From pin to paper

Katherine Child, image technician in the Museum’s Life collections, doesn’t just use photography to capture the beauty of specimens. She is also an artist and has been trying out innovative techniques for her paintings. You may remember her amazing moth illustrations created with deposits of verdigris on pinned insects and she’s now using that technique to explore Museum staff’s favourite insect specimens.

Verdigris is a green corrosion often found on old pins within entomology collections (as well as elsewhere, on things like statues and copper pipes). Last year, after learning that the substance was once used as a pigment, I decided to try and make my own paint.

A clearwing moth before conservation, showing verdigris spreading where metal reacts with insect fats, or lipids.

Verdigris forms when copper or a copper alloy reacts with water, oxygen, carbon dioxide or sulphur. While a beautiful shade of green, the substance is damaging in natural history collections, where it can actually develop inside specimens and if left, split them irreversibly. So as part of the conservation of the Hope Entomological Collections, verdigris is removed.

I started to collect up the substance as it was cleaned from specimens and after about three years (you only get a little bit per pin) I was ready to make my paint! After my first moth project, the only question was, what to paint next…?

Byctiscus populi or ‘The Attelabid that changed my life’, chosen by Zoë (collections manager) who said ‘I saw a pink version of this species in the Natural History Museum in London and that’s when I decided I wanted to study entomology’.

With an estimated 6 million insects and arachnids in the entomology collections, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. You can pull open any one of thousands of draws and find astonishing specimens. While I have favourites, my first inclinations as to what to paint still felt a little arbitrary. After mulling over various possibilities, I decided to get help!

Chosen by DPhil student Leonidas, Agalmatium bilobum is a little bug which lays its eggs on tree bark, then covers them with mud to protect them.

I asked my co-workers what their favourite insects were, then opened the question out to regular volunteers and visitors of the Life collections. I loved finding out why people chose the things they did. Answers varied from ‘It was the first spider I ever looked at under a microscope aged 12’ to ‘Because they’re cool’ to ‘Because they have an ingenious way of manipulating spiders!’

One of arachnologist Russell’s favourite spiders: Nuctenea umbratica. Though common in the UK, umbratica is Latin for “living in the shadows”, and it often hides away during the day. The slight transparency of the paint lends itself to a spider’s glittering eyes.


Painting this live African Mantis Sphodromantis lineola (chosen by conservator Jackie) was made slightly more challenging by the fact that the subject thought Katherine’s pencil might be tasty.

Most of the subjects I painted were based on specimens from the Museum’s collections or specimens individuals had brought in from their own collections, but one favourite was a live African Mantis, housed in the department to help with education and outreach. When I began to draw her she was intrigued by the movement of my pencil and came to the front of the tank, to follow every mark I made with her intimidating gaze.

A detail from the final painting
Attelabid that...
Katherine’s fabulous finished painting, which will be framed and displayed in the Life collections department.

Though time consuming, the painting was loads of fun to research and do. It’s fantastic to be surrounded not only by extremely knowledgeable people, but also by people with a genuine passion for what they do and a love for the insects (and spiders) they study.

One in a million find

By Rachel Parle, Public Engagement Manager

The Museum’s collection of British insects already houses over a million specimens, and now it boasts one more special insect.

Ten-year-old Sarah Thomas of Abbey Woods Academy in Berinsfield, Oxfordshire discovered a rare beetle in her school grounds while taking part in a Museum outreach session. To Sarah’s excitement, the beetle is so important that it has now become part of the collections here at the Museum – and it is the first beetle of its kind to be added to the historically important British Insect Collection since the 1950s.

Sarah Thomas examines her beetle under the microscope with Darren Mann, entomologist and Head of Life Collections at the Museum

Sarah’s class took part in a HOPE Discovery Day, where they were visited by a professional entomologist, learnt about insect anatomy and how to identify and classify specimens, and went on the hunt for insects in the school grounds. HOPE – Heritage, Outreach and Preservation of Entomology – is reaching out to students in state primary schools across Oxfordshire, using the Museum’s British Insect Collection to spark curiosity and foster a love of natural history. It’s all part of a bigger project at the Museum, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to safeguard this important Collection for the future and engage people with natural heritage.

Sarah brought her family to the Museum to see her beetle in the British Insect Collection.

After some searching, Sarah spotted a 5mm insect lurking under a leaf. To the untrained eye it looked rather like any other tiny shiny beetle, but luckily Darren Mann, Head of the Museum’s Life Collections, was visiting as part of the HOPE team. Darren spotted it as something unusually and took it back to the Museum to get a closer look under the microscope. He was then able to identify it as a False Darkling Beetle.

