The most insulting letter I ever had!

by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, and Kiah Conroy, placement student from Oxford Brookes University

James Charles Dale (1791-1872) was a pioneering English naturalist who devoted most of his life to entomology. Dale’s specimen collection and archive represent a unique historical record of the insect fauna of Great Britain and everyday life in the 19th century. Originally housed in more than 30 cabinets in the Museum’s entomology department, the Dale collection contains many notable specimens, including the world’s oldest pinned insect and several species now extinct in Britain.

Dale was also a prolific writer and the Museum archive holds his notebooks, manuscripts and around 5,000 letters from over 250 correspondents. They form one of the most important historical legacies left by any British entomologist. The individual letters were numbered by Dale and tied into bundles relating to the correspondents. While the bundles were great from an organisational point of view; in terms of long term preservation and accessibility this wasn’t exactly ideal. We were lucky enough to have a placement student from Oxford Brookes University who helped facilitate the first stage of reorganising the letters and rehousing them to ensure their longevity. Kiah shares her experience of working in the archives:

During my placement at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History I was working in the Library and Archives department. The work I did whilst I was there consisted of helping sort through the letters of entomologist James Charles Dale. This was a huge opportunity for me because I had never worked with archival materials before and it was something I was hugely interested in. Some might say archiving letters can be boring, but sometimes you stumble across really interesting finds. For example, when I was working on the letters I found one that Dale had addressed as ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ This is fascinating because his letters gave an insight into the relationships he had with fellow entomologists.

James Charles Dale (1791-1872)

The letter Kiah describes was from Reverend Henry Burney, an amateur entomologist who corresponded with Dale between 1837 and 1847. Although the correspondence is one-sided since we only have Burney’s letters to Dale, it is clear the two had a falling out over money which Burney owed to Dale. As Kiah was rehousing the letters she noticed that the correspondence between Dale and Burney became increasingly tense.

Dale had a habit of annotating many of the letters he received and his annotations on Burney’s letters are curt and cold- he was clearly unimpressed that Burney took so long to pay him back- culminating in his final comment that this was ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ Oh, the drama of the 19th century!

Along with archiving the letters, I also learnt how to catalogue archive material to a high standard as well as learning how to put the James Charles Dale Letters into the museum’s collection management database Emu. This was the most challenging aspect for me, because I had no idea how intricate museum databases could be. Luckily, the whole Library and Archive team were very supportive and showed me the steps. Overall, I really enjoyed my time at the Natural History Museum and I am very grateful I was given the chance to work there.

Why do we need pinned insect specimens?

Since we posted about ten-year-old Sarah’s amazing beetle discovery, we’ve had lots of queries as to why the insect needed to be caught and pinned. It’s a question we’re often asked, so here’s Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections at the Museum, to explain the value of ‘voucher specimens’.

The Museum’s collection houses over five million insect specimens, amassed over the past 300 years. This collection is, in effect, a biodiversity database, but unlike virtual databases, each data point has an associated ‘voucher specimen’ that was caught, pinned and labelled.

Although technical advances in digital macro-photography do reduce the need for some collecting, it is impossible to dissect an image to confirm an identification. So for many groups, even the best photograph in the world is inadequate for identification purposes.

Shingle CrawlerD18 (Psammoporus insularis Pittino, 2006) one of our few endemic insects.

Unlike plants and birds, many insects can only be identified with the aid of a microscope, to study tiny features that distinguish closely-related species. Some groups even require the dissection of minuscule genitalia to really tell them apart.

Entomologists take voucher specimens to enable this correct identification and these are later deposited in museum collections, making them available for further study in years to come. From an entomologist’s point of view, we believe we need to know what a species is, where it occurs and as much about it as possible, so we can inform biodiversity conservation.

The conservation assessment of UK insects by Natural England in their Species Status Reviews has only been possible with the data provided by entomologists, generated from collecting and identifying voucher specimens.

Entomologists follow a Code of Conduct for responsible collecting, which ensures they don’t remove too many species or damage the environment during their work .

There are numerous examples of the value and use of insect collections in contemporary science, including the discovery of previously unknown species in the UK and population genetics for butterfly conservation. Recently a species believed extinct in the UK was rediscovered. This was only made possible by checking the identification of several thousand museum specimens.

Museum collections also contain numerous examples of species now considered extinct in the UK. Without voucher specimens much of this research would be impossible and our understanding of insect distribution patterns, ecology and conservation would be significantly diminished.

