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.

Imitation game

Last month we had the pleasure of hosting artist and scientist Dr Immy Smith as part of her week-long takeover of @IAmSciArt on Twitter. Drawing inspiration from the Museum’s collections, Immy has created some beautiful paintings. Here she tells us a little more about her interests and work…

My current artwork is focused on crypsis and mimicry – the ways that animals and plants disguise themselves or pretend to be something they’re not. Cryptic camouflage helps animals to avoid being seen, often to help them catch prey – or to avoid becoming prey themselves! Mimicry is also often about trying not to get eaten: the harmless hornet moth, for example, mimics a stinging insect to deter predators. I use these themes to develop print art projects, and also public workshops to help people learn more about the ecology of cryptic animals.

Cryptic Cards by Immy Smith

In my arts practice I try to imagine how animals and plants might evolve to camouflage themselves on human-made materials, and what they might look like. Will we one day find moths adapted to hide on advertising hoardings, or beetles mimicking litter? I made an entire deck of Cryptic Cards as a response to this kind of question.

Another project I’m working on at the moment is called Emergent Crypsis. This is a collaboration with Norweigan generative artist Anders Hoff who makes art using algorithms executed by a computer. I’m imagining how creatures might adapt to an extreme example of human-made patterns – computer generated abstract images.

Violin Beetle (Mormolyce phyllodes) by Immy Smith

My work requires me to closely study many animals and plants, but how do I learn about all these species in order to draw their imaginary relatives? How do I make my art a convincing representation of how life might find ways to hide on human-made art?

One answer is of course, the internet. I’ve been lucky enough to find many wildlife photographers online who are kind enough to let me use their images as reference. But photographs alone are not always enough to get to know the fine details and defining characteristics of a species: the joints and articulations of small insects, for example, are best studied from specimens. And some species are rare, or even extinct, and it can be hard to find photographic a reference.

Leaf-footed Bug (Diactor bilineatus) by Immy Smith

This is where scientific collections come into the picture. The collections held in museums and other institutions are not only essential for scientists and scientific illustrators, they are also an invaluable resource for artists of many disciplines, science communicators, and educators of many kinds. In the collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History I can photograph and sketch leaf-mimicking insects, for example, that are native to the forests of South America which I may never visit. I can study in minute detail the articulation of beetles that are rarely seen, and which might be difficult to find – and irresponsible to collect – myself.

A display of terrestrial bugs (Heteroptera) in the Museum, including the Leaf-footed Bug painted by Immy Smith

Not only do I find specific species that I want to study in natural history collections, I often see new ones – animals I didn’t know about or hadn’t thought of drawing before. In the same week that I visited Oxford, I also made a trip to Herbarium RNG in Reading to study plant mimicry, and found similar inspiration there. I can channel all this into both aesthetic art destined for print and sciart workshops that communicate the wonders of insects or plants with the wider community.

Working on sciart projects and educational workshops helps me appreciate the multitude of ways in which collections benefit research and education. We must try to communicate the plethora of roles they play, and the host of ways they cross into our lives – whether through scientific research on insects pollinators of the crops we eat, or via a deck of cards made by someone like me for mainly recreational purposes. We must fight to protect scientific collections because they are a resource that benefits all of us as a society.