Historic insects get new home at UI


University of Iowa Museum of Natural History photos

Butterflies in their new boxes at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.
University of Iowa Museum of Natural History photos Butterflies in their new boxes at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.

More than a century ago, students and faculty at the University of Iowa collected insects from around Iowa and as far away as Fiji. Pinned on cards with tiny labels, more than 40,000 of those insects are awaiting new homes at the University of Iowa’s Museum of Natural History.

Stored in cardboard and wooden boxes, the insects are vulnerable to damage by the elements and the ravages of their living relatives. For the last two years, the museum has been working to better protect the collection by rehousing the 26,000 insects in its historic collection in museum-quality storage cabinets and boxes designed specifically for insect specimens. Now another 18,000 insects that have been stored at the UI biology department are coming to join them.

“It’s a resource for people here. As students are learning about insects, plants and birds, or as artists are thinking about insects, or as scientists are studying the role of bees, we have collections that people can study and get DNA samples from,” said Trina Roberts, associate director of the Museum of Natural History.

She said the collection has a wide range of potential implications for scholars studying things like climate change or the impact of pesticides.

“In a state like Iowa where the landscape has changed drastically, you can learn a lot about what used to be here by going back through natural history collections,” she said. “This is our time machine.”

A team of interns, volunteers and staff has already spent around 700 hours on the project rehousing the original collection. Roberts expects they’ll spend another 700 hours working with the biology department collection. In addition to rehousing the insects, they also are transcribing label cards and reorganizing the collection.

The insects are fragile, she said, and handling them is a delicate process.

“It’s painstaking work. Some of them are missing legs or wings, but there still is plenty of information scientists can get from them.”

Three different grants have made the project possible. The most recent, $15,206 to fund the integration of the biology department insects, was awarded in July by the State Historical Society of Iowa.

That follows a $14,305 grant from the State Historical Society to rehouse the original collection. An additional $75,000 grant from the National Science Foundation is paying for the collection to be photographed and added to, a shared digital insect collection. In partnership with Iowa State University, museum staff will use a robotic photography system to document the collection.

Getting the collection online will help make it more accessible to the public, as most of the collection will never be on display at the museum. That’s typical, Roberts said. Most of the public may not be aware that the majority of the museum’s work goes on behind the scenes.

They are working to let visitors get a peek of that work more frequently, however, with open houses. One chance to see the collection will be during an open house during the upcoming Welcome Week for incoming UI students.

“We have this whole other function of being a library and a research center, as well as a museum,” Roberts said.

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