It’s Anisoxya fuscula, which is rated as Nationally Scarce in Great Britain. We seldom see these outside old forest habitats and this is the first beetle of its kind to be added to the collections for around 70 years.

– Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections

The False Darkling Beetle under the microscope and labelled in the Museum’s British Insect Collection as found by Sarah Thomas

The tiny beetle has been labelled with Sarah’s name and the location of her find, and added to the British Insect Collection. Though she’s very excited to have her specimen in the collections, Sarah admits that she hasn’t always been a big fan of insects:

Before Project Insect I didn’t really like insects, but now I really do.

– Sarah Thomas

Everyone at the Museum is really pleased with Sarah’s fantastic find and we hope it spreads the word to inspire others to become budding young entomologists too.

The beetle Sarah discovered will be stored in this drawer in the British Insect Collection.

All that glitters…

The latest display in our changing Presenting… series showcases some of the incredible colours seen in many insects. Zoe Simmons, collections manager in our Life Collections, explains how such wonderful hues are created.

Reflected and refracted light creates the many bright and shining colours found in some insects. The dazzling natural display shown in the specimens here is formed through a combination of embedded pigments and sculpted surfaces on each insect’s external skeleton.

Some species can be variable in colour. Here a pair of Lamprima, a genus of Stag Beetles, shows off the range of colours present in the species.

Different pigment chemicals are responsible for different colours. Carotenoids produce yellow, orange and red hues, while bilins may be green, or blue if linked with proteins. They reflect and absorb different wavelengths of light, and the wavelengths that are reflected are the ones that we see as colour. Typically humans can see wavelengths of 390-700 nanometres, with the lower wavelengths perceived as blue, and the higher ones as red.

Many of the Leaf Beetles (Chrysomelidae) exhibit metallic colours.

Many insects also have multiple thin layers over their upper surfaces to help protect them and prevent dehydration. Variations in thickness and chemical composition of these layers can interfere with the transmission of light, refracting and scattering it back.

Some of the most striking metallic colours are found in the genus Chrysina, where species can be rose, silver or gold.

The shape of the surface layer can reflect light in a multitude of directions, with micro-folds, grooves, pits, hairs and scales all helping to produce complex colours and effects.

The formation and purpose of these colours is scientifically interesting, with research having applications in areas such as nanotechnology. But these insects are also simply beautiful examples of the spectacular diversity of the natural world.

Sunset moths (Uraniidae) are so called because of the dazzling array of colours on their wings. As day-flying moths they are brightly coloured like many butterfly species.

Nature’s Waste Management Team

A Spotlight Specimens special for Oxford Festival of Nature

By Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections

One cow can produce over nine tonnes of dung per year. With a population of about 3.4 million cows in the UK alone, that’s a heck of a lot of dung deposited on our grasslands. Just imagine how much dung is produced every year if we include the output of horses, sheep, pigs, and all the wild animals out there.

Dor Beetle – Geotrupes mutator
Dor Beetle – Geotrupes mutator

All of this dung is broken down by a multitude of invertebrates, including flies, worms, and beetles, as well as bacteria, fungi, and weathering. One of the key groups involved in the removal and degradation process is the aptly named ‘dung beetles’.

In the UK there are 61 species of dung beetle, though sadly just over half of these are now in decline and some have already become regionally extinct. UK dung beetles vary in size from just 3 mm to over 25 mm and occur wherever dung is found, though some prefer sandy soils and others like to live in woodlands.

Larvae in dung pile
Dung beetle larvae (Aphodius fossor)

As adults, dung beetles feed on the liquid part of dung. The larvae of most of our species live inside the dung pile and are called the dwellers. These munch their way through the solid matter of the dung pile, gradually breaking it down over a few months. Other species such as Geotrupes mutator, pictured above, excavate a tunnel and bury the dung below ground. These tunnellers construct a brood chamber in which their young develop.

Aphodius fossor
Aphodius fossor

Through their actions, dung beetles perform a number of valuable ecosystem services. The most obvious is dung removal and degradation which leads to improved soil health by nutrient cycling and soil movement. By burying the dung they reduce the amount of available breeding habitat for pest flies and livestock parasites too.

All of these important services have been estimated to save the UK cattle industry £367 million per year. The value of dung beetles doesn’t end there as they also provide an important source of food for farmland mammals and birds. So next time you see a pile of dung in a field, just think of all the hard working beetles within…

Staff and associates of the Museum also run the Dung beetle UK Mapping Project – affectionately abbreviated to DUMP!

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