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.

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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.

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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 Bugguide.net 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.

References

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. texasento.net/Cissites.htm

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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New home

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Seitz Hall, the new home of Virginia Tech’s Insect Collection

This winter, the Virginia Tech Insect Collection is moving back to campus. After 20 years of temporary storage at Price’s Fork Research Facility (7 km east of campus), the 125-year-old collection is getting a new home in Seitz Hall.

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New collection space in Seitz Hall on Virginia Tech’s campus

Thanks to Deans Dr. Saied Mostaghimi and Dr. Alan Grant at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Virginia Tech Insect Collection received an open 223 m-sq space in Seitz Hall (room A4, above). The space was excellent and we started right in with renovating the room. Renovation support was kindly provided by CALS and the Department of Entomology. Renovations included assessing the load limit of the floor, removing old carpet squares, patching and painting the walls, laying a new vinyl floor, and installation of two AC units and a dehumidifier for proper storage of dried insect specimens. (Thanks to VT Facilities, Josh Echols and Barry Keith and for installation of AC units and supervising the completion of the project!)

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Seitz A4 sans carpeting and with a fresh coat of paint

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The renovated room, complete with a new vinyl floor and ready for move-in

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With the help of students in the Entomology Department at Virginia Tech, we started moving drawers back to campus, L to R: Katy Lawler (undergraduate, major: Wildlife and minor: Entomology), Jackson Means (PhD student: millipede systematics), Rhea Wong (MS student: millipede systematics), Pat Shorter (undergraduate, major: Biology and minor: Entomology).

Last month, and with generous support from an NSF Collections in Support of Biological Research award (DBI# 1458045) we received 1020 new Cornell drawers from Hh, and this month 22 new museum-grade insect cabinets from Delta Designs will arrive. There’s been a lot of activity in the Insect Collection and the next project is swapping the loose-fitting and pest-prone old drawers with new tight-fitting drawers from Hh.

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Support from the National Science Foundation

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I am pleased to announce that our proposal for a Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR) grant that we submitted for the Virginia Tech Insect Collection has been funded by the National Science Foundation! This award from the Division of Biolological Infrastructure (DBI) at NSF supports improvements to biological natural history or stock collections in the U.S.

The insect collection in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech is an exceptional repository of pollinators, endangered insects, and many native species, once common but now disappearing from habitat loss. Museum specimens provide a critical baseline for comprehending biological change through time, tracking the spread of insect disease vectors and agriculturally destructive invasive species that threaten our ecosystems, agriculture and public health. This collection is a frontier for the discovery and description of biodiversity, representing hundreds of undescribed new species. This award will provide support for personnel and new cabinets and drawers to improve conditions for specimens. Specimen data will be digitized and made accessible through online resources, improving access to “dark data” conserved alongside the physical specimens (more than 98 percent of the material is currently not digitized). Several scientifically valuable collections in the museum will be conserved, including specimens of Federally Endangered species, endemic Appalachian species, and critical pollinators.

Despite the continuous use and constant growth of this collection, the storage and curation methods are antiquated and it is currently located at a temporary storage facility. This project will provide critical support to the collection and will accomplish the relocation of the collection to campus, improve the physical storage infrastructure for specimens, and address digitization, cataloguing, and documentation of specimens. Over the duration of this project, undergraduate and graduate students along with a new full-time collections manager will be trained in collections research, including curatorial best practices, digitization, and networking biodiversity data. Public outreach events will target the underserved Appalachian population. Science curriculum kits will be developed for elementary students, and old insect cabinets and drawers will be upcycled as mini-natural history collections and donated to local nature centers. An insect collection exhibit will be developed for the University’s annual Bug Fest and Bug Camp for elementary school students. With a revitalized presence on campus and a greater capacity to engage the public with insects and science, the Virginia Tech Insect Collection represents a unique and powerful resource to translate the importance of biodiversity and science to the historically underserved Appalachian region. All data resulting from this project will be shared with iDigBio (http://www.idigbio.org/), ensuring accessibility to researchers and the public.

