Curiosities from the cabinets: Lycid beetle mimicry ring

Lycid beetle mimicry ring (A. Lucidota, Lampyridae; B. Limonia, Limoniidae; C. Chaetodactyla, Ptilodactylidae; D. Mesopteron, Lycidae; E. Austrolimnophila, Limoniidae; F. Calopteron, Lycidae; G. Correbidia, Erebidae; H. Calopteron, Lycidae; I. Correbia, Erebidae; J. Lycomorpha, Erebidae; K. Correbidia, Erebidae). Scale bar: 5 mm.

A few months ago, while browsing the unsorted material in the VTEC, Grant and I discovered this group of orange and black insects collected from a small patch of rainforest near Turrialba, Costa Rica, by Dr. Robin Andrews (Department of Biological Sciences) in 1966. The beetles, flies and moths are distantly related, and yet they appear similar with the same orange and black color pattern. The similarity is not by chance, but a result of convergent evolution by mimicry.

The insects are members of a mimicry ring with lycid beetles as the model species. Also known as net-winged beetles, because the pronounced veins in their elytra give a net-like appearance, lycids are toxic and defended with pyrazines and lycidic acid (Moore et al., 1990; Eisner et al., 2008). The veins, which are turgid and easily ruptured, contain the toxins that spill out when the beetle is handled by a predator. It’s been shown experimentally that the beetles are rejected by spiders, lizards, and birds (Darlington, 1938; Eisner et al., 2008).

Historically, it’s likely the lycid beetles were on the (evolutionary) scene first. Over time predators learned to associate their distinctive coloration with being noxious, a.k.a. “aposematic”. The predators’ perception of prey as toxic may also include the smell of the beetle too since pyrazine is aromatic. Quoting Eisner et al. (2008), the implicit message of pyrazine may be, “desist, lest you are willing to risk an unpleasant mouthful”. This cocktail of defense chemicals including a mixture of a highly toxic chemical and an aromatic chemical is also known in other insects (Gullan & Cranston, 2014).

Later in time, those flies and moths that tended to appear more similar to the lycids persisted in nature. If the lycids and their aposematic signal was so effective at deterring predators then other species—even if they were non-toxic—would converge as a result of mimicry.

It is interesting to note the two larger moths labelled G and K have very accurate coloring to match the beetles including a black stripe in the middle of an orange pronotum; whereas the smaller moth, labeled I, is less precise because it has an orange stripe on a black pronotum. This is because predators are less likely to attack smaller mimics as they are less profitable as prey items (Penney et al., 2012). Therefore predators exert less selection for accuracy of mimic prey.


Darlington, P. J. (1938). Experiments on mimicry in Cuba, with suggestions for future study. Ecological Entomology, 87(23), 681-695.

Eisner, T., Schroeder, F. C., Snyder, N., Grant, J. B., Aneshansley, D. J., Utterback, D., Meinwald, J., & Eisner, M. (2008). Defensive chemistry of lycid beetles and of mimetic cerambycid beetles that feed on them. Chemoecology, 18(2), 109-119.

Gullan, P. J., & Cranston, P. S. (2014). The insects: an outline of entomology. John Wiley & Sons.

Moore, B. P., Brown, W. V., & Rothschild, M. (1990). Methylalkylpyrazines in aposematic insects, their hostplants and mimics. Chemoecology, 1(2), 43-51.

Penney, H. D., Hassall, C., Skevington, J. H., Abbott, K. R., & Sherratt, T. N. (2012). A comparative analysis of the evolution of imperfect mimicry. Nature, 483(7390), 461-464.



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Bressler longhorned beetle collection

The longhorned beetle, Typocerus zebra (Olivier, 1795)

In May, Dr. Ellen Brown of Fredericksburg, Virginia donated the collection of her husband Dr. Barry Lee Bressler (1936 – 2017) to the Virginia Tech Insect Collection. Dr. Bressler, who was born in Reading, Pennsylyvania, was a retired Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) physicist and adjunct professor of physics at Virginia Tech. Dr. Bressler graduated from Virginia Tech with a PhD in physics for his work on Fermion-boson couplings.

