Retired prof takes charge of University bug collection
10,000 BEETLES, BUTTERFLIES, ETC.
By Colleen MacPherson
Bob Randell has a unique job at the University of Saskatchewan, but it’s not for everyone, particularly those with entomophobia or an aversion to the smell of mothballs.
Randell, a retired biology professor, is the first curator of the University’s insect collection. Housed in an out-of-the-way storeroom in the Biology Building, the collection reflects the broad range of studies done here over the years, and the interests of private collectors who have donated their specimens to the U of S. While it may not seem like dead insects need a lot of tending, a collection without a curator is “like the cars in a carpool – nobody loves them”, he said. And he’s happy to take care of the insects, some older than the University itself.
Banks of large flat drawers hold the collection – butterflies, moths, beetles, mosquitoes, bugs of all kinds. Some are carefully pinned to boards. Others are sealed in small packages. Still others are jumbled together in boxes. And scattered all around are mothballs. Randell explained the pungent smell protects the collection from its most serious threat – other insects, the only organism able to digest the exoskeletons of the specimens.
Insect collecting started as a hobby, with the curious and wealthy compiling ‘cabinets of wonders’, explained Randell. As the science of entomology grew, so did insect collections, which moved out of private homes and into institutions like universities and museums. In North America today, the two largest are the United States Department of Agriculture collection, housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes, which is at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre in Ottawa.
Randell’s main mission is organizing the collection so it is more useful to researchers and students. With 10,000 specimens, it is considered “very insignificant, but its value is in supporting the work of particular researchers”. Experts use a collection to verify the taxonomy or classification of the insects they are studying. It is also useful when the public has questions about an insect – but usually the identification comes “after they’ve stepped on it”.
The collection’s value is diminished however, if people can’t find what they need or related information about a specimen. “Provenance is very important and as Biology becomes more specialized, the extra information collected with a specimen becomes more important.” Researchers require information like what plant the specimen was found on and what other insects were collected with it. Randell would like to see the U of S adopt a barcode system to make that information easy to access. Because the collection is organized by taxonomic grouping, a barcode would make it easy to link an insect in one group to insects in other groups gathered on the same expedition.
While he investigates barcoding, Randell keeps busy physically rearranging the sorted parts of the collection to improve its usefulness. “Hand pinning hundreds of specimens onto cork is not something people want to do,” he said. Instead, he uses small containers, which “make it easy to organize. It’s the original modular approach”. Volunteers to help with this task are always welcome, he said.
He is also trying to track specimens that were loaned out, some as long ago as 25 years, or have found new homes in University offices and labs.
The unsorted part of the collection is largely made up of private donations. He pointed out one that was started when Saskatchewan was still part of the Northwest Territories. The value of these specimens is limited because they are ungrouped but Randell said they are great for browsing on the taxonomist’s never-ending quest for new species.