In the unassuming basement of Virginia Tech’s Seitz Hall, a 130-year-old history of Virginia’s insect biodiversity is carefully preserved and documented. More than 20 stark white cabinets filled top to bottom with glass-topped Cornell pine drawers line the climate-controlled and monitored room. Inside these drawers is The Virginia Tech Insect Collection, the oldest and largest entomological collection in Virginia, founded in 1888.
This collection of more than 500,000 specimens represents the rich insect diversity of the Appalachian region and is an exceptional repository of endangered insects, pollinators, and many native species once common but now disappearing from habitat loss, like the rusty patched bumble bee collected in 1863. This native pollinator was once widespread through the eastern United States but the native meadows and forests that were their homes are vanishing and their population has dwindled. They are now on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list.
“The VT Insect Collection is the result of careful field studies and collections for more than 130 years,” said Paul Marek, associate professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and curator of The Virginia Tech Insect Collection. “Decades and centuries in the future, researchers using new techniques and methods can use the very same specimens conserved in the collection to address novel questions.”
Nathan Hall, University Libraries’ director of digital imaging and preservation, and Marek are teaming up to ensure this rare collection is available beyond the basement walls.
Thanks to a 2019 Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives award from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Hall and Marek will be embarking on a two-year project to preserve 15,000 specimens through two-dimensional digitization. They will also create three-dimensional digital models of 300 more using photogrammetry.
Beginning in June, this award will fund the work of graduate assistants, faculty, and staff for two years and equipment to create online collections that are globally available without restriction.
The digital collection will include the digitized physical picture or 3D model of the insect and metadata including measurements, chemical compositions, ancient DNA information, and other biological or geographical information. This gives anyone with an Internet connection an opportunity to learn from the past and build on future policies and discoveries.
Several scientifically valuable collections in the museum will be digitized, including specimens of federally endangered species and ecologically critical pollinators.
“This project enhances access to an important biodiversity collection of threatened species that are critical to food production and sustainable ecosystems,” said Hall. “By enhancing greater access to these specimens, we are creating a new means of learning about these species which are essential to the quality of life and the human condition regionally, nationally, and globally.”
Many decisions that regulate foreign and domestic trade are based on research generated from natural history collections.
“In the U.S. we import fruit, cars, electronics, and many other items. Unwanted insect stowaways in these shipments and invasive species threaten our crops, ecosystems, and animal health,” said Marek. “At present, there are 50,000 invasive species in the U.S. that cause $120 billion worth of environmental and agricultural damage each year. By having a repository of local species like The Virginia Tech Insect Collection, we can rapidly identify exotic species and respond.”
Hall and Marek believe that making this collection more available to citizens and policymakers in addition to researchers is invaluable.
“What sets our work apart is that our user interfaces and access points will be targeting K-12 and general audiences. I think this project is absolutely unique,” said Hall.
Hall and his team will carefully make 300 3D scans of the delicate insects through a process of difficult steps. Maureen Saverot, University Libraries’ 3D texture artist, uses a turntable to take a picture of the specimen at every five degrees of turning until she takes an image of the bug at several different heights, from above, straight on and from below. Then she flips the insect over and repeats the process. Once she creates the hundreds of images per specimen, she starts to piece together and polish the digital version of the insect.
“So far I think the Monarch butterfly has been the most challenging,” said Saverot. “Typically I photograph the insects in two parts, upright and flipped over on their backs by placing the pin in clay to hold the insect steady. Later on, I can merge these two chunks of data. However, with the Monarch’s flat wings and a slight amount of gravity pulling on them between being upright and turned over, it took me ages to get the wings to align! A close second is a similar issue with that bumble bee and its thin translucent wings.”
Once the collection is digitized, the general public can access it through the University Libraries at Virginia Tech and the Digital Library of America. More researcher-focused access will be through iDigBio and Symbiota Collection of Arthropods Network (SCAN).
Marek and Hall plan to pursue more funding to continue the initiative and digitize the whole collection of more than a half-million specimens.
“With modern high-throughput techniques, such as we plan to implement,” said Marek, “this goal is not too far off.”