Bressler, an ardent naturalist, collected beetles and other insects in eastern Virginia. His collection is primarily made up of longhorned beetles of the family Cerambycidae, but other taxa are represented too including weevils, ants, and flies. The collection represents a valuable synoptic collection of the family Cerambycidae in eastern Virginia. Of the more than 1,000 specimens, there are several uncommonly encountered and rare specimens including Saperda imitans Felt & Joutel, 1904; Centrodera sublineata LeConte, 1862; and Lepturges pictus (LeConte, 1852).

Student curator in the collection, Grant Schiermeyer, who is curating the collection, identifying species, and incorporating the material into the VTEC states, “this collection of cerambycids contains a great amount of the diversity of longhorn beetles in this eastern US and will be a significant addition to the VTEC by adding specimens that are underrepresented or rare.”

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Rusty patched bumble bee

Bombus affinis Cresson, 1863, the Rusty patched bumble bee (#VTEC000000590)

On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Rusty patched bumble bee as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The specimen pictured above is one of 31 individuals that we have databased in the Virginia Tech Insect Collection. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) implements means to protect and conserve species. The ESA is important not only because it works to protect individual species, but by doing so it also works to look after the habitat in which the species lives.

The Rusty patched bumble bee is a native pollinator, once widespread through the eastern United States, and over the past 20 years entomologists have found that it has declined over 90% of its previous distribution. This is alarming not only because the species is an unique and irreplaceable piece of our country’s natural heritage, but because pollinators provide us with free pollination services. Bumble bees allow plants to flower, produce fruit and seeds for the next generations of life. Unfortunately, pollinators including the Rusty patched bumble bee are rapidly declining primarily as a result of habitat loss. The native meadows, forests, and homes of the bees are vanishing.

Protection of the Rusty patched bumble bee and its habitat where it lives is important. The process of listing an endangered species is lengthy and requires detailed study demonstrating the species habitat or range is threatened, has been over-utilized by humanity (e.g. over-harvested), highly impacted from disease or predation, or other human-made factors that affect the species very existence.

Unfortunately, the “rusty” red patches on the back of the bumble bee fade over time, which are faintly visible in the specimen pictured above. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Bee Inventorying and Monitoring Lab has some wonderful images of B. affinis below where you can see the reddish patches on the bee’s abdomen (images CC-Zero by Sam Droege).

Bombus affinis, F, side, sky meadows, virginia_2014-09-22-18.05.02 ZS PMax
Bombus affinis, F, Sky meadows sp, virginia, back_2014-09-22-17.48.35 ZS PMax
Bombus affinis, F, face, big sky meadows, virginia_2014-09-22-17.57.06 ZS PMax

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Zygaena angelicae

A zygaenid moth, Zygaena angelicae Ochsenheimer, 1808

Specimen #VTEC000000632 is a handsome zygaenid moth from Mnichovice (Czech Republic) collected by V. Kubelka. Thanks to  volunteer Charity Hall for digitizing several trays of zygaenid and arctiine moths!

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Professor Smyth’s Butterflies

Papered insects of Ellison Smyth, founding head of VT Biological Sciences

Did you know that the first football coach of Virginia Tech, Professor Ellison Smyth, was also a butterfly collector? In fact, Professor Smyth was also one of the first instructors in Biological Sciences, and later the first dean of the faculty at Virginia Tech (1902-06).

Professor Smyth grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where as a boy enjoyed being outdoors collecting butterflies and birds. As a 10 year old, he amassed a collection of birds, butterflies and other insects. The collector’s bug (so to speak) had already taken hold, and he was hooked on natural history. After completing an undergraduate degree, he enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia. Smyth was hired as a clerk at a law firm in Charleston, South Carolina, and later as a partner. However, he admitted that pursuing law was only to satisfy his folks and later quit the firm to pursue biology completely. The lifelong love of biology and natural history was too strong to ignore! Smyth was hired as an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina and then a professor of biology at Virginia Tech where he taught until 1925. (From the UNC Herbarium, which holds some plant specimens collected by Smyth in the late 1800s.)

I recently found some of Professor Smyth’s butterfly specimens stuffed away in an old drawer in the Virginia Tech Insect Collection. These are commonly known as “papered” specimens. Within each folded paper triangle is a single butterfly or other large winged insect (e.g., dragonfly or katydid) that was placed directly into the paper once collected. The paper helps keep the wings in good shape for pinning and spreading the specimen later on. Because many of the triangles were made from newspapers, there are some classic old-timey ads on some of them!

