Hi, everyone! I'm not an entomologist--professional or hobbyist. I am, however, a writer and my next novel's protagonist is an entomologist. I am having trouble finding information on the nitty-gritty details of what her work would look like. She is a Cornell graduate, and half the book takes place in Ithaca, NY (with John and Anna Comstock strong supporting characters.)
I'd love it if someone could explain to me how someone living in the late 19th century would collect, prepare, and mount insects. What equipment and materials would they use? In my second scene, my protagonist is showing off a spiny orb-weaver she collected. She'll be preparing and mounting it in the scene, but I have no idea how she is supposed to do that. Thanks for your help.
If your character is working for a museum, this involves a lot of chemicals and recording species, usually in a back room of the building. It would be a pretty solitary work environment, unless you have the occasional pesky photographer wanting to see the collection *ahem, nomad*. If the character will be doing field work, there are a few different ways to collect insects (light sheet, bait traps, nets, etc.) and some gear to dispatch and store the specimens for future preparation. This would include things like a killing jar, specimen envelops, and maybe a journal to record where and when the specimen was caught.
For your second scene, an orb weaver spider probably wouldn't be the best candidate as they are usually stored in alcohol or some other liquid preservative. I have seen spider specimens dried, though, if you are set on using it. You could look at some old museum photos showing their curators, it might give you some inspiration.
If you need help with a specific topic, feel free to ask and maybe we can give a more detailed answer
Here is what a later 19th Century entomologists den would have looked like. Not much different from today in reality, you can see all the 19th century equipment. The white net in the far left hand corner is a old fashioned sweep net for smaller insects, on the insect storebox at the back of the table are pill boxes (for putting your insects in that you field collected) and a killing jar. On the table is a setting board, forceps and a number of setting needles with wooden handles. In the big black butterfly net, is what could be an example of the strange " umbrella net " however, a normal umbrella was used upside down for beating larvae from trees and bushes. A wooden entomological cabinet stands at the back of the room with a setting board cupboard on top.
Yeah...no wondering photographers. My character will be working in the Cornell entomology lab for part of the book. The rest of the book takes place in India and she'll be doing research in Tamil Nadu. What exactly happens in a killing jar? Does the insect die from lack of oxygen or do they put something in there? I'm not set on using that spider. It just looked like the most interesting insect I could find native to upstate NY. I only need it to set up her love for the science. She could be doing anything with any insect. How do I know which insects are stored in jars and which are mounted?
That photo is fabulous! So helpful. I googled entomological lab, 19th century, but couldn't find one as perfect as that. Thanks for sharing it with me. Thank so much for both your answers. I appreciate them. 19th century entomology isn't an easily researched subject.
A few more questions:
How would an insect be mounted in 1885? Using what type of materials? What is the board made of? The pins? When my nine-year-old, a budding entomologist, mounted her beetle, she used alcohol to moisten it, then stainless steel pins to secure it to some foam. She didn't put the pins through the beetle, though.
If anyone is familiar with Gaeana Atkinsoni (an Indian cicada), I'd love your expertise. I read that it was first studied by a westerner just a few years before my book takes place. My character needs to discover something new and interesting about the insect...something that will garner some attention from those in the ento field. I have no idea how to even begin coming up with that.
When an entomologist is studying an insect, before killing it, what exactly are they looking at and for? I guess it depends why they are studying it (pest control, reproduction, etc.), but what if they're just interested in learning about it? What would they notice, record, and what would excite them?
Thank you so much for your time. This is the most research I've ever done for a book. It's a little intimidating.
I've decided to use this insect en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scutelleridae in my second scene. It will be some nice foreshadowing. I'm assuming, since it's a beetle type insect, that it would be mounted. I'll have my character receive it after ordering it. What would it be mounted on and how?
Why a scuttelerid as your choice ? It is a close relative to stink bugs (Pentatomidae). Beetles are far more likely to have been studied by someone of that time period as well as butterflies/moths. The Buprestidae (Metallic wood boring beetles) are not only colorful from exotic places; they have a far more interesting history (or in many cases -- unknown history) surrounding them. With regards to entomological history the Coleoptera and Lepidoptera orders each had huge numbers of species described by early researchers as compared with other insect orders. The Diptera and Hymenoptera orders fall in right behind those in terms of described species and interest. Those two orders essentially got the interest they did because of their huge species numbers and their relations or impacts on human society. The order Orthoptera might take a 5th place seat in terms of popularity and interest however, beyond those top 5 orders mentioned most other insect orders and their respective families fall off quickly as regards the early work of researchers. That's not of coarse implying that little work was accomplished on other orders or families. It was just done at a much slower pace over many more years.
