, we are getting to the bottom of the barrel where old unincorporated accessions are concerned, and most of what is still in loose boxes has been picked over and judged to be of little interest by successive generations of curators. One particular box was identified as a priority for incorporation - not because it was ostensibly special material - it was 19th century specimens of common beetles with poor data and in relatively poor condition - but the box had warped and split, and posed an unacceptable risk to its contents.

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The original E.Y. Western store box in much need of curatorial care

While recurating the material a decapitated histerid beetle of the giant species Pactolinus gigas caught Max’s attention, initially because it needed to be repaired - until he noticed the label ‘Zambezi, Coll. By Dr. Livingstone’, identical to the one on the Marmylida flower chafer found in the main collection by Hitoshi. Looking at the side of the box Max saw the initials ‘EYW’ and realised that these few last dusty boxes were the remaining few residues of the 10,000 specimen collection donated by E. Y. Western, the rest of which had been incorporated in the 90 years since the collector’s death. Western was the same collector who had provided the Marmylida. Hastily Max went through the remaining half dozen boxes and found spread among them a total of 14 specimens of 9 species and three families, all labelled in exactly the same way. All were common African species. 

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Beetles from E.Y. Western's store box of beetles collected by Livingstone

Western’s collection in 1924 would have consisted of hundreds of boxes, and for nearly a century, most of the curators employed on the beetle section would have extracted, accession-labelled, and incorporated whatever they considered to be of interest. The Elateridae would have been processed by Christine von Hayek, the scarabs by Mick Bacchus, tenebrionids by Martin Brendell, melyrids and dermestids by Enid Peacock, staphylinids by Peter Hammond, chrysomelids by Sharon Shute, weevils by Sir Guy Marshall and Richard Thompson, water beetles by Balfour-Browne, coccinellids by Bob Pope - the gaps in the boxes read like a roll-call (maybe a rogue’s gallery) of curators and researchers of the past. What is left, by extension, is what was not considered to be of much interest by anyone, though it is apparent that they were all looking at it from a taxonomic rather than a historical point of view. In those days the modern curatorial practice of taking a box and emptying it, in order to reduce the number of boxes and systematically complete recuration and incorporation one collection after another, and then making a record of what you did, was not established.  Therefore, it seems likely that the 14 specimens remaining in the boxes were but a fraction of the Livingstone material possessed by Western. It was not held as a separate collection, but placed taxonomically across his series, so it seems likely that the vast majority of it has already been incorporated, but the logistics of searching for individual specimens in a whole collection without knowing what species they belong to makes looking for a needle in a haystack seem a matter of routine. We did experiment with picking common species likely to occur in Zambezi and then searching through the main series, and this revealed 4 specimens of the very common flower chafer Diplognatha gagates, but so far nothing else has been traced. Systematic databasing of the collection will no doubt eventually reveal everything, but this is a slow process and has only just begun.

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Max Barclay with the Livingstone beetles in the Waterhouse building of the  Natural History Museum

So, the interesting question is, how did Edward Young Western (1837-1924), a lawyer based in Craven Hill, Bayswater, come to have Livingstone collected materials, especially considering Livingstone’s belief that the specimens were ‘government property’? The most parsimonious explanation is that another member of the expedition had fewer scruples, or less financial security than Livingstone, and specimens were sold.  The registers show the Natural History Museum in 1862 purchased 9 Zambezi specimens at Steven’s Auctions from ‘Dr. Livingstone’s exhibition [sic]’. This is interesting because in 1862 Livingstone was still in Africa- it could be that someone was sending material back to Stevens for sale without the boss’s knowledge. There may have been other lots where the Museum did not bid, or was outbid, and possibly these, or some of these, were bought by Western for his private collection. 

Of course, if well looked-after, the life-span of an insect specimen is many times the life-span of a collector, so private collections like E.Y. Western’s usually come to museums, like rivers and streams ultimately flow into the sea. The clearing of accessions and unincorporated material, as well as widespread databasing and digitising of material in the collections, will no doubt continue to throw up surprises and treasures for years to come. Livingstone explored with maps, a bible and a gun, and a medicine chest, but today some of the last frontiers for exploration are the great Natural History Collections themselves. How much of Dr. Livingstone’s material remains to be discovered in such collections, we can only presume.

 

There has been some press coverage on the discovery of Livingstone’s beetles, including a brief BBC Radio 4 ‘Today Programme’ interview with Max Barclay

 

 

The story was covered on the Natural History Museum’s website

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2014/sept/livingstone-beetle-specimens-found-after-150-years133141.html

 

Other press coverage includes

 

The Independent, 20.09.14, Pg 32

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/dr-livingstones-i-presume-natural-history-museum-finds-explorers-african-insect-collection-9744730.html

 

Culture24

http://www.culture24.org.uk/science-and-nature/science-history/art499786-curator-finds-150-year-old-david-livingstone-african-beetles-in-box-at-natural-history-museum

 

The Times of India

http://epaperbeta.timesofindia.com/Article.aspx?eid=31804&articlexml=Lost-for-150-yrs-Livingstones-African-insects-found-21092014016038

 

The Livingstone specimens were first shown to the public at ‘Science Uncovered’ on 26th September by Hitoshi Takano, and are now available to view in ‘Dinosaur Way’ in the Public Galleries of the Natural History Museum, for a limited time only.

 

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Termophilum alternatum Bates, 1878

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As the countdown to Science Uncovered 2014 begins, we have been busy behind the scenes thinking about how we talk about our science. How we make it interesting to YOU and how we can get YOU involved.

 

Making science accessible to all is one of our big challenges as a leading natural sciences organisation. With upwards of 80 million specimens (10 million of those are beetles!) we have a wealth of data that if only it were publicly mobilised would be even more relevant to the world at large, not just researchers in the natural sciences. Essentially we want to share our data; but, if I told you for our 10 million beetles we have just six curators, how is it even conceivable for us to make that data accessible?!

 

It took the creative mind of Ivvet Modinou the Museum's science communication manager and one of the leading people behind the Museum's participation in the EU's Researchers night to come up with a grand plan that would unite scientists and our visitors (YOU!) in making our data ever more accessible to the world at large. A few meetings later with Max Barclay (Coleoptera collections manager), Ben Scott (Data Portal Lead Architect) and Laurence Livermoore (digital analyst) the fledgling idea became reality.

 

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Max with just a few beetles that we would love to be imaged!

 

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Laurence in the heady days of Hemiptera (true bug) research in the Coleoptera and Hemiptera  section before he moved over to the dark side...


Taking our Beetles and Bugs Flickr pages as a model the idea developed into something much more ambitious, and we want YOU to help us achieve this on the night! All you need is to turn up, be able to read and possess a smartphone or tablet – easy! Are you ready?

 

Ben explains, 'Live on the night we'll be showing the entire process of digitising specimens; from transcribing a label & crowd sourcing to data outputs via the Data Portal and visualisations.'

 

So how are we going to do this?