A Diana fritillary, Speyeria diana (Cramer, 1777) collected by Smyth in 1907

I’ve peeked in a few of the paper envelopes and there are some spectacular butterflies that await preparation. While mostly local Appalachian species, for example the rare Diana fritillary (above), there are a number of exotic butterflies that Smyth collected in Africa and traded with colleagues. I am now carefully pinning and spreading Professor Smyth’s collection, and will share the discoveries that I find in a following post.

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Milkweed pollinia

Back in April I posted an image of a Sphex sp. wasp with some odd structures on its legs. At the time I suspected the weird things were fungal growths. After some additional research (i.e., I found a photo of a bee with similar things on its legs while surfing the Internet), it seems that those structures are milkweed pollinia and not parasitic growths.

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) are herbaceous perennials that tend to have brightly colored clusters of flowers with abundant nectar. There are over 100 described species and subspecies of milkweed in North America. The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus (L.), may be the most well-known visitor to milkweed flowers, but milkweeds attract a large suite of butterflies, flies, beetles, bees, and wasps. Many people grow milkweeds for pollinators and other beneficial insects that feed on the plant’s copious nectar.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.)
By Fritzflohrreynolds (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike most flowers, milkweeds do not produce loose pollen. Waxy masses of milkweed pollen are grouped into sacs called pollinia. Orchids are the only other group of plants known to use pollinia. Bees don’t collect pollinia to use as food for their larvae the way they do with the loose pollen of other flowers. Nectar is a pollinator’s only reward for visiting milkweed flowers, but there’s a lot of nectar to be had on milkweed. The design of the milkweed flower is all about attracting pollinators with nectar and ensuring that the pollinators pick up and move pollinia to a different flower to complete pollination. Let’s take a look at the unusual structure of the milkweed flower to understand that process.

Each individual milkweed flower has an attractive star-shaped corona on top of a short central column and with outward flaring petals below the column. In the photo below of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.), the corona is a lighter pink than the lower petals. Insects will find nectar on the top of the flower in those stars.

Closeup of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.)
flowers. By Jason Hollinger (Common Milkweed
Uploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The botanical illustration below shows a milkweed flower from a lateral perspective. The star-shaped corona of a single flower (A) has five hoods (h) with a  corolla (c) of lower reflexed petals. A closeup of a flower (B) shows a slit-like opening (f) between each hood formed by the fusion of the anthers at their top and bottoms. Each slit leads to the stigmatic chamber, where the pollinia are housed. Each pollinium (C) is a paired, winged structure with a central body (d).

Botanical illustration of individual milkweed flower.
By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions]
via Wikimedia Commons.

A visiting insect trying to reach the nectar offered at the top of the star-shaped corona will slip one of its legs or another appendage inside the anther slits between the hoods. The pollinia inside the stigmatic chamber sticks to the insect’s setae or tarsal claws. By pulling its leg out of the slit, the insect extracts the pollinia and carries them off to another milkweed flower. Again the insect’s leg or another appendage will likely slip inside a slit while feeding. The flower will be pollinated successfully if the donor pollinia remain in the recipient anther slit. [For more information on this process and in greater detail, see Betz et al. (1994) and Borders and Lee-Mäder (2014). Both Eye on Nature and Robert Klip at Ohio State have nice blog posts on milkweed pollination and great closeup photos of pollinia, too.]

Closeup of a Melissodes trinodis Robertson (Hymenoptera: Apidae)
leg with attached pollinia. By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring
Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Any insect large enough to acquire and transport the pollinia can serve as an efficient pollinator of milkweed (Ivey et al. 2003). Some insects are not robust enough to remove their legs from the anther slits with the attached pollinia and are trapped to die there if they don’t lose their appendage first. Monarchs and other butterflies with their long, delicate legs are probably not as efficient in removing and transporting the pollinia as larger, more robust insects such as our katydid hunter (Sphex pensylvanicus L., seen below) with pollinia on its legs. Milkweed pollinia must be particularly sticky to the touch to ensure attachment to visiting pollinators. Those on the front legs of our specimen have remained attached to it since it was collected on 12 Aug 1952 by H. Jordan in Blacksburg, VA.

