Freezing thousands of bees at -80 degrees | Digital Collections Programme

The UK Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI) provided funding between 2010-2015. This was a joint initiative supported by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), NERC, the Wellcome Trust and the Scottish Government, under the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership to support projects studying a wide variety of UK pollinators and their habitats.

Nine separate projects were funded and as a result of these projects around 50,000 specimens were collected.

A photograph of the Molecular and Frozen Collections Manager with some of the frozen IPI specimens.
Jacqueline Mackenzie-Dodds, Molecular and Frozen Collections Manager with some of the IPI specimens.

Insects visiting flowers, including bees, hoverflies, beetles, butterflies and moths, are very important to plants. While moving between flowers they carry pollen from one flower to another.

This transfer of pollen is called pollination. Pollinating insects are vital in the production of agricultural crops, but are vulnerable to pests, diseases and environmental change.



The IPI projects looked at all these aspects for UK pollinators.The specimens were collected from a variety of environments such as meadows, crop fields, gardens and towns. The collected specimens were used for research during the initiative phase.

When the initiative finished in 2015, this wealth of material, still holding important information yet to be discovered, needed a permanent home. Additional funding was made available by the UK Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI) to accession the specimens into the nation’s collections at the Museum, in the ‘UK IPI Archive’, where they will be cared for and curated into the future.

The first stage was sorting the specimens from each IPI project and putting them individually into suitable containers for the future. This time consuming work was done at the University of Edinburgh, where the team developed a workflow to sort, process, label and scan barcodes for the specimens.

A photograph of a researcher sorting out pollinators into tubes
Sorting the specimens at Edinburgh University
A tube holding individual IPI specimen with labels and 2D Barcode
A tube holding individual IPI specimen with labels and 2D Barcode

Insects in their new tubes were then boxed up and shipped to the Museum for archiving. The Museum now holds and preserves all the specimens collected throughout the projects in ultra-cold storage at minus 80 degrees Celsius on a long term basis. -80˚C halts cellular degradation, preserves the genetic resources, and keeps the specimens fit for the purpose of further research.

The specimens came with a large amount of data, adding huge value to the collection. All this data needs to be sorted, cleaned and imported into the Museum’s collection management system. In this way the Museum took responsibility for digitising the whole collection and releasing all the information into the public domain via the Data Portal.

Releasing specimen data digitally helps to make scientists aware that we hold these specimens for them to conduct research on. Adding these 50,000 specimens to the Data portal provides a whole new resource to conduct big data research on and produce research that we cannot currently predict.

What have we done so far

42,320 specimens from six of the nine original IPI projects have been fully processed. Boxes full of insects in tubes have been placed in dedicated freezers in the Museum’s Molecular Collection Facility and their new final locations recorded carefully so each specimen can be retrieved quickly and easily.



Data for each specimen including up to date taxonomy, the collection site, names of collectors and identifiers, and plant association information has been checked by Museum experts. A small fraction (5%) of these specimens have unclear or high level taxonomy identification at the moment. These will need to be examined by our entomology experts to assign the correct species names to them.

Data for these specimens can be seen on the Data Portal, this is currently in progress, but will approach 50,000 specimens once complete. Researchers can request access to the species they are interested in. Researchers will ask for sub-samples of the specimens (e.g. piece of bee leg) to be sent to them to extract genetic resources for molecular analyses or DNA sequencing.

What’s next

We would like to enhance the collection by completing the 5% unclear specimens. This new collection opens up a world of possibilities for pollinator research. We want to spread the word that we have these specimens so that new research can be done on the specimens and data. The data set can be interrogated to discover patterns and trends in pollinator distribution, behavior, health and inform recommendations and policy. e.g. food sustainability, climate change, biodiversity loss.

So far we have data and specimens for UK pollinators only in this collection, so it would be good share information and extend out to the rest of the world’s pollinators.

We will be posting updates from the UK IPI Archive project and Data Portal releases on @NHM_Digitise so please follow us to keep in touch.

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