//Making the World:
Pictures and Science in Modern China

Drawer of Lepidoptera specimens

Photographer: Julie Dranitsaris
November 2017
Collection Identification:
Courtesy E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum at the University of Alberta

Entomology is the scientific study of insects. Insects outnumber all other forms of life combined, and by studying them we can further understand their vital functions to life on earth. Through the examination of specimens, like the ones pictured here, entomologists can aid in such activities as understanding the spread of disease and identifying endangered species; aiming to protect the environment and helping to restore ecosystems. Furthermore, their preservation ensures that endangered or extinct species can be viewed and studied.

Before scientific specimens can be studied, insects are first collected in the field or grown in a lab. Experienced entomologists can properly disable a butterfly by simply pinching the thorax (upper mid-section) with the correct technique. Alternatively, they can also freeze the insects – creating a more relaxed looking specimen; requiring less work when positioning them for display. Next, specimen are preserved with, or in, ethanol.

This photograph features lepidoptera, literally “scaly-winged insects,” in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum at the University of Alberta. These butterflies are organized based on their taxon, such as genus and species. The collection is then arranged according to recent scholarly literature. The image shows the specimen preserved to the profession’s standard: their wings are pulled to a 90-degree angle, and pinned to the the right side of the thorax. In order for the insects to stay in this particular position, the wings need to be pinned for a period of time –this can take several days to a week, depending on specimen size, temperature and especially humidity. Legs and antennae are also adjusted to make it look as lifelike as possible.

The specimens are preserved like this as it is said to make them appear more attractive and to aid in the identification process. Unfortunately, this technique can cause damage to the specimen, given the fragility of the wings. In addition, over-handling and improper storage can cause damage to the delicate scales on the wings and their pigmentation.

Mounted specimens thus need to be kept in tightly-closed boxes, thereby stopping other insects from damaging the specimens as well as ensuring better protection from environmental damages. Entomological collections require intense care and maintenance, as they can deteriorate extremely quickly. When stored properly, however, specimens can and will last for generations.

But what determines a dead insect to be a scientific specimen? According to a specialist at the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum, what makes a specimen scientific is the addition of a small micrographic label that provides information about an insect’s name, and where, when and how the insect was captured and killed, plus who collected it. These labels are located beneath the specimen on their pin.

The ability that entomologists have to preserve and present the dead, fragile bodies of insects, dramatically outlasts the actual short life span of these butterflies. The beauty and knowledge that is preserved outlasts what is natural, but allows for further exploration in many fields of study. This ambiguity between the life and death of insects defines the study of entomology.  

Julie Dranitsaris