Large Tortoiseshell butterflies, now considered to be extinct in the UK. The voucher specimens act as record in time of its occurrence in the UK.

What is rare?
Sarah’s False Darkling Beetle (Anisoxya fuscula) has been described as ‘rare’, but what does that mean in reality? For most invertebrates when we talk about a rare species we are not talking about a tiny number of individuals. This conservation status is based on their known distribution and the level of threat they face. A species can be rare if it is only found at one or two locations, but at those locations there may be many thousands of individuals.

The greatest threats to biodiversity are well known and include habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation and pollution, such as pesticides and light. Taking a small number of voucher specimens to confirm the identification of species has negligible impact on its population. But if we don’t know it’s there because we couldn’t identify it, then a housing development destroys its entire habitat… well you get the picture!

Further Reading
Ask an Entomologist
Entomological Collections
Natural England Species Status Reviews
To Kill or Not to Kill That is the Question Part 1
To Kill or Not to Kill That is the Question Part 2
To Kill or Not to Kill That is the Question Part 3
– Austin, J. J., & Melville, J. (2006). Incorporating historical museum specimens into molecular systematic and conservation genetics research. Molecular Ecology Notes, 6(4), 1089-1092.
– Colla, S.R., Gadallah, F., Richardson, L., Wagner, D., & Gall, L. (2012). Assessing declines of North American bumble bees (Bombus spp.) using museum specimens. Biodiversity and Conservation, 21(14), 3585-3595.
– Short, A. E. Z., Dikow, T., & Moreau, C. S. (2018). Entomological collections in the age of big data. Annual review of entomology, 63, 513-530.
– Suarez, A.V., & Tsutsui, N.D. (2004). The value of museum collections for research and society. AIBS Bulletin, 54(1), 66-74. Abstract available here
– Wandeler, P., Paquita, Hoeck, E.A. & Keller, L.F. (2007). Back to the future: museum specimens in population genetics. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 22.12, 634-642.

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.

Mustachioed Robber Flies

To celebrate National Insect Week 2016 we thought we would introduce you to the custodians of the Hope Entomology Collection here at the Museum. Our insect collection is made up of a whopping 6 million specimens, so our resident entomologists definitely have their work cut out. However, they have taken a little time out to tell us all about their specialisms and why their favourite insects are the best.

Zoë Simmons – Life Collections

Zoe

I have many favourites in the collections that I look after- insects demonstrate an immense diversity of form and behaviour. So much so in fact that I defy anyone that says that there is not one thing that they do not find interesting among the almost one million species described to date.

One of the groups that I often find myself returning to though is the Asilidae or Robber Flies. This is a group of predatory flies that feed on a wide range of insect species. Many species sport heavily bristled moustaches, which are thought to protect their faces as they feed but have the added bonus of making the on-trend hipster insect of the moment.

Mustachioed Robber Fly
A ‘moustachioed’ Hornet Robber Fly in the wild

As is common with predators they have exceedingly good eyesight and will sit, perched until they spot movement, at which point they will strike at the prey item in the air.

The legs are furnished with long spines that help hold the prey and the mouthparts have evolved into a hardened beak-like structure which can stab through even the tough exoskeleton of beetles. Entomologists who specialise in catching Asilids have to be wary as these flies are not afraid to use this to their advantage.

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As it happens, the largest and most striking species of fly in Britain is the Hornet Robber Fly, or as it is more commonly known, Asilus crabroniformis. Superficially, its appearance closely resembles that of a hornet. Seen from a distance it is easy to see how the two species may be confused by the casual observer (pro-tip: look for the antennae. Hornets have long, obvious yellow-brown antennae whereas those of the Robber Fly are dark and small), so much so in fact that the species name for the Robber Fly crabroniformis, translates as ‘hornet-form’. This mimicry of a species that is able to sting affords the Robber Fly a level of protection. It does not have a sting itself but the bluff works well.

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Also of interest, and linked to the next post by Darren Mann, is the fact that this species is one of the top predators of dung beetles. The females require dung from a herbivore such as a horse or cow to lay their eggs in. As a consequence adults can often be found hanging out in fields near to piles of dung, hoping to meet the mustachioed mate(s) of their dreams, whilst snacking on dung beetles that fly in to start their own dung-related romance story. The presence of this Robber Fly species is often indicative of the quality of the dung and its associated beetle fauna, and as such should be greeted with warmth and a hearty ‘hurrah’ if spotted for it means that the habitat is healthy.