My first memory of bugs is one of utter horror. I still remember it distinctly, almost 20 years later: my twin brother and I were playing outside on an ordinary summer’s day. My brother picked up an ant, so I picked one up, too. I innocently observed the red ant as it crawled around my fingers. Totally unwarranted; the ant bit my tiny finger. The battle scar that remained served as a reminder of the foundational lesson I learnt that day: bugs are my enemies.
Even as an adult, I have a low tolerance for insects of any kind (excluding lady bugs and butterflies, of course). Whenever a bug trespasses into my room, I need to call my sister to remove it, even if it’s the middle of the night. I felt pretty nervous about working in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum, one of the 29 University of Alberta Museums registered museum collections,which contains about one-million specimens. The last thing that I expected was to feel awestruck by the wonders of insects.
I spent two-weeks in the museum working with over 1,600 beetles from the West Indies. These specimens were collected during research trips that ranged from 1934 to 2006. Although these beetles are in the collection, their information hasn’t been uploaded to the Entomology Collection online search website. Using an Excel spreadsheet, I input data on each beetle’s characteristics (including its species, subspecies, habitat, sex, and life stage) and details on each beetle’s collection (including where it was collected and how). I then used Google Earth to find the latitude and longitude coordinates of where each beetle was collected. This allows the search website to visualize the distribution of specimens on a map. Digitizing the data for the beetles will increase their exposure to the world, and makes the collection more accessible to both local and international researchers.
It was inevitable that I would feel astounded by the beetles after working so closely with them. Danny (Assistant Curator of the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum) taught me that there are over one-million insects identified in the world (with more being discovered), and 40% of them are beetles. I worked with beetles that are menacingly large and beetles that are smaller than a speck, and each of them play a pivotal role in sustaining our Earth.
My two-weeks in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum taught me that it’s easy to enjoy my work when I’m among incredible people, even if I’m working with insects. Danny and Felix Sperling (Curator of the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum) are experts of their fields, and it was a privilege to spend time with them. Everyday with them was full of adventure and new learning. Thanks to Danny and Felix, my fear has been replaced with fascination at the insects that live amid us. Watch the film to get an inside-look at my unforgettable time in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum!
Since my last blog post I have changed gears from archaeology to entomology. Over the past two weeks I have been working in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum. What this means is that I have been working with bugs, spiders in particular! The E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum is one of the oldest museums at the University of Alberta, being founded in the mid-1920s in what was then the Department of Entomology. The Department of Entomology was merged with five other departments in the 1990s to create the Department of Biological Sciences.
While in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum, I had the chance to work with assistant curator, Danny Shpeley. What Danny has been getting me to work on is a very large donation of spiders that was donated to the Museum in 2017. This is a donation of about 26,000 spider specimens, from all over the world. Most of these spiders were collected in Canada, but there are also a great number from the United States, Mexico, Israel, and even more exotic places like Tanzania and Australia. I am taking a spider world tour from the comfort of my office chair! I have been slowly, but surely, making a dent in the donations, having completed work on around 400 specimens at the moment.
My job has been to refresh the alcohol, add an accession number into the vial, and database the information that is included on labels which are within the vials. These specimens are in vials that are filled with alcohol in order to preserve the spiders. Alcohol is used over pinning because spiders are soft-bodied, if they were pinned the spiders would shrivel up! So even though most of these spiders were collected in the 1960s, they look the same as the day that they were collected! The databasing is perhaps the most important part of my job. This is done on an Excel spreadsheet which will be uploaded to Mimsy, the University of Alberta Museums database. What makes these specimens valuable to the Museum is not necessarily the specimen itself, but the data. The data is what gives each specimen scientific importance. Information like where it was collected, the elevation, the habitat, and when it was collected can give researchers important knowledge of the species that they are looking at.
The reason for databasing is, much like my previous experiences in Bryan/Gruhn Archaeology Collection, to upload this data into an online database. This allows the public and researchers alike to learn more about a species and all that is involved with it. The most interesting part of the Virtual Museum for me was that you are able to see the distribution range of a species. Location is a crucial part of the databasing that I am doing, and the final product of thousands of data entries is a map where you can see the range of a species.
This data entry might not be the most glamourous work that I will be doing this summer, but it is perhaps some of the most important and valuable. Talking with the curator of the collection, Felix Sperling, he said something which has stuck with me, “On one hand this work is incredibly boring, but on the other it is incredibly important.” Databasing is a huge part of museum work, and this saying is probably the most accurate representation of it!
My time here at the E.H. Strickland is drawing to a close today, and I must say that I loved my time here! I have a newfound respect for bugs, and everything creepy crawly!