We would like to thank the National Science Foundation for awarding this generous grant to Virginia Tech, and for supporting natural history collections throughout the U.S. and their many essential research activities.

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The Paulson Parasite Collection

The Paulson parasite collection was orphaned to the entomology department from Dr. Paulson, brother of Dr. Sally Paulson. It is fascinating, to say the least, composed mainly of endo- and ectoparasites collected from various small mammals, with dates on the specimens ranging from the 70’s to the 90’s. However, the jars and vials in the collection not only contain the parasites found on and in the animals, but oftentimes the entire animal itself or, strangely enough, just the animal’s baculum or stomach. In fact, we found that a large amount of the vials in the collection were stomachs from small mammals, such as voles and squirrels, ranging from fully intact to completely deteriorated.

Katy Lawler, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Marek's lab, refilling vials. Pictured in front are vials of stomachs of the eastern chipmunk.

Katy Lawler, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Marek’s lab, refilling vials. Pictured up close are vials of stomachs of the eastern chipmunk.

Nina Zegler, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Marek's lab, refilling a vial with 80% EtOH

Nina Zegler, an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Marek’s lab, refilling a vial with 80% EtOH

Over the course of the semester, Katy Lawler and I took on the task of going through and performing curatorial work on the Paulson parasite collection. Our main goal was to help to preserve this extensive collection for future study. The collection is full of great specimens that have the potential to be very useful in future research, but it was in desperate need of some TLC. Many of the specimens in the vials were either already too dried out to be rehydrated or were very close to being at that point. The collection was contained in three large cardboard boxes, with most of the vials organized in smaller boxes placed haphazardly inside and others just floating freely. The vials that were organized into smaller boxes were usually grouped by what species of animal the specimen was taken from. None of the vials were identified by what parasite was actually present.

One out of three large cardboard boxes containing the Paulson parasite collection.

One out of three large cardboard boxes containing the Paulson parasite collection.

Smaller boxes, containing specimens from one species of animal.

Smaller box, containing specimens all from the red chipmunk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took the time to go through every box and top off the vials that could be refilled (determined by at least some moisture being present but with low alcohol content) with 80% ethyl alcohol. After going through an entire smaller box of vials, we specified on the side of the box the number of vials topped off over the total number of vials in the box, the alcohol used, and the date this was done. In many cases, an entire small box might be filled with stomachs from Tamias striatus, the eastern chipmunk. In other cases, a box might be filled with jars containing different life stages of Microtus pennsylvanicus, the North American vole. Other specimens found in the vials included fleas, lice, nematodes, and bot fly larvae.

Bot fly larva (genus Cuterebra)

Bot fly larva (genus Cuterebra)

Working on this collection presented exciting, albeit often unpleasant, surprises at every opening of a new box. We were quick to share with one another whatever astonishingly foul smell or strange specimen we each came across.

As we went through the collection, we noticed that many vials were labeled with numbers as though they were part of a catalog. Upon searching in the three boxes for some sort of record of this catalog, the only thing we found was an old floppy disk, the contents of which we excitedly opened only to find several funny gifs.

It is evident that lots of time and skill went into compiling this vast collection, which makes it surprising that it had become so disorganized. While the collection is now in much better shape, it still could use more work, including photographing and documenting the specimens present. We plan to try to contact Dr. Paulson to inquire about the mysterious missing catalog and to get more information on the collection.

 

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McGinleying

VTech Insect Collection Assessment

Over the past month our lab has been taking part in an activity we have fondly come to refer to as “McGinleying.” Ronald J. McGinley was a curator at the National Museum of Natural History in the Department of Entomology from 1983 to 2000, during which time he published two papers detailing how to properly curate and assess the quality of an insect collection (1989, 1993). As part of this assessment, each drawer of specimens would be ranked on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being emergency-level (such as active dermestid beetle pests) and 10 being perfect. In 2011, the NC State University Insect Museum adapted this profiling system for modern day collections, adding such technologically advanced curatorial methods as barcoding, and reducing the scale to 8 possible levels.