First we take a photo of the specimen which we upload to our Flickr site. After this a transcription app pulls the image from Flickr, and we ask any willing member of the public to transcribe the image. Once transcribed these data are added to our "Science Uncovered Transcriptions" data set. Then it's up to you to tweet about your good work!

 

You can even do it whilst having a beer! Don't worry if you're concerned about data accuracy, we've thought about that too.  Every specimen label will be transcribed multiple times, building up the level of accuracy and we will have our experienced team of digitisers and geo-referencers on hand to answer questions. After the event the dataset will be cleaned up by Ben, and then Max and Ben will work with the data to prepare it for entry in to our Museum database (imagine a database that has to cope with 80 million records!).

 

So this is very exciting and a new way of looking at and accessing our collection. The Coleoptera team have already come a long way with digitisation of specimens. Our beetles and bugs Flickr page has been online since 2012, has had well over a million visits, and has led to an unprecedented rise in interest in our collections as a result. Not only do we use it to highlight specimens of special note, like this one collected by Alfred Russel Wallace,

 

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Thaumastopeus agni (Wallace A.R., 1867) image taken by Helena Maratheftis.
Species was named after the collector, a Mr. Lamb, but Wallace translated his name into Latin.

 

but also to get specimens identified. Each year we receive upwards of 50,000 specimens into the collection from recent collecting trips such as this beetle collected by me and Max in Borneo in 2013.

 

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Lepidiota stigma (Fabricius, 1798) collected in Borneo - a beetle capable of producing the purest form of white colour known to science.

Image taken by Helena Maratheftis

 

 

Identifying these beetles can be a lengthy process so putting them up online allows a first look for researchers and taxonomists all over the world. If they see something they think is interesting we can then send those specimens out on loan; eventually they will be returned identified and quite often there will be a few new species too!

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Darwinilus sedarisi Chatzimanolis, 2014 Staphylinidae: Holotype newly described from Charles Darwin's collection held in the Museum

 

Hillery Warner (beetler and top specimen mounter) was one of the pioneers of our Flickr site, and here she explains why we began this most ground-breaking of projects.

 

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Sometimes, beetles just aren't enough to keep Hillery busy; she has to dabble in the dark arts of Mantodea too...

 

"The Flickr project started off as a way to see if our unidentified material might be voluntarily identified by specialists around the world if we provided it online.  While we did have some success with this, the project quickly evolved into not only a fantastic public outreach outlet, but also a way of maximising the usefulness of our digital loans.

 

Scientists scattered across the globe need to see specimens in our collection in order to do their work- identifying, describing, and revising life on earth.  Sometimes they need to take a really close look at every detail of a specimen, which means they have to fly over to London, (which is expensive), or we need to actually put the insects in a box and post them out on loan.  But sometimes they just need "to see it".  This is when the very best option is to take a picture and send it.  Job done.  We call that a "digital loan". Before the Flickr site, we would email the attachment to the scientist who asked for it, and we were the only people to ever see it.  What a waste!  These people are working on cool stuff.  And you should get to see it, too.  So now, we put it out onto Flickr for you too!"

 

Since the inception of our Flickr site the Museum has began digitising collections on an even larger scale and now employs a team of people to image and transcribe. They work on dedicated projects; the most recent one for Coleoptera being the digitisation of 9000 specimens of beetles belonging to the family Chrysomelidae (the leaf beetles), of which many species are known to be economically important crop pests, as part of the Crop and Pest Wild Relatives Initiative.

 

Here's some of the digitisation team you will meet on the night,

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From back to front: Gerardo Mazzetta, Peter Wing, Joanna Durant, Flavia Toloni, Sophie Ledger, Elisa Cane, Jasmin Perera and Lyndsey Douglas

 

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A drawer from the Coleoptera collection of members of the leaf beetle genus Diabrotica - all imaged and label data transcribed by the digitiser team

 

So, we look forward to working with you on the night! Let's see how many specimens we can transcribe… and remember, we need you to help make this a success!

 

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Image taken by artist and photographer in residence to the Coleoptera section, Helena Maratheftis

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It’s Science Uncovered time again beetlers! We can’t wait to show off our beetles to the thousands of you who will be visiting the Natural History Museum on the night. We'll be revealing specimens from our scientific collections hitherto never seen by the public before! Well, maybe on Monday at the TEDx event at the Royal Albert Hall we did reveal a few treasures, including specimens collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin, as seen below.

 

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Lucia talking to the audience of TEDx ALbertopolis on Monday 23rd September.

 

lydtedweb.jpgLydia and Beulah spanning 250 years of Museum collections at TEDx Albertopolis.

 

Last year we met with about 8,500 of YOU – so that’s 8,500 more people that now love beetles, right? So, as converts, you may be coming back to see and learn some more about this most speciose and diverse of organisms or you may be a Science Uncovered virgin and no doubt will be heading straight to the beetles (found in the DCII Cocoon Atrium at the Forests Station).


This year the Coleoptera team will be displaying a variety of specimens, from the weird and wonderful to the beetles we simply cannot live without! Here’s what the team will be up to...


Max Barclay, Collections Manager and TEDx speaker
For Science Uncovered I will be talking about the diversity of beetles in the tropical forests of the world. I have spent almost a year of my life in field camps in various countries and continents, and have generally come back with thousands of specimens, including new species, for the collections of the Natural History Museum. I will explain how we preserve and mount specimens, and how collections we make today differ from those made by previous generations.

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Crocker Range, Borneo - it's really hard work in the field...but, co-ordinating one's chair with one's butterfly net adds a certian sophistication.

 

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The Museum encourages its staff to be respectful of and fully integrate with local cultures whilst on fieldwork. Here is Max demonstrating seemless cultural awareness by wearing a Llama print sweater in Peru.

 

I will also talk about the Cetoniine flower chafers collected and described by Alfred Russell Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, and how we recognise Wallace’s material from other contemporary specimens, as well as the similarities and differences between techniques used and the chafers collected in Borneo by Wallace in the 1860s, Bryant in the 1910s, and expeditions of ourselves and our colleagues in the 2000s.

 

Lydia Smith and Lucia Chmurova, Specimen Mounters and trainee acrobats
As part of the forest section at Science Uncovered this year we are going to have a table centred on the diversity of life that you may see and hear in tropical forests. Scientists at the Natural History Museum are regularly venturing out to remote locations around the world in search of new specimens for its ever expanding collection.

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L&L acrobatic team on an undergraduate trip to Borneo with Plymouth University.


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Maliau Basin, Borneo: Lucia injects some colour into an otherwise pedestrian flight interception trap

 

We will be displaying some of the traps used to catch insects (and most importantly beetles!) along with showing some specimens recently collected. We will also have a sound game where you can try your luck at guessing what noises go with what forest creatures. Good luck and we look forward to seeing you!

 

Hitoshi Takano, Scientific Associate and Museum Cricketer

Honey badgers, warthogs and Toto - yes, it can only be Africa! This year at Science Uncovered, I will be talking about the wondrous beetles of the African forests and showcasing some of the specimens collected on my recent fieldtrips as well as historic specimens collected on some of the greatest African expeditions led by explorers such as David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.