19th Century entomologist's used cyanide in their jars but some used ammonia, which was better because it left the specimens pliable much longer. The 19th century pins were often made of brass, some were nickle plated. The butterflies were then pinned in the thorax and placed in a grove on a setting board, which if bought from a dealer was made of cork and then papered. The butterflies or moths wings were set in the correct position and held in place by strips of transparent setting paper. If your entomologist is hunting butterflies in India, she would be carrying a back satchel to keep her killing jar and collecting boxes in. Some killed the insects on the spot and pinned them into cork boxes, others bought smaller insects home alive in pill boxes. If your entomologist was a specialist she may have been looking for particular species to add to her or the museums' collection.
It looks like most of your questions were answered, body type is the determining factor when it comes to preserving insects. Soft bodied specimens are better represented with a liquid preservative, while those with harder exoskeletons are fine to be pinned.
For your cicada, two things that come to mind are life cycle and their songs, but both would have been difficult to study in that time period. I guess you could have a species that only emerges during a solar eclipse or something, with the scientist baffled at such a unique emergence period and of course the scared Indian locals who want to know what they did to piss off Shiva
When an entomologist is studying insects, they might be looking to see if there is any mimicry, whether or not it is a new species for the area, how long the insect lives for, what it eats, what eats it, the list goes on. It may be particularly exciting to discover that it has some medicinal benefit...or give you super powers, I'm thinking Peter Parker.
In 1885, you would never see a wandering nomad in your museum, no photographers at all!!
Imagine having to accommodate a visitor drawing figures for a publication or something! I wonder if artistic skill was a prerequisite for curators of the past?
I am not sure about your American museums, but ours welcome visitors, as photography or drawing is in a sense a start of a study. It does sound like that you imagine that museums should be off limits except to curators!! (Are you one? ) You should remember that is why insects specimens were placed in museums, not to be hidden away.
It's nice to think museums would be glad to welcome visitors, but from what I've heard it is difficult to get access to collections here in the US. This is a shame considering many collectors have donated their collections with the idea that this was the best resting place. That isn't to say they are off limits, but you must go through the proper channels or have a valid reason to access the holdings.
Hopefully the large institutions will continue to digitize the collections to make them more accessible.
I fully agree with you Nomad regarding the founding principles for gathering specimens in museums for scientific study. However, in practice the purposes of scientific study do not tend to be applicable to ordinary visitors. I worked at a major natural history museum here in America for 8 years in the Division of Insects and in all that time I only saw 2 private collectors, one artist, and maybe 3 kids who stopped on by to view specimens, photograph, or identify things using our collections. Almost exclusively, our collections were utilized by academics writing a paper (dissertation ), those viewing historic specimens, and a very few kids who sought to identify items they could not find a name for in books. Maybe, because we had an insect exhibit downstairs (below our research floor); most wood be visitors would have their sorted bug interests satiated. Or perhaps, because we had a members night once a year where people could go "behind the scenes" and view 80 odd insect drawers than that was all anybody needed. Our staffing was of coarse small so any visit by anyone outside of an academic usually required a couple phone calls to set a date and time of availability. Even academics made arrangements in advance but, the difference was that once we sat them down by their focus of interest we could leave them to their work. Anyone else had to be "babysat" by a staff member until they were finished. That of coarse was so that things would not be damaged, stolen, or placed somewhere else other than where they were originally. I would also add that our research collections (as they were called) were utilized far more as a lending library to academics; as opposed to academics actually visiting us for the same purpose. Visits generally meant a long drive or flight and personal expenses involving food and lodging close to our museum. So, at that I can say that I probably only met 5 or 6 academics at our place in any given year I worked there.
I visit two museums on a regular basis for study, I am not an academic by any stretch of means, although I have written several papers. The museums in question usually leave me alone to do my study and photography. The photography of historic specimens is my main reason for visiting museums and I write brief articles as time allows, many of which appear here, it is a way of sharing my images to those that do not get a chance to see them, the information provided is to add interest !. Just photographs of specimens does not really tell you a lot. I help out at the smaller museum by evaluating their collection, by pointing out any possible rarities and extinct species. I recently found a specimen from the 18th century of Urania sloanus, which as you can imagine they were quite pleased to have. I do not visit regularly Britain's largest museum (BMNH) but have now several times, however, the curator there is happy to provide images per request.
I am always keen to see posts and photographs and information provided by other members
It is truly good to hear that you have a good relationship with the museums you visit. I would have welcomed all such professional individuals with open arms -- had they ever shown up. The thing is that Entomology here in America is not quite the same as it is overseas. It never has been. Insect fairs have never existed here, few kids pursue it with any real interest anymore (past the age of ten), and the hobby itself can get to be somewhat expensive for many if their interest wavers towards exotics and the proper equipment for collection storage.