The insect collection here at Virginia Tech has seen relatively little attention paid to it since Dr. Michael Kosztarab left in the early 90’s. It is also kept several miles off campus, and so we endeavored to move the collection back onto campus, and in the process improve curatorial quality. Hence, about a month ago, we began “McGinleying” in earnest, going through each of our nearly 800 insect drawers and assigning values based on the NC State modified McGinley curation scale.

The McGinley scale has been adopted by many large insect collections due to its common sense approach and usefulness in collection triage. When a drawer is scored as a “1”, for example, we know that there is something seriously wrong that must be dealt with as soon as possible. A drawer scored a “3” certainly is not perfect, but immediate improvement is not necessary. The following is a breakdown of the stipulations for each McGinley level, along with our thoughts and experiences:

Level 1: A drawer scored a “1” is in dire need of attention, either due to a live dermestid colony (upon the discovery of which we placed the drawer in a freezer for at least 72 hours; Fig. 1), a total lack of labels (Fig. 2), specimens lying on their sides, and fungus or rust on the pin or specimen (Fig. 3) which, if left unchecked, can cause serious damage to the specimen. Any other issues, such as drawer or cabinet uniformity may also dictate a “1” score, though we did not think uniformity was particularly important at this stage of our collection improvement.

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Fig. 1:
Evidence of dermestid damage. Dermestid feeding is frequently accompanied by dust underneath the specimen, and entry holes can be found on the specimen’s abdomen or thorax.

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Fig. 2:
A specimen lacking any identification or locality labels.

 

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Fig. 3:
The pin in the center of the photograph is covered in green rust, which has invaded the specimen.

Level 2: Drawers with unsorted and/or under identified, but labeled, specimens are ranked as a “2” (Fig. 4). “Unsorted” refers to a mix of individuals from different orders, families and/or genera in the same tray. A tray of unsorted specimens would not constitute “loanable” units, which are trays that can be loaned out to interested parties (Fig. 5). We made exceptions to this rule, however, for very small families. If the totality of the individuals from a single family, for example Phengodidae, housed in the collection can fit into one tray then that is a loanable unit.   Large families such as Curculionidae or Tachinidae would not be exceptions to this rule, and would therefore need to be sorted to genera to constitute a “3”.

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Fig. 4:
A level “2” drawer made up of unsorted weevils.

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Fig. 5:
An example of a loanable unit.

One problem we frequently encountered was a mix of unsorted specimens and well curated specimens in the same drawer. For these situations we decided that if over 25% of the specimens in a drawer were unsorted then that drawer received a “2”. If an otherwise well curated drawer has less than a quarter of unsorted material then it would be inefficient to rank it as a “2”.

Level 3: Drawers of sorted specimens in loanable units identified to genera are ranked as a “3” (Fig. 6). These specimens can be loaned out, but are not identified below the genera level and are therefore accessible by the scientific community but lack valuable information.

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Fig. 6:
An example of a level 3 drawer, where specimens are identified to genus and represent loanable units.

Level 4: This level is unique in that it is more of a ranking subset than a true rank on its own. Loans which are returned to the collection but have yet to be reincorporated are given a “4” (Fig. 7). These are not common, and if there is no written information accompanying such drawers then they can be easily mistaken for another rank.

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Fig. 7:
An example of unincorporated specimens, which we have concentrated into one cabinet.

Level 5: Drawers given a “5” contain a majority of specimens which are identified to species, though general curatorial quality may be low (Fig. 8). Issues with these drawers are minimal, such as a lack of room for expansion, missing header labels and/or specimens in hard-bottomed trays.

Level 6: No curatorial issues can be found. All specimens are identified to species, there is space for expansion and header labels are present. We were unwilling to rank any of our drawers as a “6”, as that would indicate that we were finished with basic curation, and the time required to properly assess curation completion was too great (the identification of each individual specimen would need to be verified).

Level 7: Drawer digitization. This includes photographs and collection of data on number of individuals, taxa and any ancillary data.