 

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Museum cricket team, The Archetypes (yes, really!). Hitoshi walking off, centre field, triumphant! Far right, Tom Simpson, Cricket Captain and one of the excellent team organising Science Uncovered for us this year.

 

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Mount Hanang, Tanzania: Jungle fever is a common problem amongst NHM staff. Prolonged amounts of time in isolated forest environments can lead to peculiar behaviour and an inability to socialise...but don't worry, he'll be fine on the night...

 

There are more dung beetle species in Africa than anywhere else in the world - find out why, how I collect them and come and look at some of the new species that have been discovered in the past few years!!

 

Beulah Garner, Curator and part-time Anneka Rice body double

Not only do I curate adult beetles, I also look after the grubs! Yes, that's right, for the first time ever we will be revealing some of the secrets of the beetle larvae collection. I can't promise it will be pretty but it will be interesting! I'll be talkng about beetle life cycles and the importance of beetles in forest ecosystems. One of the reasons why beetles are amongst the most successful organisms on the planet is because of their ability to inhabit more than one habitat in the course of their life cycles.

 

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Crocker Range, Borneo: fieldwork is often carried out on very tight budgets, food was scarce; ate deep fried Cicada to stay alive...

 

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Nourages Research Station, French Guiana: museum scientists are often deposited in inacessible habitats by request from the Queen; not all breaks for freedom are successful.

 

On display will be some horrors of the collection and the opportunity to perhaps discuss and sample what it will be like to live in a future where beetle larvae have become a staple food source (or entomophagy if you want to be precise about it)...go on, I dare you!

 

Chris Lyal, Coleoptera Researcher specialising in Weevils (Curculionidae) and champion games master

With the world in the throes of a biodiversity crisis, and the sixth extinction going on, Nations have agreed a Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. The first target is to increase understanding of biodiversity and steps we can take to conserve it and use it sustainably. That puts the responsibility for increasing this understanding fairly and squarely on people like us. Now, some scientists give lectures, illustrated with complex and rigorously-constructed graphs and diagrams. Others set out physical evidence on tables, expounding with great authority on the details of the natural world. Us – we’re going to play games.

 

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Ecosystem collapse! (partially collapsed).

 

Thrill to Ecosystem Collapse! and try to predict when the complex structure will fall apart as one after another species is consigned to oblivion. Guess why the brazil nut tree is dependent on the bucket orchid! Try your luck at the Survival? game and see if you make it to species survival or go extinct. Match the threatened species in Domino Effect! Snakes and ladders as you’ve not played it before! For the more intellectual, there’s a trophic level card game (assuming we can understand the rules in time). All of this coupled with the chance to discuss some of the major issues facing the natural world (and us humans) with Museum staff and each other.

 

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Here Chris tells us a joke:

'Why did the entomologists choose the rice weevil over the acorn weevil?'

'It was the lesser of two weevils'

IMG_7063.jpgJoana Cristovao, Chris's student and assistant games mistress!

Big Nature Day at the Museum: Joana with a... what's this? This is no beetle!

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One last thought, things can get a bit out of hand late at night in the Museum, it's not just the scientists that like to come out and play once a year, it's the dinosaurs too...

 

We look forward to meeting you all on the night!

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Curating Historical Specimens #1

Posted by Blaps Aug 8, 2013

Hello Beetlers!

 

Here Collections Manager Max Barclay talks us through the re-pinning process of historical beetle specimens. Along with Coleoptera Section volunteer Mellissa Williams, we learn about the importance of retaining historical data.

 

The star specimen, Carabus auratus, is 118 years old and is just one of thousands of specimens that were bequeathed to the Natural History Museum from the collection of AA Allen, who was a prolific British collector and expert entomologist.

 

Originally described in 1761 by Carl Linnaeus, C. auratus is not a British native and rarely encountered here. Native to west and central Europe it is a beautiful beetle with a rather unattractive habit of feeding on slugs, snails, worms and grubs; in fact there are records of this voracious predator even attacking young snakes! It's a sun loving species (thermophilic) and can be found on cultivated land, grassland and forest edges. This beetle disappears in the winter, hibernating until emerging to mate in the following spring.

 

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A fishy (work) experience

Posted by Blaps May 31, 2013

Hello Beetlers,

 

The end of  another busy week and the comings and goings of the Coleoptera section. This week we hear from Jordan Rainey, who was lucky enough to spend a week with us on work experience from school. Here's Jordan enjoying a tour of the collections:

 

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These Dynastine beetles have such large horns that they have to live in a deepened drawer!

 

This week I have been lucky enough to do my work experience placement at the Natural History Museum, in the Coleoptera (beetle) section! I have been performing a variety of tasks overseen by one of the coleoptera curators, including preparatory work (mounting beetles on pins or on cards) and attaching accession labels to specimens so they can be put into the main collection or sent out to a specialist of that family/genus. I have also been sorting beetles into continents, and the recently collected material from Borneo, in alcohol, into families.

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Pinning beetles into position ready for labelling and identifying

 

 

I was the very lucky person that got to sort the carrion trap material that Beulah talked about in a previous blog update. It smelt awful, of the rotting fish guts that were used as bait to attract to beetles! I was sorting the scarabs, non-scarabs and the Hydrophilidae into separate pots of alcohol. The Hydrophilids went into molecular strength alcohol so that the DNA could be preserved.

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Jordan puts on a brave face - those beetles may look clean but they sure are smelly!

 

I was also sorting the Passalidae (Bess beetles) into countries and then continents. Most of them were unidentified and the localities were all mixed up, so I had to look at each individual locality label on every specimen and determine where it was collected. Some of the Passalids dated back to the 1800’s and a few may have been from Alfred Russell Wallace’s collection! I ended up with nine drawers full of hundreds of beetles all sorted to continents.

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The hundreds of unidentified Passalids...

 

I would like to say a big thank you to the entire Coleoptera section, especially Max Barclay, Michael Geiser and Beulah Garner for making this an amazing and unforgettable week!

Thanks Jordan!

 

 

Some interesting results came from this exercise, in particular the repatriation of some specimens with their original data. When curating a collection with 250 years of history behind it, it is no surprise that some detective work must be employed on occasion. Take the specimen below, one of the Passalids that Jordan has been sorting. He came across it and noticed that there was very little data and no discernible 'BM' number (the number that all specimens must have once they are accessioned into the Museum collection). What he found was the small brown disk and nothing else. From this we assumed that '39' may well be the year the specimen entered the Museum and 432 be the accession number (the consecutive number assigned to an individual specimen or any number of specimens in a discreet collection in any given year).

 

Before the advent of computers of course all records were hand written, and our accession registers go back to the beginnings of the Museum around 1881! They are big leather-bound heavy tomes with entries written by quill and ink and are a portal into the history of the Museum!  One thing leads to another and we were soon delving into the history of a certain Mr. J.G. Children which can be read below. We can see this beetle was collected a good few years before there was even a Museum in which to deposit it!

