Roger’s Bug Blog – natural history curating – Roger Payne

After 30 years of collecting insects for the museum, there is a real need to arrange some of them in modern taxonomic order. This is what I am busy doing at the moment with beetles. It entails using a modern checklist and producing lots of printed labels as well as checking some of the identification using up to date keys. The aim is that future researchers will be able to extract relevant data easily. Specimens in museums, along with the data on the specimen labels are an historical record of biological diversity and can be used to document changes in the distribution and abundance of species over time.

ImageHere I am working on the collections.

The Beetle Collection

Many of the beetles I am currently working on, I have collected myself, and the majority are from Essex. They also include a number of specimens collected by Peter Follett, who lived in Basildon but has now moved to Surrey. The specimens have full collecting data, which means they include a named location together with an Ordnance Survey grid reference, the date and the collector. This gives them maximum value as scientific specimens.  

Image

Stag beetles

Other beetle collections in the museum

In addition to the beetle collection I am working on, we also have a collection made by Mr W. J. Watts of Stanford Le Hope. He sold his collection of British beetles containing over 4,000 specimens to the museum in 1963. They were all collected between 1933 and 1960 and remain an extremely useful reference collection. Unfortunately, in common with many early 20th century collections, some of the localities can be a bit vague and lack grid references.

ImageSelection of Weevils from the collection of Mr Watts.

Another collection we have was made by Gretha Chapman who lived in North Benfleet. She was originally Danish and her collection includes many foreign beetles, which although they have been beautifully mounted, unfortunately have only minimal data. Many of beetles are large and colourful with a definite ‘wow’ factor.

ImageBlue Longhorn Beetle from the Chapman collection

Why beetles matter

You may be wandering what possible use is a beetle collection. But have you ever pondered the important, if not vital, role that beetles play in our environment? The conservation organisation ‘Buglife’ describes insects as ‘the small things that run the world’ and the truth is, they do, and we cannot survive for long without them.   There are an estimated 5 million species of insect in the world, and of these about 400,000 species are beetles. They comprise almost one third of all described animal species. A famous scientist, J. B. S. Haldane was once asked what could be inferred about God by studying his or her creation, and he replied that the Creator must have had an inordinate fondness for beetles!

ImageCallipogon barbatus from New Mexico from the Chapman collection.

The secret of a beetle’s success lies in how its body is constructed. Unlike other insects, beetles have hardened forewings which protect their more delicate hind wings neatly folded beneath them. This allows them to burrow or squeeze into the tightest of crevices yet doesn’t affect their ability to fly. It has enabled them to colonise virtually every terrestrial and freshwater habitat on the planet from the coldest to the hottest regions. Beetles are known to eat virtually every natural food from rotting animal or plant remains, fungi and living plants to other insects and animal dung. They can be found in a bewildering array of shapes, sizes and colours and include some of the largest insects on Earth as well as some of the smallest. Their colours can be truly amazing, resembling the brightest jewels you have ever seen. They are immensely important to the ecology of the planet and there are many species that impact directly on Mankind. Not just pest species that devour timber or our foodstuffs, but also those that perform vital functions such as disposal of dung and decaying  refuse, pollination, or as predators of the insect pests that destroy crops.

ImageWeevils in Chapman Collection

Insect populations never remain static, they ebb and flow, reacting to a multitude of factors including climate change. Some beetles have only recently arrived in Britain. Their presence affects those species already here in unpredictable ways, just as the arrival of the Grey Squirrel led to the demise of the native Red Squirrel. A named insect collection with full data covering a particular time period gives us a snapshot of what was around and this can be compared to studies that may be undertaken in the future.

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