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Fig. 8:
An example of a level 5 drawer. All specimens are identified to species, but there are hard bottom trays, some missing headers and, in this case, probably a little too much room for expansion.

Level 8: Individual specimen digitization and barcoding.

Tips: One thing to keep in mind when scoring a collection using a pre-existing grading scale is the reason that scoring is taking place. If unlabeled specimens are not something that you or your institution deems as needing immediate attention than score them as a “2” and move on. When grading hundreds of specimen drawers it is important to be both consistent and fast, and in that regard one must have delineated, preferably before beginning collection profiling, what each scale should indicate for those who will be repairing or improving the collection. Using a pre-existing scale can lead to placing more importance on following the scale than on modifying the scale to one’s own needs. That being said, by following an established grading scale institutions can hold themselves and each other to a universal level of quality, and can more easily communicate needs for collection improvement. A balance must therefore be struck between slavishly following a prescribed ranking system to the detriment of the efficiency and developing a unique ranking system that other institutions will have difficulty understanding or following.

We found that “McGinleying” the collection was a two-person job, with one individual taking notes while the other manipulates the drawers, and both coming to a consensus on drawer rank. We also timed ourselves throughout and found that our average time was around a minute per drawer. Figure 9 shows the percentages of our cabinets that fell within each McGinley level. The majority of our drawers were either “2s” or “5s”, which may indicate that, in the past, once a drawer did receive attention most of the individuals were identified to species and sorted correctly. Luckily, only about 10% of our drawers were ranked as “1s”, and, as stated above, those with dermestid issues were immediately placed in a freezer for about 3 days. The form we used for recording the rank and comments for each drawer can be seen in Figure 10.

McGinley Level Breakdown
Fig. 9:
A pie chart showing the percentages of our drawers that were in each category. The categories, from 1 to 5 are on the left with their corresponding color.

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Fig. 10:
An example of the form we used for data collection.

We now have a roadmap for targeting the areas within our collection that can be quickly improved, and with relatively little effort we can make huge enhancements. Overall the process was fun and informative, and often resulted in exciting (and time consuming as we ooo’d and awww’d) discoveries (Fig. 11)!

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Fig. 11:
Often you’ll find yourself too distracted by all the fascinating specimens to keep scoring!

References:

  • Deans, A. (2011). Profiling the pinned collection. 2014, from blog.insectmuseum.org/?p=2347
  • McGinley, R. (1989). Entomological collection management—Are we really managing? Insect Collection News, 2, 19-24.
  • McGinley, R. (1993). Where’s the management in collections management. In C. Rose, S. Williams & J. Gisbert (Eds.), Congreso Mundial Sobre Preservación y Conservación de Colecciones de Historia Natural. Vol. 3. Temas de Actualidad, Iniciativas y Direcciones Futuras sobre Preservación y Conservación de Colecciones de Historia Natural (Vol. 3, pp. 309-338). Madrid: Dirección General de Bellas Artes y Archivos.

 

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New logo!

VPIC_logo

Fresh off the presses, the Virginia Tech Insect Collection now has a logo! While designing it, I wanted it to be (a) classic looking and (b) include a beetle or a butterfly. I thought about an animated gif like the Entomological Society of Pennsylvania‘s flashing firefly logo, or with an entomological oddity like the Royal Entomological Society‘s logo with a strepsipteran, or even the Entomological Society of British Columbia‘s with a snow scorpion.

I ultimately ended up with the Diana fritillary, Speyeria diana. Though, I’m still considering an animated gif with a male and a female flashing on and off (the male colors are completely different, they’re orange and black). The female, shown in the logo, is deep midnight blue with sky and pale blue highlights. Just the female is part of the black mimicry ring that also includes the Pipevine swallowtail and our state butterfly the Eastern tiger swallowtail, among several other species.

The Diana is native throughout the eastern U.S. and can be found at the edges of rich moist forests, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains. One unique aspect of this species is that the female oviposits besides its host plant, a violet, and not directly on it. The larvae then burrow into the ground to overwinter then emerge in the spring to feed.