 

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Though George Children was what one might say, unlucky in love, he certainly enjoyed an illustrous career in the natural sciences; here is his obituary from The Coleopterist

 

CHILDREN, John George (18 May (July?) 1777 - 1 January 1852)

 

The only son of George Children, a banker and wealthy landed property owner.Educated at Tonbridge Grammar School, Eton and Queen's College, Cambridge. He intended to join the church, but after marrying at the age of 21, Anna Holroyd who died shortly after, he abandoned this career, and travelled to Portugal and then to Canada and the United States of America. He returned to become a Captain in the West Kent Militia, but gave this up in 1805 as a result of ill health.Having studied mechanics, mineralogy and electricity at Cambridge, he then took up scientific pursuits becoming FRS in 1807. In 1808-09 he married for a second time but lost his wife a few months later. It was at about this time that he made a second visit to Spain.

 

In 1816, two year's before his father's death, the family lost all their properties as a result of the failure of the Tonbridge Bank. Through the kindness of Lord Camden he received an appointment as Assistant Librarian at the British Museum, first in the Department of Antiquities and subsequently in 1823, as a result of the intervention of Sir Humphry Davy, in Natural History. When the Zoological Department was created in 1837 he was appointed the first Keeper, a post which he held until 1839-40, when, as a result of failing health and the death of his third wife, he was obliged to retire.

 

Although not primarily an entomologist, Children did collect insects and was one of the founder members and first President of the Entomlogical Society. The meeting at which it was decided to found the Society took place in his house, and Children contributed the Introduction to the Society's first volume of Transactions (see Neave & Griffin (1933), for an account of Children and his involvement with the Society).

 

Children's collection of insects certainly included beetles and appears to have been large. His obituary in the Proc.LSL, 1852, p.137, described the collection as 'one of the most extensive in England' and noted that he had purchased the collection of Count Bilberg. He certainly gave specimens to the Entomological Society and, in 1839, to the British Museum. When the collection was sold by Stevens between 30 March and 4 April 1840 it amounted to 950 lots, many of which were bought by the British Museum. (These are listed in the NHM Entomology Department's Register. Entomology, 2 , 12 October 1839-2 April 1840 which records many thousands of specimens including 4,490 Coleoptera. Catalogues of this sale, and of his library at Sothebys between 6 and 8 March 1840, are preserved in the NHM. The insects have been amalgamated into the general collections. There are also specimens collected by Children in the Bracy Clarke collection at the NHM found by Dr Easton in an antique shop.

 

Davis & Brewer (1986) note that a collection of worldwide insects is in the Hancock Museum donated in 1830 by 'George Children' which is presumably this Children.

 

Letters to Thomas Hope, 1834, 1837, are in the HDO (Smith (1986) p.71)

 

Jonathan Cooter tells me that Sandra Children, who married the last survivor of J.G. Children's line, has exhibited at Hereford Museum.

 

FLS from 1807. Secretary of the RSL 1820-27 and 1830-37.

 

Gilbert (1977) p.67, lists further references in E. Miller, That Noble Cabinet, 1973, pp. 227-231, and in A.E. Gunther, A Century of Zoology at the British Museum 1815-1915, 1975, pp.56-62. (MD 3/02)

 

Lydia Oliva, a photographic historian from Barcelona, informs me that Children's only daughter, Anna Atkins, (on whom she has been working) published a book of photographs in 1843 (i.e. before Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature) and that she was introduced to photography by her father. Children went to live with his daughter in Halstead Place, London, after he retired. (MD 10/03)

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The Etymology of Entomology!

Posted by Blaps Mar 8, 2013

As our beetle blog heads towards 50,000 views, it is fast becoming one of the most important interfaces between the Coleoptera Section and the world at large, but it is not the only public outreach that we do here on the section. As well as very regular Nature Live Events and Night Safaris at the Museum, we make occasional forays into radio and television, and one such example was on the 30th January when presenter Dr. George McGavin and BBC producer Andrea Rangecroft came to the Collections to record an interview on the 'Etymology of Entomology'

 

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Max Barclay and George McGavin having a friendly chat about taxonomy, probably!

 

Even since the biblical instruction to Adam in the Garden of Eden to give 'a name to every creature' (leading to the oft-repeated quip that taxonomy, rather than anything else, is the 'oldest profession'), or perhaps more seriously since Linnaeus's Systema Naturae in 1758 which marks the start of formal Zoological Nomenclature, people have trying to name and classify the breathtaking biodiversity they see around them. There is considerable debate as to what is actually the largest group of organisms, with nematodes, some microbes, Hymenoptera (bees, ants and especially wasps) and Diptera (flies) all competing with beetles for the hypothetical species-richness crown, but of one thing we are certain: None of these groups has been so exhaustively and comprehensively named as the Coleoptera. Over 400,000 described species of beetles (about 20% of known biodiversity) shows an average rate, still undiminished, of 1000-2000 scientific names proposed each year since 1758 for beetles alone. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that a BBC team interested in the 'Etymology or Entomology' should have wanted to pay a visit to the beetle section..

 

Dr. George McGavin, the presenter of the show is an entomologist and zoologist and was once a student based at the Natural History Museum, so he is no stranger to the whiff of naphthalene and the ranks of cabinets and drawers that house one of the biggest slices of Earth's biodiversity to exist in one place anywhere in the world. His background of course meant that he knew many of us, and also pretty much what he wanted to see. In the radio show, he interviews a number of entomologists, (including me), and nomenclators in the UK and the US, such as the staff of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (the august body based at the Natural History Museum, that regulates the naming of animals). To hear a sneak preview click on Radio 4!

 

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The ranks of cabinets of the Coleoptera section holding over half of the World's known species

 

To provide a bit of background, Linnaeus's system, that is still used today, requires that each species has a unique scientific name, based (loosely) on Latin or Greek, and consisting of two parts, the genus name and the species name. These names are 'universal', i.e. used by scientists throughout the world and allow us to know exactly what species we are talking about; I have had many conversations with entomologists with whom I have no common language, that consist of pointing at specimens and saying scientific names, and it seems to work. Most of these names are serious, often descriptive, referring to colour (e.g. ruber, niger, albus, viridis), shape (spinosus, elongatus, angulatus), habitat (marinus, sylvaticus, montanus, campestris), size (maximus, minimus, pusillus, giganteus, nanus). Others refer to places of origin (germanicus, africanus, yorkensis, londonensis) or to people who the describer wanted to honour or commemorate. In the last case, the name is formed by adding a latin genitive '-i' or '-ii' for a man, '-ae' for a woman, or '-orum' for more than one person, to the end of the name in question (e.g. Eulipoa wallacei, Wallace's Megapode; Ischnura fountaineae, Margaret Fountaine's damselfly; Apion hookerorum, a weevil named after the Hooker brothers). Often the person honoured will be the collector, but sometimes it will be a figure from outside the world of science, a writer or entertainer or whatever, and in some cases a politician.

 

One of the beetles that George asked to see is one of the most controversial to be named after a famous person, a blind cave beetle forever cursed by its describer Oscar Scheibel with the name Anophthalmus hitleri. Scheibel presumably collected and named that species in 1936, because it was published in 1937, and it shows that one should never name anything after politicians, or at least wait until they are good and dead, since you never know what they are going to do.