Photo taken by Pat Shorter of the Marek Lab, Blacksburg, VA.


Betz, R.R., R.D. Struven, J.E. Wall, and F. B. Heitler. 1994. Insect pollinators of 12 milkweed (Asclepias) species. P. 45-60 in T.B. Bragg and J. Stubbendieck (eds.) Proc. Of the Thirteenth North American Prairie Conference. Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE.

Borders, B. and E. Lee-Mäder. 2014. Milkweeds: a conservation practitioner’s guide. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Portland, OR.

Ivey, C.T., P. Martinez, and R. Wyatt. 2003. Variation in pollinator effectiveness in swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata (Apocynaceae). Am. J. Botany 90:214-225. doi:10.3732/ajb.90.2.214

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New Insect Cabinets!

Our new insect cabinets are here! We now have museum-quality, archival cabinets specially engineered for the protective storage of our pinned specimens. The double-door cabinets are over 7’ tall and hold 48 Cornell drawers. They are made from heavy gauge steel and weigh almost 450 lbs. each. (I was relieved when we decided to hire a moving company to bring the cabinets into the collection room rather than attempt the job ourselves.)

CabinetRow1           OpenCabinet1

The cabinets, along with the new archival Cornell insect drawers and unit trays, were purchased with funding from our grant from the National Science Foundation. Our Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) grant (DBI# 1458045) has allowed us to upgrade the storage infrastructure of our pinned insect collection and secure it for the future.

Many of the old cabinets used in the collection were manufactured to order by inmates in the Virginia Department of Corrections in the 1960s. These older cabinets rarely matched in height, the doors tended to warp and jam, and they were painted a military olive green. Why do I mention the color of these old cabinets? Well, dark interiors make it difficult to visually check the bottom of the cabinets for signs of insect infestation. It’s very hard to see a small dead insect, insect exuvia, or any frass on a dark surface. Our new cabinets have a glossy white finish inside and out, which will make it much easier to inspect the cabinets for things that should not be there.


Our old cabinets were by no means tightly constructed to exclude pests that could damage the collection, but that was acceptable at the time. Fumigants such as naphthalene, paradichlorobenzene (both used in mothballs), and dichlorvos-impregnated strips (often called “pest strips”) were the primary means of protecting insect specimens from attack by dermestid beetles or other stored product pests. A certain measure of air flow into and within the cabinet was beneficial as it allowed the volatile insecticides to drift among the insect drawers. Mothballs were excellent repellents but didn’t always kill established pest populations; pest strips were very effective at eliminating pests. Collections often had these compounds inside each drawer as well as inside the cabinets for maximum protection. [See  Collateral Damage: Unintended consequences of vapor-phase organic pesticides, with emphasis on p-dichlorobenzene and naphthalene, a paper by Kathryn A. Makos and Catharine A. Hawks (both of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution) for more discussion on the use of fumigants in natural history collections. )

So why don’t we still use these materials in insect collections? Most fumigants have been largely phased out of modern insect curation due to safety concerns about carcinogenic and other toxic effects on mammals (such as entomologists). In addition, naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene, when used simultaneously in the same cabinet, combine together to produce a liquid that can damage specimens. Naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene vapors can also recrystallize on specimens, which is also very undesirable.

Nowadays we primarily use exclusion techniques to prevent unwanted insects in the collection. Our new cabinets are tightly constructed with gaskets to be nearly air-tight. The Cornell drawers also very close fitting (to the extent that they can be hard to open, but we’re not going to complain about that).

We can use a sticky card at the bottom of each cabinet to trap any mobile insect inside the cabinet. However, this technique doesn’t monitor insect activity that might be limited inside a particular drawer. Also, many insects tend to move up when trying to escape and may fall on the lid of the top drawer when dead, rather than all the way to the bottom of the cabinet where the sticky card is placed. Frequent visual inspection of both the inside of the cabinet and in each drawer is a more effective method of detecting storage problems in a collection, as long as it is done on a regular schedule by someone who knows what signs to look for. Should we detect any sign of insect infestation in a cabinet, we can freeze insect drawers at -20º C for 3 days to kill immature and adult insects. Each drawer in the suspect cabinet should be frozen and the entire cabinet wiped down and vacuumed thoroughly.