Notably, the Diana was  described in 1777 by the Dutch entomologist Pieter Cramer based on specimens collected near Jamestown, Virginia. Unfortunately, S. diana has not been seen in the area since the 1950s, and it’s believed extirpated from most of the eastern part of Virginia. In contrast you can find S. diana in the mountains of southwestern Virginia (including one spot just north of Blacksburg) and in restricted pockets throughout the southeastern U.S.

Further reading

  • Carlton, C. E., & Nobles, L. S. (1996). Distribution of Speyeria diana (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) in the highlands of Arkansas, Missouri & Oklahoma, with comments on conservation. Entomological News, 107, 213-219.
  • Howe, W. H. (1975). The butterflies of North America (p. 633). Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Scholtens, B. (2004). Diana fritillary, species description. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Online at: http://www.dnr.sc.gov/cwcs/pdf/DianaFritillary.pdf
  • Vaughan, D. M., & Shepherd, M. D. (2005). Species Profile: Speyeria diana. In: Red List of Pollinator Insects of North America. Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Online at: http://www.xerces.org/diana-fritillary/

 

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Taking a Look Around

I am a graduate student in the department of entomology and I  signed up for an independent class with Dr. Paul Marek.  The idea has been that I can learn things about our collection and curating.  You might imagine that insect collections are delicate things, and you would be right.  Preserving, identifying, and organizing tens of thousands of insects is a huge job.  Since Dr. Marek is now taking over the collection, we need to measure it to see what work has to be done to protect the collection and to make it more accessible.  The collection is a big sleeping giant of a research tool.  Each specimen has information for us.  We collect a bug and record the date, location, and sometimes the habits of the insects, then place it and its label information into the collection.  This doesn’t sound big, but when you multiply that information by the hundreds of thousands of specimens, you get an idea of just how much information is housed in these cabinets.

Collections conserve snapshots of the world around them so they can be used in the future, like a really well organized time capsule.  When you make a collection you need to figure out how to save specimens, then identify and organize specimens so others can use it in the future.  The future is here.  Dr. Marek arrived at Virginia Tech this summer as a new hire and is now curating the collection.  That means that he has come upon a huge time capsule.

Let’s open it!

One of the double cabinets filled with insect drawers (manufactured by prisoners in the Virginia prison system).

One of the double cabinets filled with insect drawers (manufactured by prisoners in the Virginia prison system)

How do you measure boxes of bugs?  Well, carefully.

A drawer from the Virginia Tech Insect Collection

A drawer from the Virginia Tech Insect Collection

Each cabinet has 20 or 40 of these drawers that are all organized taxonomically.  Each drawer is also organized down to the family, subfamily, tribe, genus and species levels. Eventually you can go look for one species and be able to find it quickly in a box like this:

A box of one species of Assassin Bugs (Reduviidae)

A box of one species of Assassin Bugs (Reduviidae)

There are museums where scientists curate huge collections, while simultaneously trying to do research and manage their collections.  To keep their jobs, they have to explain to other folks what they do, and why it’s important.  Some collections require huge amounts of work while others can be dormant for long periods of time.  To measure the status of their collections and to show just what needs to be done, scientists have come up with some measuring tools.  First they focus on the conservation of the specimens, then the organization level, and eventually on how accessible is the information surrounding the specimens.  This is where we started.  We opened up a cabinet, pulled out some drawers and measured things up.  We used the combination of a method described by McGinley at the Smithsonian in 1993 and by our neighbors at the North Carolina State Insect Collection.  We looked at each drawer as a unit and in it assessed the status of the specimens.  Were they all pinned, labeled, organized, and accessible for research?  All of this allowed us to come up with a grade for each drawer.  Take a look at what we came up with, and check back here later to see how we tied my field research in with this project.

Our review of the Lady Bird Beetles (Coccinellids) in the collection

Our review of the Lady Bird Beetles (Coccinellids) in the collection

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