Adventures in The Field – A Fresh Look at the Insect Collection at a 122 Year-Old Institution

Guest post by Crystal Maier

I get to wake up every morning and take care of over 12 million dead bugs, which is apparently an unusual thing to be able to say. For me, however, managing the Insect Collection at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL comes as second nature, and feels as usual as eating breakfast in the morning. I was hired here only six short months ago, but already it feels like home. It’s strange to say that a collection feels like home, given the long and winding journey I’ve taken to get to where I am today.

Working on the Water Beetle Collection at the Field Museum of Natural History.

Working on the Water Beetle Collection at the Field Museum of Natural History. (Photo by Sydney Somchith)

Growing up, I was a kid with many hobbies, but two recurring themes flowed through all of my activities – 1) a love for nature and all that the living world has to offer and 2) a love for collecting, organizing and rearranging things. I would go through phases. I had a snail phase, a bug phase, a moss phase, a fish phase, and the list goes on, but being raised in the big city (I grew up in New Jersey), I only had limited access to a lot of these things. Luckily, though, through a combination of museum visits, field trips, and family vacations, I was somehow able to get my fill of all of the fine details in nature.

By the time I was ready to apply for college, I only knew that I wanted to study nature and animals in some way, so I decided to go to Virginia Tech to study wildlife biology. I soon discovered that wildlife biology wasn’t for me – with all of its focus on managing populations of single species, it lacked a certain spark with me (that spark, I later realized, was a lack of focus on biological diversity). I did find that spark, though, in the first class that I took as an undergraduate. The class was “Insects and Human Society,” a general-interest class team taught by Dr. Reese Voshell and Mr. Steve Hiner. Together, they instilled in me an immense appreciation for invertebrate critters of all shapes and sizes, particularly the aquatic insects. From then on, I became fascinated by all manner of benthic macroinvertebrates and the ecosystems they inhabit. I worked my way into several aquatic insect labs around campus (including Dr. Voshell’s lab), starting as a volunteer and even doing undergraduate research. Throughout this experience, one group stood out to me – the riffle beetles, or Elmidae. These tiny (< 3mm long) beetles live in only the cleanest streams and crawl around on the benthos, scraping algae off of rocks.

Targeted field research and collecting helps us build our collection at the Field Museum. (Photo by Crystal Maier)

Targeted field research and collecting helps us build our collection at the Field Museum. (Photo by Drew Carhartt)

After I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, I applied to graduate school, and landed a position in Dr. Michael Ivie’s lab at Montana State University where I studied beetle systematics and was introduced to the wonders of the natural history collection. My thesis project, which focused on an obscure group of metallic wood-boring beetles which had potential as biological control agents, took me to all of the great museums of the Old World, including the Zoological Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the National Museum of the Czech Republic in Prague. Visiting all of these museums helped me to realize the immense value that old natural history collections have for modern scientific research. While in Montana, I also managed the collection, packing and sending loans, re-curating the collection, hosting visitors, and this is really where I found my passion for collection management. (Thanks, Mike!)

I continued my studies at the University of Kansas, where I honed my skills in collection management and continued researching water beetle systematics (back to those riffle beetles!). At KU, I worked in Dr. Andrew Short’s water beetle research group, and here I really took on a new appreciation for the ecological and distributional data that go along with the specimens themselves. I also got my first taste of a real museum database – Specify. I was (and still am) amazed by the way collections databases can take all forms of data and put them together in a neat, easily accessible package, available to researchers all over the world. I’ve even taken to databasing specimens that are part of my own research projects on the evolution of riffle beetles and their kin.

A water beetle specimen from the Field Museum’s collections. (Photo by Crystal Maier)

A water beetle specimen from the Field Museum’s collections. (Photo by Crystal Maier)

Just as I was finishing my doctoral degree at KU, a job posting came up for what was easily the position of my dreams – Collection Manager of Insects at the Field Museum of Natural History! I knew that I had to apply, but I was a little concerned, since this was one of the largest insect collections in the world, and I was still in school, thinking that this would be a goal to work up to, after many years. Several months later, though, I found myself moving into my new office in the Insect Collection at the Field Museum!

Needless to say, starting work at the Field Museum was overwhelming! The collections and staff in Insects are separated into three areas of the massive museum building. All staff offices are in a central hallway on the west side of the building, while the collection of 4.5 million pinned insects is on a different floor on the east side of the building. A third collection area, which houses all of our bulk and alcohol samples (another 8 million specimens) is located in a sub-basement facility outside of the main museum building, called the Collections Resource Center.

I’ve found that the management of such a large collection is daunting, and it can only be done through the recognition that different areas of the collection must be prioritized, while others won’t get as much attention. Well-used areas of the collection, such as those used regularly by the curators and our associated scientists are important to keep in order, while ones where we have little expertise unfortunately get somewhat neglected. It is also important to balance the tiny discoveries of previously uncharted areas of the collection, which seem to come almost daily, as these little surprises can be some of the most interesting parts of the collection. For example, a former curator, Harry Nelson, worked on riffle beetles in North America, and this collection, which sat virtually untouched for many years, turned out to be one of the largest and most comprehensive riffle beetle collections in the world.

Some of the interesting treasures that we find in the collection: these specimens, collected as early as 1899, are still in the boxes in which the original collectors stored them. The boxes shown in this photo are actually empty pill boxes. (Photo by Crystal Maier)

Some of the interesting treasures that we find in the collection: these specimens, collected as early as 1899, are still in the boxes in which the original collectors stored them. The boxes shown in this photo are actually empty pill boxes. (Photo by Crystal Maier)

Of course, I don’t manage the collection all on my own, we have a small army of staff, curators, interns, and volunteers that keep everything working smoothly from day-to-day. They also help oversee the transformation of our collection into a modern 21st century research collection, which may eventually be entirely digitized and databased (one can dream, right?).

A Odonata-kebab discovered in one of the Field Museum’s drawers during a recent databasing project. (Photo by Crystal Maier)

An Odonata kebab discovered in one of the Field Museum’s drawers during a recent databasing project. (Photo by Crystal Maier)

I’ve already resigned myself to knowing that I will never see all 12 million individual insect specimens in my care; I can only strive to ensure that the collection and all of its associated biological, distributional, and genetic data are open and accessible to the researchers who can.

So many specimens, so little time! (Photo by Crystal Maier)

So many specimens, so little time! (Photo by Crystal Maier)

Crystal Maier is the Collection Manager of Insects at the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, Illinois. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Kansas, studying riffle beetle systematics and evolution. She can be contacted at cmaier@fieldmuseum.org.

Next time on Cracking the Collections:

September 10 – Kaitlin Janecke explores the use of blogs, YouTube channels, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media in bringing the specimens to the people!

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