 

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Scheibel's unfortunately named beetle!

 

Other politically named beetles include Quentin Wheeler and Kelly Miller's slime mould beetles Agathidium bushi, Agathidium rumsfeldi and Agathidium cheneyi, named after US republican leaders. It is a popular misconception that in such cases the beetles are named as an insult, because beetles are considered somehow unpleasant (especially when they live in or feed on slime-moulds), but this is nonsense- we love our beetles too much! No professional coleopterist considers beetles to be unpleasant, and the names above are certainly honorific (in fact at least one of the scientists also named species after his wife). 

 

On the subject of naming of insects after partners or prospective ones, George Willis Kirkaldy (1873-1910)  deserves a mention. British born and based in Hawaii working for the sugar plantations, he studied the true bugs (Heteroptera) and discovered that the Greek suffix -chisme sounds, when spoken aloud, sufficiently like 'kiss me' that he prefixed a lot of genus names with words that sounded like the names of young ladies (or at least, the kinds of names that young ladies had in the early 20th century) - Dolichisme, Elachisme, Florichisme, Peggichisme, and Polychisme. Apparently Kirkaldy was criticised for frivolity at the Zoological Society of London, and one can imagine that a young man using the scientific nomenclature to crow about his romantic conquests might have raised a few eyebrows among the bewhiskered Edwardian patrons of that learned institution. A close contemporary of Kirkaldy, Horace Donisthorpe (1870-1951), whose collection is also at the NHM, apparently employed a similar strategy: many of his species and subspecies are named after young women of the day, some examples being primroseae, irenae, florenceae. The striking thing about these names is that none of them have stood the test of time- all have been shown by subsequent workers not to be distinct. One is drawn to the conclusion that Donisthorpe looked at something that the young ladies in question had collected, told them it was new, and went as far as formally naming it after them, but that his motives in doing so were perhaps not entirely scientific...

 

We also discussed the Russian entomologist Nikolay Nikolaevich Plavilstshikov (1892-1962), who (perhaps unsurprisingly) was drawn to complicated names and gave the world the longest scientific name, Brachyta interrogationis interrogationis var. nigrohumeralisscutellohumeroconjuncta Plavilstshikov, 1936 - a rather attractive, 1cm-long yellow and black longhorn beetle that lives in peonies in northern Eurasia. Plavilstshikov is also remembered for bringing a gun into work and shooting at his line-manager, and getting away with it, but that is another story...

 

With 400,000 beetles one can only imagine how many stories, told and untold, surround the choosing of their names. We have attempted on 'Etymology of Entomology' to tell just a few of the best of those stories, and our colleagues from other institutes and other countries have told others. We do hope you'll tune in at 10.30 on Saturday 9th March, and we'll provide live links as we get them

 

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Max shows George some of the species talked about in the radio show

 

To find out a little more about the programme please read on...and tune in on Saturday 9th March at 10.30am

 

On Saturday 9th March at 10.30am on BBC Radio 4, popular culture meets science as zoologist Dr George McGavin delves into the strange, and often bizarre, names given to insects.

 

There are an estimated 8-10 million living insect species with new specimens being discovered almost daily. Entomologists are turning to ever more imaginative names, referencing everything from literary figures, celebrities and politicians to playground puns.

 

There are flies named Pieza kake (piece of cake) and Scaptia beyonceae after the singer; beetles with political connections - Anophthalmus hitleri, Agathidium bushi, Agathidium cheneyi and Agathidium rumsfeldi; even entomologists who name discoveries after romantic conquests. Unsurprisingly, names can prove controversial but, once set, are difficult to change.

 

"Taxonomy is the foundation stone of science…without a stable system of classification, science would be nothing but a jumble of uncorrelated observations."

 

George takes us into the complex and intriguing world of the taxonomist. From the 18th century father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus, to the present day, he explains why naming the things that surround us is the foundation of all science.

 

George pieces together his story at Linnaeus’ original collection at The Linnaean Society, and at the capital’s Natural History Museum and London Zoo. He also reveals some insects named after him at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

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2012 was an eventful year in London, marked by the Olympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee. However, the collections we serve have seen four centuries and ten monarchs, plenty of Olympics (including three in London) and more than a few jubilees (though no Diamond Jubilee since 1897, when the likes of the great Coleopterists Sharp and Champion were still hard at work). For the collections, and their curators, the year has brought its own challenges, triumphs and celebrations.

 

When the year began, Sharon Shute, Curator of Bostrichoidea, Chrysomeloidea and Historical Collections, had not been replaced since her retirement in 2011. It is a great credit to the team that we managed to keep everything more-or-less together during this period of being one person short, between us covering Sharon’s loans, visitors, databasing, enquiries etc. We made some significant steps forward as well. You can imagine our delight in October when we were given the go-ahead to recruit a new permanent curator, and after a rigorous recruitment we appointed Michael Geiser from Switzerland.  We have known Michael for a few years, he has visited us twice on Synthesys grants and we have seen him at Prague Entomological meetings, often with his mentor Michel Brancucci (1950-2012), whose premature and much regretted death in October was a major loss to Coleopterology. 

 

Michael is a well-known coleopterist, and has worked for seven years in Collection Management at the Basel Museum, where one of his achievements was the incorporation of the large collection of Walter Wittmer (1915-1998). Like Wittmer, Michael has a strong knowledge of, and interest in, the Cantharoidea, as well as in non-clerid Cleroidea, Chrysomelidae, and a number of other beetle groups. He has also been involved in Basel Museum’s Laos Project, and has spent more than nine months on tropical fieldwork in Laos. He will start work in May 2013, since he needs some time towards completion of his PhD on the small cleroid family Prionoceridae.

 

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Michel and Michael at Prague insect fair

 

 

In the meantime we are very lucky to have Alex Greenslade as an interim curator, who has already started work on databasing the huge Criocerine genus Lema.  Alex has been a volunteer at the Museum for over a year, working with Beulah Garner on recuration of Carabus ground beetles and Hypothenemus coffee berry borers, with Max Barclay on Ecuadorian dung beetles, and with Dick Vane-Wright on the beetle fauna of Bingley Island in Canterbury.  He will be with us until the end of April working on various problems of the Chrysomeloidea.

 

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Alex Greenslade at Science Uncovered 2012

 

We are proud to have a 6th Scientific Associate, Hitoshi Takano, who will join Richard Thompson, Howard Mendel, Peter Hammond, Mike Morris and Robert Angus in this prestigious club. Hitoshi has a deep knowledge of several beetle groups especially in Cerambycidae and Scarabaeoidea, with probably his greatest strength in the African Cetoniinae. He is a very experienced fieldworker and has collected in Borneo, the Philippines, Guyana, and most particularly Tanzania and Zambia. The huge volumes of interesting material he has collected are being processed by Lydia Smith and Lucia Chmurova, and we are very pleased to have them back on the team.

 

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Lucia and Lydia, not only beetle experts but recently obtained the serious accolade of Glue Gun Olympics World Champions in Lichtenstein earlier this year...