Mold may become a greater problem than dermestid beetles now that insect collections can be stored in air-tight units. Ironically, naphthalene flakes and balls somewhat helped protect insect collections against the growth of mold by absorbing moisture from the air. Mold spores are ubiquitous and freezing will not kill them. To avoid problems with mold in a collection, all specimens must be thoroughly dried before adding them to an insect drawer.

We have a dehumidifier in the collection room that’s typically set for 35% moisture to help limit mold growth. We are also exploring the potential use of portable dehumidifiers that passively absorb moisture from the air. Portable dehumidifiers are often used in gun safes, closets, boat cabins, and other small areas where moisture gets trapped. These dehumidifiers contain beads that passively absorb moisture from the air. When saturated, as indicated by a color change to the beads, the units can be plugged into an outlet and “recharged” by drying out the beads for a number of hours. These would be ideal to place in each insect cabinet for extra protection against humidity and mold growth.

However, the low-tech solution against humidity in the cabinets would be to use humidity indicator cards. These flat cards can be hung on the cabinet door and visually checked each time the cabinet is opened. Increasing humidity levels in a cabinet are indicated by a color change on the card. If humidity is detected, then all the drawers in that cabinet should be visually inspected immediately for mold growth. One of the portable dehumidifiers could then be placed in the cabinet to remove the unwanted moisture, but if it’s humid enough to need a dehumidifier in the cabinet, then clearly all the drawers should be removed from the cabinet until the humidity has been corrected.

Hopefully the precautions we’re taking with tight seals and dehumidifiers will help avoid dermestid beetles and fluctuating humidity levels in our collection. However, these are common curation issues in natural history collections and they do occur from time to time. The real key to keeping a collection safe is vigilant monitoring on a regular basis. Administrators might find the idea of relying on a high-tech device to detect problems appealing, but in reality, several well-trained curators can monitor a collection much more effectively. Plus, we also identify specimens, lead tours, make labels, pin raw material, and remediate any problems once we’ve detected them!

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Things I’ve Found While Transferring Specimens

We’ve been transferring our pinned insect specimens into new unit trays for several weeks now, an activity best described as time-consuming. When finished, we’ll have replaced our current mix of old, hard-bottomed and various types of soft-bottomed unit trays in VTEC with new, archival unit trays.

Pinned insects are so very fragile that it’s extremely easy to knock off a leg or other appendage unless you stay very focused on the task. When the specimens are in good shape and don’t require much additional work, then I might finish transferring all the specimens in five insect drawers by the end of the day. However, if the specimens aren’t already properly oriented on the pin, if the specimens are very small, if a leg drops off and I need to glue it to a card pinned under the label, if there’s a large mix of unidentified material that I need to sort to some crude taxonomic order…well, those are the really long days. So far I’ve come to dread insect drawers containing tipulids, phorids, syrphids, and or tettigoniids as working on them seems to take an eternity. And yesterday I accidentally jabbed a minuten pin holding a Culex sp. mosquito into my finger and was honestly surprised by the amount of blood this produced. (Even in death, mosquitoes are associated with blood loss.)

But one benefit to spending a lot of time looking at the specimens closely is that I see things that I might not have noticed with only a cursory glance in an insect drawer. For instance, I’ve found a  number of specimens that I believe were collected by my thesis advisor when he was a student here at Virginia Tech in the 1960s. There isn’t anything particularly noteworthy about the material he deposited into the collection, but there’s a sense of history when you personally know the researcher who collected a particular insect 50 years ago.

In the category of “Overly honest collection information” we have this poor carabid beetle:


I also found a hackberry emperor butterfly (Asterocampa celtis) with a collection label that claimed the butterfly had “attacked the collector.” Hackberry butterflies are attracted to human sweat and are sometimes very enthusiastic about doing so. Unfortunately the specimen was so badly damaged by dermestid beetles that it was beyond saving.

