Research collections underpin the scientific study of insects and other terrestrial arthropods. These collections are the record of the natural diversity, and therefore of the natural heritage, of a region. The tremendous diversity of insects and their relatives is largely unappreciated, and so is the elementary state of our scientific knowledge of them. Insects and other terrestrial arthropods, despite their small size, are the dominant animals in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. They make up at least 75% of the more than one million species recorded on earth. Because estimates of the real number of living kinds of these organisms varies from about three to 30 million, much basic work, including collections development, must still be undertaken.
General entomological collections, especially those that take large geographical areas as their scope, are always works in progress. Insects and their terrestrial arthropod relatives are so diverse, so hard to collect comprehensively, and often so difficult (or impossible) to identify, that significant gaps in taxonomic, life-history, geographical and ecological coverage in collections are commonplace and taken for granted by biologists who understand the problems. It is hard to conceive that we know so little about most of the organisms with which we share the earth, but this is the world we live in. Even many biologists do not comprehend that there are few lists of, or good identification resources to, most insect species. The incompleteness of terrestrial arthropod collections is typical, even in collections with many scientific staff specializing on many different orders and families. Thus, plans for collections growth assume that true comprehensiveness and completeness (even if this could ever be defined) will never be achieved, at least not for hundreds of years.
Specimens in a museum entomology research collection are assembled over many years by a succession of collectors, curators, and collection managers who, to some extent, understand the characteristics of the regional fauna and landscape. The specimens must be carefully prepared and preserved, labeled with field data, sorted and safely stored. Ideally, data are organized electronically so that information on specimens can be accessed and distributed efficiently. These specimens and their data thus become available, and progressively more valuable, for scientific study, as time passes. Without this accumulation over many years, species previously unrecognized or little known would never become defined and identifiable entities, and much of our knowledge of their ranges, habitats and ecological significance would never be assembled. Indeed, as environments are modified, collections provide indispensable benchmarks for documenting changing plant and animal communities. Well-maintained collections of terrestrial arthropods are irreplaceable sources of scientific information about our past and present, and will help guide future decisions and research.
Identification is the key that unlocks the information available on any species. When specimens documented with field data are identified by an expert on that group, they become reference points for research detailing the taxonomy, biogeography and biology of particular species. These specimens also become references for identifying other specimens submitted from sources in agriculture, forestry, education, public health, environmental studies, or the general public. Unfortunately, identification of large amounts of material from a range of groups present in collections may take many decades. Many groups of insects and other terrestrial arthropods have no experts working on them and species identification is impossible. Some groups are in such poor shape taxonomically that even experts cannot make detailed determinations. When experts for particular taxa do exist, they are often overwhelmed with identification requests and cannot help. Nevertheless, we frequently loan material to experts who can help and, periodically, visiting researchers identify some of our specimens. We collect material in the expectation that particular identification expertise will be available, if not at present, then sometime in the future.
Thus, in the RBCM entomology collection, we amass specimens for present research and future, as yet unknown, uses. We accept donations of specimens that meet our requirements, for we know that such valuable material might otherwise be lost to science. We collect assiduously, despite the restrictions of few staff, resources, and available time. Although we gather specimens from all orders from all over BC, and often from regions outside the province (because organisms do not organize themselves according to political boundaries and the regional and world context of BC material is critical to its interpretation), in different years we may focus on particular groups and localities in order to fill gaps in the collection. We might stress work in areas seldom visited in order to build collections from poorly known environments; we often concentrate on collecting groups of organisms for which we have few specimens, so as to redress imbalances in the collection. As much as possible, we work in the field with other agencies whose goals are similar to ours; shared logistics, finances, and results are mutually beneficial.
The research collection database contains 243,903 specimens/lots. This consists of 191,096 pinned specimens, 35,159 in envelopes (predominantly Odonata [dragonflies], but also some Lepidoptera [butterflies]) and 14,823 specimens or lots of material in vials or jars of 70% ethanol (especially Araneae [spiders] and Odonata larvae). There are a few lots of material in 95% ethanol for use in molecular analyses. The microscope slide collection is tiny – only 174 slides. Much of the collection is not accessioned or databased. This material probably represents an additional 150,000 specimens.
Different insect life stages are represented, immatures being particularly common in the ethanol collection where specimens that tend to shrivel when dried are stored. Spiders (adults) and immature and adult aquatic insects (especially Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, Trichoptera and immature Odonata) are mainstays of the ethanol collection. For example, there are 3318 specimens or lots of accessioned Odonata larvae, most in ethanol, representing about 10% of the dragonfly collection.
The type specimen collection is small and predominantly consists of paratypes. The following numbers are of species and subspecies only, not numbers of specimens. Holotypes: Coleoptera (species – 1), Lepidoptera (subspecies – 7), Mecoptera (species – 1). Paratypes: Coleoptera (species – 10, subspecies – 5), Hemiptera (species – 11), Diptera (species – 13), Hymenoptera (species – 4, subspecies – 3), Lepidoptera (species – 11, subspecies – 11), Mecoptera (species – 1), Odonata (species – 9). Types and Cotypes: Coleoptera (species – 1), Lepidoptera (species – 3).
The earliest collections were assembled in 1886. In the early 1900s donations from members of the Entomological Society of BC formed the collection’s nucleus. But it was not until the early 1970s that the haphazardly stored collections were amalgamated and organized into standard insect cabinets. Since then, a significant effort has been made to improve and standardize cabinets, drawers, unit trays, vials and labeling methods. Collection dates range from the 1880s to the present. The main collectors represented in the collection, in order of the number of accessioned specimens collected are: Robert Cannings (16,705), Crispin Guppy (12,631), George Hardy (7622), Gordon Hutchings (7145), David Blades (5689), Harold Foxlee (5472), Sydney Cannings (5165), Gerald Straley (4547), Jon Shepard (4359) and Abdiel Hanham (3572).
The collection, including the type collection, continues to grow through active collecting by staff and research associates (general collecting, targeted research collecting), by donations from scientists and other collections, and through donations from the public (identification requests, personal collections). Most specimens are from BC localities: 111,736 specimens of 141,743 with localities databased are from the province – almost 80% of the total. In some groups, active research has resulted in the accumulation of significant material from around the world (e.g., Odonata, Lepidoptera, Diptera: Asilidae).