Digital butterfly data takes flight | Digital Collections Programme

The Museum’s entire collection of  181,545 British and Irish butterflies are now in a digital form and available for all to see online in the Museum’s Data Portal.

Photo from overhead of the drawer containing 9 columns of brightly coloured butterflies with their accompanying QR code labels.
A specimen drawer of common clouded yellow butterflies (Colias croceus). The new barcodes created as part of the Museum’s iCollections digitisation project are visible.

Each butterfly has a new digital image and digital record of the specimen’s collector, place and date of collection and this data are already being used to work out the effects of climate change on UK butterflies.

This an amazing achievement and there is more to come. Over the coming months the moths in the collection will be digitised and the information made available.

The digital image of the butterfly with scale bar, QR code and historical labels.
One of the images available in the Museum’s Data Portal, of a small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae (Linnaeus, 1758) – BMNH(E)1058959)


Why digitise?

The information associated with the specimens in our collections can provide important insights into the natural world and can be used to see how our world is changing.

When the project to digitise the Museum’s British and Irish butterflies and moths, – iCollections – started back in 2013 it was a pilot to develop quick and efficient ways to  digitise large Museum collections.

So the race is now on to release digital information for all of the over 80 million specimens in Museum’s collections, not just the butterflies. Ambitious? Yes, but iCollections has shown how it can be done and more importantly what the data can be used for.

Photo showing a man in the process of manipulating one of the butterflies in a drawer during the digitisation workflow.
The digitisation team need to be not only technically savvy but also capable of handling the collections with extreme care

How did we do it ?

Tackling a large digitisation project required considerable effort and resources. For a start it was necessary build a dedicated team of people to carry out the digitisation. Not only did the digitisation team members have to be computer savvy, they had to be able to handle the specimens quickly and with care. Butterfly specimens are delicate and careless handling can lead to antennae, legs and wings dropping off!

But capturing the information is only the start of the process. The images and data have to be processed and stored, information checked and each location given an accurate georeference, and finally the dataset has to be in a form ready for release via the Museum’s Data Portal. All this needed input from a range of experts across the Museum.

Photo showing a member of the digitisation team manipulating the data for a specimen on her PC.
Adding the data to the digitised specimens includes the location of its collecting point as a georeference

Carrying out such a large project is not without its problems. At one time there were eight people digitising the collection. Each person needs space to work and finding an area suitable to layout large drawers of specimens was not as easy as it might at first appear.  After much searching and planning a dedicated space was found and our ‘digitarium’ was established.

For the digitisers, reading the labels could at times be a real challenge. Some had cryptic symbols while on others the handwritten notes were nearly illegible. But gradually the team built up an expertise in recognising and deciphering the handwriting of different collectors. It is amazing the skills you pick up doing digitisation projects.

Photo of close up of a label with handwritten text in black ink.
Careful handling of the specimens isn’t the only challenge in the iCollections project, reading is too! For example, it may be easy to read Scarboro * 1928 but what does the last line say?


Collecting butterflies is no longer a popular past time. People prefer to record their sightings of butterflies, supporting annual censuses of butterflies organised by NGOs like Butterfly Conservation. But collecting was an early form of citizen science and those collections in the Museum are useful in showing what the butterfly populations were like as Britain changed and became more industrial. The collections are stunning not just because the butterflies themselves are beautiful but also because of the information associated with each specimen.

As we move to digitise more and more of our 80 million specimens, bringing all this data together tells us an exciting story of the natural history of our planet.

Dr Gordon Patterson
Digital Collections Programme



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