Pinning and sorting
On the way to the dry collection, I passed through a lab that was bustling with activity. This is one of the preparation labs where specimens acquired by the museum are put through the preservation process. In particular, I got to see a few insect specimens that were in the middle of get preserved dry.
If you’ve been to the museum, you’ll know that dry insect specimens are beautifully arranged – wings spread, legs in position, perky antennas – but that isn’t quite what they look like in the wild. For example, some butterflies usually close their wings when they’re resting, so you’d seldom see the upper side of their wings on display. When these insects die, they don’t get really get any better at modelling. They shrivel up, and their legs bunch together due to rigor mortis – you’ve had dead insects on your bathroom floor, you know it. So, what you see in the museum displays is no accident. Thank goodness for insect pinning.
Before a dead insect is irreversibly taken over by the jaws of rigor mortis, its form and structure can be rescued by pinning. Tiny needles are used to hold different parts of the insect: legs, wings, even the fine antennas, to keep them in place.
The pinning board is then covered with cellophane paper to flatten and straighten out the wings, and the specimen is left to dry in a fume hood or a drying cabinet, which helps keep the moisture away. As time passes, the insect hardens into its intended shape. This process requires little to no chemicals; in fact, everything revolves around keeping the specimen as dry as possible, because moisture and humidity facilitate decomposition. You might be wondering about the insides of the insects – don’t they contain blood? Wet blood, and organs? You’re absolutely right. For small insects, their insides are so tiny in amount that they can dry out all by themselves after death. Larger insects, however, need to be gutted – a small incision is made in the side, from which their innards are scooped out or squeezed out. Sounds surgical, doesn’t it? That’s why the curator has an impressive array of instruments specially made for handling these fragile specimens – except maybe for that plastic spoon that looks like it was stolen from a Starbucks.
This article is brought to you by entosupplies.com – I wish.
The pinning method is also used for other animals like spiders and even small crabs.
More legs, more work.
Pinning isn’t the only thing going on in this lab. There’s also an ongoing project aiming to document all the insects in Singapore – a daunting task. This involves the collection of a huge plethora of insects… which then need to be sorted.
Spencer, a student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is painstakingly examining each tiny bug under a microscope, to determine their species and classification. Sitting between piles of reference books and jars filled with insects, it certainly looks like he’s got his work cut out for him. Salute.
Let’s all pray for Spencer’s eyes.