Millions and Millions and Millions of Bugs on Pins

Guest post by Nicole Fisher

Working in the world’s largest collection of Australian insects (and related groups) can at times feel awe-inspiring and overwhelming all at once. With over 12 million specimens to care for at the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC), I commenced my career as a 21 year old, with no insect knowledge! After finishing a BSc in Environmental Science, I volunteered in ANIC for 18 months prior to appointment as a Technical Officer, assisting the then Director of ANIC and Hymenoptera Research Scientist, Dr. John La Salle.

Mounting Hymenoptera specimens. (Credit: Chris Manchester, 2013)

Wasp Work

In my early years, along with learning what it means to work in an insect collection, I worked on several bio-control projects in a challenging group – extremely small, very small, minute small parasitic wasps. Under the mentorship of Dr. La Salle, I somehow survived (or didn’t) the detailed task of preparing microscope slides. Mounting an insect specimen became an experience in fine art work, and I received specimens from all over the world sent for identification and curation into the collection. Core curation tasks filled my days working in the Hymenoptera (wasps & bees) section, the third largest portion of the ANIC.

Nicole with a colleague visiting the International Rice Genebank (IRC) in April 2008, the largest collection of rice genetic diversity in the world located in the Philippines. While touring the facility in 2008, we learned of the partnership with national programs and international organisations worldwide, and the work that IRC does to ensure the long-term preservation of rice biodiversity as part of a global strategy to conserve rice genetic resources. (Credit: ANIC, 2006)

ANIC begins bursting at the seams

In 2007, after returning from maternity leave with my second child, it very quickly seemed that I had chosen the wrong time to return to work – my muscles would feel it. With space a precious commodity, an electronic compactus system was to be installed in one of the collection halls. The move required a team of technicians to shift 827 large insect cabinets – over 83 tonnes of cabinets. In addition, 558 cabinets already in the hall, had to be temporarily moved to create space to install the compactus units. With a conservative estimated average of 500 insects per drawer, that equates to over four million insects rehoused without major incident to the specimens (or the technicians). The move took many, many months to complete.

All work and no play when moving an insect collection. (Credit: ANIC, 2007)

There are none that are more of a problem to contend with than an insect specimen

When it comes to digitising a collection on a mass scale, I soon found out that working in a huge insect collection was not a smart move, as they are the hardest of all collections to digitise completely. With the departure (due to a career change) of the scientist I had assisted for 10 years, I found myself shifting focus to driving the delivery of innovative digitisation projects with a group of volunteers.

When your career appears to have come to a fork in the road, never be afraid to try something new. And so, my digitisation work began in 2011 with the arrival of a prototype machine that would enable imaging of ANIC’s 20,000 drawers. The British Museum of Natural History (BMNH) in London was the only other collection in the world known to me at the time to be doing similar work.

Continued issues with technology and software prevailed for some time and imaging of drawers was slow. Granted with a training award in 2012, I visited the BMNH to see their whole-drawer imaging system and processes. However, battling with constant disappointment with the digitisation project, discouragement set in until one day, when “Googling” to seek a way forward, I came across iDigBio – or Integrated Digitized Biocollections, based in the United States. Through invitation, I joined an iDigBio working group focused on workflows, “Pinned Specimens in Trays and Drawers.”

Understanding that others, at times, experience the same difficulties and lack of knowledge when digitising insect collections, we (along with Gil Nelson of iDigBio) established and implemented the International Whole-Drawer Digitization Interest Group. Today we have a proportion of the collection digitised in this way – an achievement that could not be done if it weren’t for the volunteers and students that work tirelessly in our collections.

Since those early digitisation days, visits to international collections for conferences and workshops have allowed me a broader view of natural history collections digitisation and collection management practices. My experience working in this field has been particularly memorable because of the opportunities to meet international researchers. The exposure to world-class researchers has imparted me the value of networking with people who can support and help clarify your ideas and aspirations, and I have gained broader experience, depth and knowledge of my role at ANIC.

Nicole with fellow entomologists at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) attending a iDigBio’s ‘Dried Insect Digitization Workshop’, April 2013. (Credit: Joanna McCaffrey, 2013).

Nicole with fellow entomologists at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) while attending iDigBio’s
‘Dried Insect Digitization Workshop’, April 2013. (Credit: Joanna McCaffrey, 2013).

Always unique, never boring

There is always something to do in an insect collection with millions upon millions of specimens. I can say it has never been boring. It is often challenging in an environment of scarce funding, staff reductions and always shifting priorities.

Nevertheless, it’s been a privilege to have a career in collections and an honour to have worked with such people. It’s been exciting, intellectually stimulating and it’s been fun a lot of the time. Few people have the opportunity to follow a career in a research collection, but life can be pretty stimulating when you are surrounded by committed, intelligent individuals who pursue useful and interesting science.

Nicole Fisher is Curator of Hymenoptera for the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC), one of the collections that CSIRO manages as part of the National Research Collections of Australia. She also assists in Collection Management and Digitisation at ANIC.

Next time on Cracking the Collections:

April 10 – Our own Katie Kirkham describes her experience applying for museum jobs in a post for Old Collections with New Managers.