 

 

In the earlier part of the year Katie Bermingham was also working on this project, but has now gone on to curate the Natural History Collections of Eton College but keeps in touch with her excellent blog.

 

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Here's Katie - in the pink! With Ian Swinney (Bookham Common Warden), Stuart Cole (Bookham Common Coleoptera recorder) and Alex and Emeline enjoying a rare rain-free day on the common

 

 

Between them they have databased almost 10,000 Tanzanian beetles at specimen level and mounted and family sorted considerably more. At the beginning of 2012 we were visited by Bruno Nyundo from the University of Dar-es-Salaam, who brought with him two students, Justine Maganira and Anna Mwambala. They stayed for a month, pinning, mounting and identifying Tanzanian beetles, as well as getting their first experience of a Northern Hemisphere winter, snow and all - but we hope they had a fantastic time while they were here. The whole Tanzania project would not have been possible without the support of Richard Smith, to whom we are all extremely grateful.

 

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Anna, Justine, Max and Hitoshi in the lab (note: since when was tweed appropriate lab wear hmm?)


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Hitoshi in the field in Tanzania - this is what happens when fieldworkers are left alone for too long in the wilderness; you make your own fun...

 

Our excellent team of volunteers have kept up the good work over the year. Emeline Favreau has completed recuration and reindexing of the Geotrupidae with the addition of several new species to the collection. Alexander Sadek is continuing with the huge African collections of the Reverend C. E. Tottenham, otherwise known as ‘Dotty Totty, who gave up the almighty for the Staphylinidae’; Alex has labelled literally thousands of Tottenham’s specimens collected in West Africa in the 1940s-1960s (Tottenham’s total collection, housed in hand made ‘match-boxes’ was estimated to comprise 250,000 specimens when it arrived in the 1970s).

 

Tom Thomson from Plymouth University has processed and labelled hundreds of molecular voucher specimens from the labs, and has completed the extraction of the data from all our UK BAP specimens. Gillian Crossan has continued with the conversion of the entire collection of Buprestidae to unit trays, which is being overseen and databased by Malcolm Kerley. Alex Greenslade, Emma Little, Andrew Richens, Bernadeta Dadonaite and Tom Thomson have worked on the Ecuador dung beetle project. Other volunteers and students who have made a contribution to the section this year include Georgie Macdonald, Lucy Cooper, Rosie Goldsmith, Adam Sharp, Stuart Cole, Alexander Kazhdan, Emma Hughes, Magnus Rowbotham, Harry Kelleher, Paul Klein, Rasa Sittamparam, Ayako Mori, Li Min Cheong, Hui Erh Tay, Sean Jordan and James Blyth Currie.

 

 

The year saw more than a little fieldwork, much of which has already been covered in the pages of this blog. Beulah began the year with a trip to Peruvian cloud forests with Brett Ratcliffe, Mary Liz Jameson and other members of the famed Team Scarab’.

 

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The international scarab collecting team in Peru

 

Hitoshi, Beulah and David Oram visited Tanzania, Hitoshi twice, as well as Zambia for 6 weeks.

 

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The ever stylish entomologists reach the summit of Mount Hanang. Hitoshi models this season's must have red bandana and Beulah remains classic in Breton stripes...

 

 

Peter Hammond was in South Africa, Howard Mendel in Spain and Ascension Island, Lucia Chmurova was in Borneo, Rob Angus in Sardinia, Mike Morris in Bulgaria, and on top of that we also received beetles from members of other sections: The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Geoff Martin & Andy Polaszek), Madagascar (Geoff Martin and David Ouvrard), and UK (Duncan Sivell and David Notton), as well as material of great interest from Africa and South East Asia from Donald Quicke.

 

 

We have not neglected Bookham Common where we have run Lindgren Funnel Traps for the second year running in the hopes of augmenting a list that already stands at almost 1,600 species of beetles, and we are very grateful to National Trust Ranger Ian Swinney for his continuing support of our activities at this excellent site.

 

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Alex, Beulah, Emeline, Roger Booth, Christine Taylor and Malcolm Kerley at Bookham

 

We also had some UK fieldwork in Bingley Island, near Canterbury, on a project led by Dick Vane-Wright and run by Alex Greenslade and Andrew Richens.

 

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Dick Vane-Wright (far right) and team at Bingley

 

 

This year has also seen the acquisition of several major collections.  The collection of Eastern Palaearctic Cerambycidae of Jiri Vorisek includes some 17000 specimens of 2256 species, with 28 Holotypes and 396 Paratypes; the type material includes some of Jiri’s own species, as well as type material from Breuning, Danilevsky, Heyrovsky, Holzschuh, Plavilstshikov and other (largely unspellable) 20th century authors. It was acquired partly thanks to the generosity of the artist Sarah Graham and partly through the vision of the NHM Collections Committee. 

 

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A typical drawer of Lepturinae longhorn beetles

 

We were also pleased to receive the beautifully curated British Beetle collection of Donald Prance, a quantity of material from Imperial College at Silwood Park (thanks to the good offices of Donald Quicke), some magnificent Neotropical material from Martin Cooper, part of the collection of the late botanist Eric Groves, the collections of the late Eric Brown, coleopterist father of Senior Hemiptera curator Paul Brown, and Derek Lott, well known specialist on Staphylinidae. Many of these people were (or are) our friends and close colleagues, and it has been said that leaving your collection to the Natural History Museum  is equivalent to being buried in Westminster Abbey; we hope and trust that we can do justice to the faith that has been placed in us!

 

Throughout most of 2012 a case featuring part of the A.A.Allen collection of British beetles (acquired in 2010) and an account of Allen’s life and work was on display in the public galleries, where it was available to up to 4.5 million people.

 

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A fascination with beetles...

 

Three grants have been received to bring specialists over to work on the collections. Lukas Sekerka, working on Hispinae and Cassidinae, visited for 2 months in the winter, and Roger Beaver, expert on Scolytinae, will come in June to work on the F.G. Browne collection of that family. We also have a grant to strengthen our links with Peruvian entomologists, and we will be inviting some of our counterparts to visit in 2013.

 

 

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Chrysomelidae expert Lukas Sekerka raiding the coleoptera reprints!

 

 

Our statistics for the year remain impressive: 158 academic visitors used the collections for a total of 645 days. This beetle blog reached a total of 36 articles and more than 46,000 hits. We issued 304 loans of 24,000 specimens, and added 1833 new species of beetle to the collection.

 

The databasing of the collection of Thomas Broun (1838-1919), including more than 3,000 types, was completed, and work began on databasing one of our last undatabased assets, the Atlantic Islands collection of Thomas Vernon Wollaston (1822-1878).

 

Roger Booth has completed incorporation of the main J.A. Power (1810-1886), G. C. Champion (1851-1927) and David Sharp (1840-1922) collections of British aleocharine Staphylinidae; this material is taxonomically very complex, and very type rich, especially for the Homalota species described by Sharp in 1869. Much of it has been unincorporated and unprocessed since its acquisition in the early 20th century, formerly being held as three separate collections.