And then there is this specimen of the katydid hunter Sphex pensylvanicus L.:


Notice the lighter-brown “sea-weedy” material on the tarsi? There’s a lot of it on the front legs (click on the photo for a larger image). We think these may be the thalli of a parasitic ascomycete fungus, possibly in the Order Laboulbeniales or a similar group. While some Laboulbeniales are associated with ants, I haven’t been able to find any published reports of these fungi on other Hymenoptera. These structures could be from a different type of ectoparasitic fungi or something else entirely, perhaps something new to science. Natural history collections are full of unrecognized species and hidden data waiting for someone to spot them, as described in this recent article from The Atlantic. I have no doubt that VTEC holds its share of hidden discoveries waiting for someone to bring them to light.

Sadly, I don’t have the time right now to investigate this specimen any further as our new insect cabinets have just arrived! Our immediate goal now is to arrange the collection into an updated phylogenetic order in the new cabinets. Sometimes curation is more about housekeeping than scientific research.

(Special thanks to Pat Shorter, an undergraduate member of the Marek Lab, for taking the photo of our infected Sphex wasp! She also took the photos of the Cissites auriculata beetle in our previous post.)

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A Weird Beetle and a Lesson on Proper Labels

I’ve been sorting through some donated material over the past week and found a really cool insect to share today. When I first saw it, my reaction was “What is THAT?” There was no collection data label associated with this large specimen (approximately 30 mm in length), so I didn’t know when or where it was collected, which might have helped me identify the insect.


At first I thought this might be a very strange tiger beetle because of the large mandibles and long legs. But while cicindelids can be large, they don’t have this coloration and their heads don’t bulge like this.

CissitesFront_resize CissitesDorsal_resize

Next I thought it might be an odd longhorn beetle, but again, not with that particular coloration or the weird head. Eventually the head and neck reminded me of the blister beetles and I was able to identify the specimen to species.

This is Cissites auriculata (Champion 1892), also known as the big-eared blister beetle (Coleoptera: Meloidae). These are impressively large beetles (19-37 mm) with striking orange and black coloration. Males have a curiously shaped head with bulging temples above the eyes (the “big ears”) and long, stout black mandibles. Females have a smaller head and shorter, stout mandibles. (There are some excellent photos of the heads of C. auriculata and its sister species Cissites maculata in García-París et al.’s 2013 paper). The larvae, like most meloid beetles, are parasitic on bees. The genus Cissites attacks carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp., Hymenoptera: Apidae) (references in Quinn 2011). Cissites auriculata is an uncommon species sometimes found at lights or searching for carpenter bee nests on wooden structures (García-París et al. 2013). The host range of C. auriculata is from Central America into Mexico and, more recently, into southern Texas (García-París et al. 2013; Quinn 2011).

I mentioned that this specimen has no collection label. Sadly, we cannot place it in the Virginia Tech Insect Collection without a label. Curators hate finding specimens without labels because these specimens cannot contribute any scientific information to what we know about the species. At the bare minimum, the collection date and locality of each specimen should always be recorded on a label placed on the pin. Labels now commonly include locality, date, collector names, time, elevation, geographic coordinates, habitat, weather, and even a data matrix code directing you to a database with additional maps or other information…a wealth of scientific data all in a legible format thanks to computers and printers.

Most entomologists, even amateurs, recognize the importance of a proper label for an insect specimen. However, when faced with processing a large number of insects, some students feel that labeling is just extra work after all the collecting, spreading, and pinning. Students may feel that they can trust their memory to where that specimen was collected and when, or that keeping this information in a field notebook is sufficient.

It’s not sufficient. It’s never sufficient. People forget details with time but insect collections may be preserved long beyond the lifespan of the collector. Field notebooks get separated from specimens or even lost entirely, and then the useful information vanishes, leaving the pinned specimen just an interesting biological artifact. If a collector is going to take the time to collect a specimen and properly pin it, why not take another couple of minutes to include the collection label?

For instance, we don’t know when or where this particular C. auriculata was collected. Did someone find it in Mexico or farther south into Central America? Or was this specimen collected in southern Texas, where the species appears to be expanding its range northward? Cissites auriculata was first collected in the United States at Big Bend National Park, Texas, in 2003 and 2004 (references in Quinn 2011; Lewis 2004). Since then, photos of C. auriculata from the lower Rio Grand Valley in Texas have been submitted to with some regularity. A collection label could establish that this species was in southern Texas before the other reported U.S. records. Or not. The thing is, we have no label so we cannot make any inference about the specimen’s seasonality, range, or population. Our specimen could represent a unique population that no longer exists due to habitat loss, and tragically we would never be able to recognize that because there’s no label.

