The butterflies and moths amassed by avid collectors Dr EA Cockayne, Dr HBD Kettlewell and Lord Walter Rothschild make up the core of the Museum’s world famous collection of British and Irish Lepidoptera.
The Museum is digitising the Lepidoptera collection and using the data to ask important scientific questions about the effects of environmental change. Dr Cockayne passion led him to form the Cockayne Trust for Lepidoptera research, his legacy is funding the digitisation.
I’m currently in Dominica, collecting insects with Operation Wallacea but this isn’t the first time I’ve been to this beautiful country. Here’s a blog post I prepared earlier about my field trip last year…
I have just finished 4 weeks of fieldwork collecting insects in Dominica. I can’t really complain about that except that the fieldwork did not follow my usual routine. Generally when employed at Museum your fieldwork is either part of a general collecting trip hoping to find as much as possible (work with Dipterists Forum); part of a research-focused group (me collecting flies from Potatoes in Peru); or part of a consultancy project (Mosquitoes in Tajikistan). However this trip was different, I wasn’t marauding around the countryside with collector’s glee, this time I had to teach as well as collect.
It’s not the first time I have taught students. I lectured for a while before joining the museum and was involved in a tropical ecology field course in Costa Rica for several years. However that was university students and they were mostly master’s students who already were interested in Entomology. I had never taught or been involved with younger people – teenagers as I believe they are called. That had previously sounded like a mild form of torture! Could they concentrate? Would they even be interested?
In the eighteenth century, trade and exploration flourished as the British Empire expanded. However, it wasn’t all about creating colonies and importing produce. Dru Drury (1725-1804), an eighteenth-century London silversmith, naturalist and author, saw the chance to develop an insect collection of unprecedented scope.
In the manuscript collection of the Library and Archives, we hold a number of Drury’s unpublished papers which consists of letters, instructions to ships’ captains, and private notebooks. His correspondence is interesting for many reasons as he was in contact with many of the great naturalists of the time including Carl Linnaeus but also his business dealings with goldsmiths all over Europe – the letters of which are more business-like, and quite formal.
I can’t believe the last 12 months have flown by so quickly! Our first 5 trainees on the Identification Trainers for the Future project have now completed their traineeship with us and have been released into the wilds of the UK’s biodiversity sector, only now it’s with a whole host of new skills and a wealth of experience under their belts.
The Verrall Association of entomologists has existed in one form or another since 1887, almost as long as the Museum itself, and was founded by the noted dipterist, Conservative MP and horse-racing official George Henry Verrall (1848-1911), as an informal annual gathering and supper for entomologists, professional and amateur. It has continued in much the same capacity for over a century, at some stage in that long history acquiring a lecture before the supper and you can enjoy the history of the Verrall Supper in your own time.
It is my privilege this year to be giving what has come to be called the Verrall Lecture, which will take place in the Ondaatje Theatre of the Royal Geographical Society, just up the road from the Museum on Wednesday 2 March. The topic is appropriate for a crossover between the Museum, the Royal Entomological Society and the Royal Geographical Society, as the title is ‘Collections: the last great frontiers of exploration’.
In the final post of our short series on the curation placements of our Identification Trainers for the Future, Chloe Rose gives us an insight into the work she has been doing in the Hymenoptera department. The Hymenoptera include all bees, ants and wasps, but Chloe has been focussing her work on the parasitic wasps, of which there are a surprising number in the UK.
I have been spending the last 2 months of my traineeship in the Hymenoptera department with Dr Gavin Broad (Senior Curator of Hymenoptera, specialist in Braconidae and Ichneumonidae). Here I have been working on a genus known as Alexeter, a group of wasps which parasitise sawflies.
These wasps fall into the Mesoleiini tribe which is part of a large subfamily known as Ctenopelmatinae. There are around 6,000 known species of parasitic wasps in the UK, a staggering number which is a huge portion of our insect diversity. However, little is known about many of these groups and few of these species have well illustrated identification keys available, making the area of study considerably less accessible. This is why I am helping Gavin to construct an easy-to-use identification guide for this poorly understood group of wasps.
In 2009, I visited the Museum’s Darwin Centre for the first time. It had been a culmination of a pilgrimage to see as many exhibitions as possible that celebrated Charles Darwin’s bicentenary of his birth that year. Little did I realise that 6 years later, as a trainee on the Identification Trainers for the Future project, I’d be lucky enough to work in the Darwin Centre itself, re-curating some of the Museum’s 80 million specimens that form the world’s most important natural history collection.
I watched with bated breath on the 14 September 2009 as Sir David Attenborough and Prince William opened the state of the art facility. It allows over 350 scientists and researchers to study zoology, botany and entomology collections to address some of the key challenges of the 21st century such as food security, biodiversity loss and disease. As Sir David Attenborough so eloquently put it:
Never has it been so important to understand the diversity of life on earth and how it is changing, if we are to tackle many of the issues that humans face today … The Darwin Centre will inspire the next generation of naturalists and scientists through its combination of scientific expertise, specimens, public dialogue, film and interactive media. It will enable all of us to explore the wonders of our world and investigate its secrets.
It was therefore a bit surreal when my curation placement actually took me to the 7th floor of the Darwin Centre in the Entomology Research and Curation Lab, where I have been asked to re-curate the Odonata of the UK. This order is split into Zygoptera (Damselflies) and Anisoptera (Dragonflies).
In amongst the collections of one of the largest natural history libraries in the world, are some unexpected items and here’s one of my favourites:
Traditionally the Museum Library has not actively purchased natural history material aimed at younger readers, but there are some to be found within the shelves.
Entomology in Sport is an example of a publication aimed at aspiring young Victorian minds. A miniature visual world of insects has been intertwined within the words and paragraphs of this little book. Regardless of your age, you can’t help but be charmed.
In the latest update from our Identification Trainers for the Future project, Sally Hyslop continues the story of the work our five trainees have performed thus far.
Trainee life in the Museum is often focused through a microscope and so, after many months of study, it was brilliant to refresh our zeal for the natural world this month with a field trip to the Dorset coast. We spent three days exploring dramatic cliffs and coastal heathlands: by day, putting our developing botany skills into practise, and by night, spotting bats and catching moths.
The Museum’s Fred Rumsey and Mark Spencer led us through heath and bog on a hunt for the elusive bog orchid, Hammarbya paludosa. By the end of the day we found 109 spikes of these miniscule and delicate, rare, green flowers. On top of this, we encountered blankets of dainty white beaked sedge, flowering bog asphodel and all three UK species of sticky, carnivorous sundews along with their two hybrids.
The next of our new trainees to introduce themselves is Katy Potts. Katy is a keen entomologist and has volunteered with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and most recently with our own Coleoptera department before joining the traineeship programme:
I have been an amateur entomologist for the past 3 years and I am passionate about all aspects of wildlife, but particularly things with six legs. I recently graduated from Plymouth University where I studied Conservation Biology, since I graduated I have been keen to gain more knowledge in the identification of UK wildlife with particular focus on conservation. I am very interested in all aspects of wildlife but I am fascinated with insects, I find their morphology, behaviour and evolution extremely interesting.
Over the last four years I have been involved with public engagement events with Opal and Buglife where we ran invertebrate surveys and BioBlitz projects to encourage the public to become interested in their local wildlife. I was also involved with a pollinator survey run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology that involved me surveying for hoverflies and bumblebees on Dartmoor and then identifying specimens to species level. This survey ignited my passion for identification further and I engaged in entomological and recording communities to develop my understanding.