 

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Roger waxing lyrical on J.B.S. Haldane; '...an inordinate fondness for beetles...'

 

 

Malcolm Kerley has completed the databasing of the Lucanidae identified by Matt Paulsen on his Curatorial Fellowship grant last year, and the entire databased collection of this family, including the large collection of Hugues Bomans, has been digitally scanned by Harry Kelleher, Vladimir Blagoderov and others. This vast resource will soon be made available online, so watch this space.

 

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Malcolm demonstrating the 'Christmas spirit'!

 

Richard Thompson has completed the incorporation of the collection of the late Eric Gowing-Scopes, which comprised more than 44,000 specimens, mainly weevils. Richard has now turned his attention to the vast genus Otiorhynchus, which he intends to entirely recurate! We doubt that there is anyone else alive today who would even consider taking on such a vast and intricate task, and we wish him all luck and fortitude.

 

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Scientific Associate Richard Thompson weeviling away in the collections!

 

Christine Taylor, helped by volunteer Molly Clery, has made great inroads into the incorporation of the collection of Robert Angus, and his British material of all families is now incorporated. She will now begin on his extensive and important collections of water beetles. As a Scientific Associate Robert has remained active not just in extant water beetles, but also in fossils, and in chromosome work on Leiodidae and Scarabaeidae, as well as an application to the ICZN to preserve current usage of the name Aphodius fimetarius for a common, bright red dung beetle.  

 

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Robert Angus has left (the entomology) building, Prague!

 

 

Mike Morris has now completed the fifth volume in his Royal Entomological Society Handbooks for the Identification of British Weevils – it is probably the last unless he decides to recognise the Scolytinae as weevils- but he has plans to go back to the beginning and redo the early volumes to make allowance for numerous new introductions and discoveries in the British Isles fauna.

 

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Mike has also register-labelled and checked the identification of several thousand weevils from the Oldrich Vorisek collection, acquired in 2010.

 

We have done our share of public outreach during the year, with Max, Chris Lyal and Conrad Gillett, Beulah, Hitoshi and most recently Lydia and Lucia as features in the Museum’s Nature Live calendar.

 

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Lydia, Max and Lucia with Nature Live host Ana Rita explain what it means to work with beetle soup - every day...!


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Emma Hughes (wearing non-standard issue bird themed top), Beulah wearing standard issue beetle themed top for National Insect Week!


 

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Big Nature Day at the NHM; there was a lull in the crowd, interest had waned; entomologists went wrong!

 

Science Uncovered on the 28th September was extremely well attended, with our beetle stall ably manned by Alex, Conrad Gillett, Hitoshi, David Oram, Lydia, Beulah, Max and others. 

 

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David Oram and Hitoshi at Science Uncovered (David is traitor - those are butterflies not beetles!)

 

 

We also repeated our successful training course ‘On the job training in family level identification of a hyperdiverse insect group: The Beetles (Coleoptera)’ , which was attended by Agnese Zauli from Rome and Natalie Lindgren from the USA.


The section has been present at both of the International Insect Meetings in Prague, in March and October, accompanied as ever by many friends  and colleagues.

 

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I like to call this one 'the money shot'! Donald Quicke, Michael Geiser, Hitoshi, Beulah, Howard Mendel, Duncan Sivell, Mike Morris and Martin Brendell enjoy more pork and beer in Prague after a hard days coleopterising!

 

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Beulah and retired Collections Manager Martin Brendell marvel at the stuffed-to-the-rim jar of beetles (13,140 to be precise!) from Laos (Martin is much more cool about it than Beulah though!), Prague insect fair

 

 

...as well as Entomodena in Italy during September

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Max Barclay with Rebecca and Luca Toledano, Sergio Facchini, Stefano Zoia, Roberto Caldara, Mauro Daccordi (and a cardboard box full of parmesan cheese...?)

 

 

Max and Beulah (together with Erica McAlister and Duncan Sivell from Diptera) attended the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Knoxville Tennessee between 10th – 14th November which attracts over 3000 delegates from the United States as well as internationally, and the Entomological Collections Network (ECN) conference 10th-11th November. Beulah presented a talk on incorporating accessions material in to the main collection, entitled ‘Incorporating Carabus Accessions into the Natural History Museum World collection: 200 years in two months’ and Max spoke on the value of loans  ‘Loans: Raising interest rates in our collection’ and on ‘An enigmatic new taxon of Neotropical Tenebrionoidea’.

 

The week was an exceptional networking opportunity, and an interesting foray into the heart of America; our hotel had notices warning us not to panic if ladybugs or stinkbugs (Harmonia axyridis or Halyomorpha halys) came into our rooms (which seemed somewhat superfluous considering that most of the guests were professional entomologists), and deep fried cricket and caterpillar snacks were served instead of peanuts at the evening mixer!

 

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Oh No! You may see the Lady Bugs! Incidentally the picture shows the wrong species, Coccinella septempunctata rather than Harmonia axyridis..JPG

Don't be alarmed - it's only beetles (and bugs)!

 

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It's funny how most of our photos seem to involve drinking and eating! Left to right: Mike Ivie, Donna Ivie, Ted McRae, Frank Etzler, Rita Isa Velez, Beulah, Paul Johnson and Max in a seafood restaurant somewhere in Knoxville, Tennessee!

 

 

The year ended on a high note with a sectional lunch at the Oriental Club, organised by Hitoshi, David and Beulah, where exceptionally good food and fine wines underlined what has been a very successful year for the Coleoptera Section.  We hope for, and would like to wish you all, a very happy and prosperous 2013!

 

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This is perfectly normal...

            

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  A collection of entomologists...

 

 

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It's not all fun in the Coleoptera section, we are bang up-to-date and have been busy working on our trees...!

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Dear Beetlers,

 

Come to Science Uncovered this Friday 28th September to hear more about this:

 

We have returned safe and well from our recent fieldwork trip to Tanzania (we are into our second year of collecting!) and really want to share with you some of the techniques employed in the field. This trip was undertaken in the months of July and August - the dry season, where ordinarily there is not much beetle activity; however, one of the aims of this series of collecting trips is to map Tanzania's beetle and butterfly and moth fauna through all of the seasons. Eventually we will have a really useful data set from many (and remote) localities; and hopefully this will yield some very interesting new species...but until we get everything identified (we are still identifying material from 2010 - there's soooo much of it!) here is how we found our specimens in the first place...

 

Given we were heading to some really remote localities it was really important to inform local officials and indeed local people who we were and why this pair of crazy western 'researchers' had just appeared from nowhere. Here is our 4x4 vehicle with its very official notice!

 

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U Tafiti is 'research' in Swahili; 'wadudu' is insect! So we were entitled 'U Tafiti wawadudu'!

 

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Here is HT having quite a giggle with the Mama and farmer at Mount Hanang where we camped (Tanzania's fourth highest mountain at 3417m)

 

Once we had set up camp after a five hour drive from the city of Arusha; it was time to um, relax!

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The beautiful Mount Hanang in the background.


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HT and some cows; overseeing unpacking proceedings!