So what will become of our unlabeled but eye-catching C. auriculata? We’ll place it in an insect drawer to show people during tours of the collection. Large, colorful insects are always popular with visitors of all ages. Perhaps this beetle will inspire someone to learn more about entomology or biological diversity. Even better (in my opinion), this specimen can serve to illustrate a requisite lecture in Insect Biology detailing why collection information is so important for natural history specimens. This particular C. auriculata will hopefully remind future entomologists to always, always label their specimens.


García-París, M., C. Piñango, J. Mananilla, & A. Zaldívar-Riverón. 2013. On the presence of Cissites maculata (Coleoptera: Meloidae) in Mexico. Revista Mexicana de Biodiversidad 84(3): 855-864. doi:10.7550/rmb.33905

Lewis, A.E. 2004. A United States Record for the Genus Cissites Latreille (Coleoptera: Meloidae: Zonitini). The Coleopterists Bulletin 58(4): 635-636.

Quinn, M. 2011. Big-eared Blister Beetle.

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Greetings from the New Home of the Virginia Tech Insect Collection!

My name is Dr. Theresa Dellinger, but I go by the nickname of Tree. I’m the collections manager for the Virginia Tech Insect Collection (VTEC). I’ve spent much of the past semester moving the collection from an off campus storage location into its new home in Seitz Hall. It’s good to have the collection back on campus, where it will be readily accessible for study and research.

Our room in Seitz was renovated last fall with new flooring, new paint, new air conditioning, and a new dehumidifier. It’s a large room with plenty of space for work tables and microscopes, desks and computers, and students and staff. Although the room is in the basement, there’s excellent work lighting available and even a large bank of windows along one wall that lets in natural light.


Right after the new year we received our order of over 1,000 new Cornell drawers and a staggering number of new unit trays to go into those drawers. Our new insect cabinets should be arriving in another month or so. New cabinets, new insect drawers, new unit trays. Rarely does a collection manager have an opportunity like this to refresh a collection with new components, and we’re excited to begin restoring the collection.

CornellDrawerStacks1 UnitTrayBoxes

This week we started transferring the old unit trays containing the pinned specimens into new insect drawers. It’s a bit monotonous after the third or fourth hour, but the work is going smoothly with my team of student helpers (supported by an NSF Collections in Support Biological Research Collection award, DBI#1458045). We’re fortunate to have two undergraduate students and a master’s student to help with this process. Our goal is to complete this transfer before the new insect cabinets arrive, and then we’ll install the new drawers into the new cabinets.


After that, all of the specimens will be transferred from the old unit trays into new ones. This will be time consuming because insect specimens are fragile and can be damaged if handled too roughly. Moving each individual specimen into its new unit tray will require much care to avoid having legs or other appendages fall off unnecessarily. I will probably have to give up coffee during this part of the project.

On the bright side, I’m getting to see the collection up close for the first time in quite a while. Some of our specimens are things you just don’t get to see every day, like these gorgeous scarab beetles [Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae, Chrysina strasseni (Ohaus)] from Honduras.


This is also an opportunity to see what parts of the collection are in the most need of curation. The VTEC has not had a full-time employee to care for it for a number of years. One member of the department gave some of his time and a chunk of his budget to maintain the collection, but he was unable to fully curate it due to time constraints and budget limitations. We haven’t had someone available to work in the collection beyond very basic maintenance until now, so there’s much work to be done. At the very least, the collection is currently in a circa mid-1990s phylogenetic order, so there will be a lot of shuffling to get the specimens into an up-to-date arrangement.

While we have a number of donations waiting to be incorporated into the collection, the overall growth of the collection has been a little flat recently. My role as collections manager isn’t specifically to grow the collection, but I hope to add some fresh material from Malaise traps and sweep net sampling this year. It’s going to be a very busy, but very satisfying year in the basement of Seitz Hall!

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