Mar 11, 2017
Today I thought I’d write a bit about my insect collection. This isn’t really a “how to” post, mostly just some musings about my collection. I’m very proud of my collection, because after a long and rather involved history it has come back into my possession.
The collection currently consists of two museum cabinets of 12 drawers each, only of pinned adult insects. Originally I had another cabinet as well and a large collection of immature insects and spiders preserved in alcohol. Unfortunately, those specimens did not survive the ravages of time. Most of the collection dates from my work during my youth through college, covering a time from roughly 1975 to 1985. My interest at that time was primarily Order Lepidoptera – the butterflies and moths. I also collected other insects, but by far the majority was Lepidoptera. I also spent a lot of time collecting and studying the immature stages – I had a very nice collection of Lepidoptera larvae stored in alcohol.
Ironically, even though I studied insects, I had a phobia about spiders. To try to overcome that phobia I studied and worked with spiders. I had a nice spider collection – including some very nice specimens of Latrodectus mactans – the Southern Black Widow – one of which I actually caught climbing up the shirt of my father while we were backpacking in the Ozark Mountains.
Also in that collection was Morgan LeFay – a Mexican Red-Kneed Tarantula that I had as a pet for some years. Again, this was an attempt to address my spider phobia. Morgan lived in an aquarium, and had a toilet paper tube burrow in which she lived. She would spin a loose web outside the burrow and wait for unsuspecting prey. The typical feeding scenario would involve dumping a bunch of crickets into the cage and Morgan would gobble them up over time. The crickets would wander around until one came within range of Morgan. Faster than you could possibly imagine, this huge tarantula would launch herself out of her burrow, grab the hapless cricket and bounce backwards back into the burrow. You could see the other crickets say, “Hey, where did Frank go? Wasn’t he just here? Huh, that’s odd...” and resume their oblivious cricket business.
On some nights Morgan would come out of her burrow and crawl all over the inside walls of the glass aquarium – presumably to find a way out and hunt. This was an activity which was not conducive to sleep and considerably worsened my spider phobia. Tarantulas are actually not true spiders, but a closely related organism. The distinctive characteristic is the way in which the chelicerae – or jaws and fangs are positioned – in tarantulas they work forward while in spiders they work side to side. Morgan’s fangs, by the way, were about the size of domestic cat canine teeth. And sometimes she would “yawn” – stretching them out to their full glory. Yes, this did not particularly help my spider phobia.
Also lost to time was my drawer of beetles – a loss I particularly regret as I had some nice specimens of aquatic beetles that would have been of use for my podcast. Beetles are a great subject for insect collecting – as they are diverse, complicated, and they are easy to collect and preserve. While I regret the loss, it is also the case that it will be fun to re-create that part of the collection. I have hopes that my step son, who is extremely interested in this collection, will develop his interest and help me out with that.
But enough of what I’ve lost – the fact is, I’ve regained about ½ of my collection. Most of which are the Lepidoptera – in which there are some pretty interesting specimens.
One of the more interesting is Papilio jonae – a type of swallowtail that was discovered by my mentor and named after his wife, Joan. My mentor really developed and professionalized my interest in entomology. He was a very mild mannered post office worker named J.R. Heitzman. I always knew and referred to him as Mr. Heitzman – I have no idea what the “JR” stood for. He and I used to go on weekend long collecting trips all throughout Missouri. Often these would involve night long expeditions with blacklights in which he would tell me hysterical stories of his other collecting trips. He had a huge collection and was a very well known entomologist and expert in Missouri Lepidoptera. I have very fond memories of my times on those collecting trips.
Anyway, Papilio jonae or the Ozark Swallowtail looks almost identical to the Black Swallowtail. The larvae feed on different plants but it was the behavior of the adult that clued Mr. Heitzman into the fact that he may have a different species. What I remember was that he noticed that certain populations of Black Swallowtails, when disturbed in a field, would consistently fly into the woods rather than stay in the field. He collected and studied those butterflies and found that they belonged to a different species. This was later confirmed with DNA analysis.
Another interesting critter in my collection is Duke’s Skipper – or Euphyes dukesi. This is a relatively rare type of skipper – there are three separate populations in the US/Canada which are not connected. As a caterpillar they feed on sedges. What is interesting about my specimens though, is that Leland Martin showed me the spot to collect them – namely in the special preserve that he helped establish in Findley State Park in Ohio. If it is a special preserve for the insect, than what am I doing with specimens in my collection? Well the answer is that because he discovered this population and help set up the preserve, he had special permission to collect these insects in this preserve – and once he was generous enough to bring me along. He was very protective of them and he was also a very nice guy.
Many many years have passed since I’ve collected the majority of these specimens. Yet for many of them, I remember where and when I collected them. Not only are they interesting in their own right, but they are like a memoir of that time of my life. I’m very much looking forward to cataloging a new batch of insects, and their associated memories, with Selene and my stepson Gradon.