 

But, whilst some of us lounge about taking it easy, others are hard at work keeping the camp in order...

 

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BG working hard whilst HT 'relaxes'! This is our 'science table' where all the processing of specimens: labelling, cleaning, filling up tubes with IMS happens.

 

And so into the field. Here at Mount Hanang there is diverse habitats: mid altitude grassland, farmed countryside, ericaceous forest and sub-montane and montane forest all a happy hunting ground for the intrepid entomologist...

 

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HT, our local guide Isaiah and Jembe our Masai guide all erecting a butterfly trap on the forest edge at Hanang. This will be elevated high up in to the canopy and baited with some delicious rotting fruit.

 

Whilst HT was busy butterfly trapping I was off in another direction beating for beetles!

 

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BG, our camp expert Saleem and Jembe all looking for SBJs (small brown jobs, such as Phalacrids, Shining Flower Beetles) and weevils by  beating vegetation with a big stick onto a big umbrella-like white sheet!

 

Winkler Traps

 

Then it was into the forest edge to collect some leaf litter for sieving (again SBJs live in leaf litter, we are hoping to find things like fungus beetles (Lathridiidae) and Pselaphinae, and all manner of Cucujoidea)!

 

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And the prize for the most boring photo...


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Here's HT and Jembe sorting through leaf litter with a series of sieves

 

As most creatures that live in leaf litter are small and secretive there is another very effective method we use to collect them by, which is known as the Winkler trap! Once we have sieved the litter to remove all the big stuff the remaining topsoil and litter is placed inside mesh bags within the cotton bag and basically hung up to dry. Eventually the small organisms will start moving about and head to the bottom of the trap where they fall into a waiting pot of IMS.

 

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Me with my Winkler! A very cold early morning at Mount Hanang!

 

We took samples of leaf litter at all three sites we collected from. The final site at Hasama Forest in Mbulu district was again at high altitude (c.2000m); as far as we know the last person to collect in this area was Kielland in 1990 and he was looking for butterflies...

 

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Sieving litter for Winkler traps at Hasama forest, Mbulu. It was soo cold and windy that the only way to do it was to seek refuge by the truck!

 

Dung Traps

 

We can't have a blog without mentioning poo it would seem so, onto dung trapping! We were very lucky at Mount Hanang to have the employ of a team of able and willing young entomologists who worked very hard searching for dung beetles (so we didnt have to!) and were amply rewarded with 500 Tanzania shillings and a packet of sweeties! Our  'snacky time' was around 5pm and the children soon learned that the office would be open once the hard fieldworkers had taken off their boots and had time for a G&T before supper (very civilised!). Here's HT 'negotiating' prices with the children.

 

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'Snacky time' at Hasama Forest! Of course a freshly pressed newspaper was always made available!

 

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Driving a hard bargain! Our terms: one full tube (no padding with extra dung) and no repetition for 500 Shillings and a packet of jellies!

 

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Team dung beetle! (I'm the one on the left...).

 

As our dung beetle workers would never reveal their sources, (very good business!) we did employ other methods. The classic dung pitfal trap where little pre-made knapsacks of dung (this time buffalo!) are suspended above pitfal traps work really well. These were placed every one hundred meters into and along the forest at Hanang.

 

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HT and Isaiah preparing dung pitfal traps

 

On to Longido, about 50 km from the Tanzanian / Kenyan border to a very different habitat: the bush! Very very dry and surrounded by Masai, goats and Acacia trees...we had to work very hard to find beetles here!

 

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Longido bush setting traps: dung knapsack - tick! Soap-laced water for pitfall traps - tick! This entomologist is good to go!

 

Sometimes less sophisticated methods can also be employed given one has the time and the inclination to look hard enough...

 

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Yes, I am literally grubbing about in fresh buffalo dung; here I found some interesting Hydrophilid beetles especially adapted to living in poo!

 

Water Beetles

 

That takes us on nicely to collecting for water beetles. Whilst having a dreamy ride through the Eastern Rift mountains on our way to Mbulu, HT exclaims rather excitedly 'Stop the truck! Water!' I was less enthusiastic and stayed in the truck observing from a safe distance whilst HT sank up to his knees in a stagnant no doubt disease ridden puddle of water in the pursuit of water beetles and their ilk (Dytiscidae). And what better way to catch them than with a household sieve!

 

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NOT allowed back in the truck!

 

Once at Longido, our Masia guide (we are not permitted to enter any forest reserve without a local guide) promised there was water in the mountains. After an arduous trek to approx 2500m, and at times loosing what path there was, not to mention the searing heat, we eventually came to a mountain stream...

 

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Here we found not only some curious looking Dytiscids (predacious diving beetles) but also some whirligig beetles (Gyrinidae), leeches (yuk!) and a fresh water crab!

 

Water beetles are really hard to catch, being predacious they are really fast swimmers and also the bigger ones can give you a nasty nip if you're not careful; we found some big ones...

 

SLAM and Malaise trapping

 

Trapping using nets is the most common method but can often times be difficult in challenging terrain, not to mention remote environments where local people are overtly curious about what on earth you are up to! In Longido, where Masai children would appear as if by magic (We hold them entirely responsible for our missing pitfal traps!) we decided that the SLAM trap was too enticing for curious minds so we erected it as high up in the canopy as we could! This type of trap is very versatile as it can be erected anywhere but is especially good for wood piles where emerging beetles will fly into the net and become trapped.

 

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Hoisting the trap with BG and Saleem

 

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The entomologists demonstrate their good work!

 

Malaise traps are more precise in where they should be placed. Ideally they should be in the way of an insect flight path so that insects fly into the net, instinctually fly upwards and just like the SLAM trap, become, um, trapped!

 

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The very important job of holding a piece of string; erecting the Malaise trap, Mount Hanag

 

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But oh no! It's all gone wrong  - in an ironic twist of fate it is the entomologists that have become trapped...

 

Finally to end on a 'lighter note' we must mention light trapping! Light trapping might be commonly employed for trapping butterflies and moths but it is actually very effective for catching beetles too. So, each night at dusk we would start up the generator and the mercury vapour light would work its magic! One night at the Longido camp an unexpected downpour somehow broke the light and so we lost a nights trapping; at Hasama forest the winds were so high that the light was smashed; another nights trapping lost. But, on a good night, it's possible to stay up for as long as you can, say until 3pm gradually picking off the insects that come to the light. At longido I found a prize Carabid, an Anthia, or more commonly known as a Domino beetle, that was more attracted to the sausage flies than the light!

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The downpour at Longido; luckily we had enough tarpaulins but failed to secure the storm flaps on one of the tens = wet sleeping bag!

 

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The entomologist (still apparently in her pyjama bottoms), demonstrates the light trap!

 

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And we leave you for now with a beautiful view!

 

Next time the hardships and hiccups of fieldwork; and after that, fashion, fieldwork and friviolity...watch this space!

 

So the intrepid entomologists say farewell; and hope that you will join us and our wonderful colleagues on Friday night at Science Uncovered to hear more about collecting in the field, all over the world! http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/after-hours/science-uncovered/index.html



Blaps

Blaps

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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