Identification of specimens and cataloguing of the Coleoptera (beetle) collection of Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery
David M. Green
I recently started to identify the specimens and to catalogue the beetle (Coleoptera) collection held in the basement of the Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery where all parts of the Museum's natural science collection are stored. This work amongst other things provides a view of the beetles of Worcester area mainly around the years 1878 to 1890 (when the built-up area of Worcester was much smaller) as site data is included with many of the specimens. It also gives records and information of a range of nationally significant species for further understanding of species in Britain and Europe.
The species present in the collection are indicated by hand written annotations on a printed 1883 check-list of British Coleoptera (Matthews and Fowler 1883) that was used to set out the order of the collection. These annotations include a note, dated 19 April 1910, that the total number of beetle specimens in the collection is 11,460 of 1,772 species (approaching half the approximately 4000 species of Coleoptera found in Britain). Of these I have now identified most of the specimens of Carabidae (ground beetles) myself, adding new labels as necessary, and catalogued this species data with provenance data from pin labels. It is necessary to identify the species myself to deal with errors, more recent taxonomic knowledge, misplacements of specimens such they were placed under the wrong names, and to contend with the changes of taxonomic nomenclature that have occurred since 1883, especially as the old names used in the collection are not all included as synonyms in the current check-list of British beetles by Duff (2008). Some few species requiring more time than usual for identification I have passed over to move as fast as possible with the project in the main, but I expect to return to the more time-consuming specimens in due course. Proceeding in taxonomic order by the order of the collection (as taxonomy was understood at the time it was set out) I am now working through some of the families of the water beetles.
The Coleoptera (beetle) collection is almost all contained in a cabinet of 20 large drawers. It seems to me so far that little has happened to the collection after 1910 in terms of layout, additions or changes. The specimens are largely undamaged by pests (though careful monitoring is required) but are often dirty requiring in some cases cleaning (50% or 100% isopropanol applied by artist's paint brush) to enable identification when features such as fine punctures and pubescence must be discerned. The specimens are often packed closely together so are a little difficult to access. The majority of the specimens are stuck on cards on pins rather than run through directly by the pin. Most of the specimens were the collection of John Edward Fletcher, born Newtown, Worcester, England, 1836, died at St. John's, Worcester, in 1902 (anonymous obituary 1902). Shortly after Fletcher's death his collection of a range of insect orders in 90 boxes and a cabinet of 20 drawers was purchased for the Museum (then part of a organisation called the Victoria Institute) from his widow for £20 in recognition of the work of a lifetime, as recorded in the minutes of the Museum Sub-committee 12 May 1902. The cabinet mentioned is presumably the cabinet that presently houses the British Coleoptera collection in large part. Most of Fletchers collection of beetles of those that I have viewed in detail so far were collected by himself, apparently, in the Worcester area within walking distance (about 7 km radius) of where he lived in St John's, Worcester, therefore providing a substantial view of the species in the locality in that time. He was a very active field entomologist; presumably he did much walking. A particular advantage of Fletcher's specimens is that he wrote details (in minute handwriting, sometimes requiring interpretation) of the specimen's provenance, including date of capture, on the underside of the card on the specimen's pin. This is very good compared with most entomologists of the time who usually supplied no such details at all with the specimen (other than perhaps some limited code of their own understanding) or merely at best state an area of the country; or who gave them the specimen - a matter they appeared to find of primary importance as exchanging, buying or selling specimens was a means of pursuing their interest. Fletcher received specimens from correspondents around Britain and Ireland, often of scarce species that would not be found in the Worcester area, so noticeably increasing the species range of his collection. As I have so far discerned from small handwriting on the back of cards on pins some of the names of people who gave specimens to Fletcher are: Rev. W. W. Fowler (Lincoln), A. E. Hodgson (Abergavenny), Richard Wilding (Liverpool), W. H Harwood, W. H. Bennet (Hastings), Robert Gillo (Bath), Dr J. W. Elis (Liverpool), J. H. Threlfall (Preston). Except the last name, the names are covered by the Biographical Dictionary at http://www.coleopterist.org.uk/. I have noted further names that I am unsure of presently owing to the difficulty of interpreting tiny handwriting on cards on pins, but as work proceeds clarity of understanding and interpretation improves.
That accounts for the majority of the specimens in the Museum Coleoptera collection. However two other collections were purchased for the Museum, apparently added to the cabinet, forming the next most significant contribution in terms of specimens and species, together with specimens marked "old museum collection", many with broken antenna, none with further data. The collection of Rev. Harvey Bloom was purchased for the museum in 1909 (indicated on specimen pin labels) for £8, of 640 species of Coleoptera (beetles) and 174 tubes of spiders and Crustacea, as recorded in minutes of the Museum Subcommittee 19 Oct 1909. Since then Bloom's 174 tubes have been lost. Possibly during the 1939-45 war when collections were treated arbitrarily as the basement of the Museum was used as an air raid shelter. A full time curator of Natural Science has not been employed at the museum since 1950. A collection of A. Ford (born 1871 - died May 1943), who collected insects for a living, was purchased by the museum in 1896 (as indicated by specimen labels), and appears to provide similar numbers of Coleoptera specimens as Bloom. Specimens from Rev. Henry Stephen Gorham (1839 - 22 March 1920) are also present. Of these the name “H. S. Gorham” is written on labels with complete clarity, all dated 4.6.1910, the date on which his specimens passed into the Worcester Museum collection, confirmed by the Museum Sub-committee minutes , 22 June 1910, which record the receipt of a donation of 100 specimens of 43 species from Gorham that month. The basement of the museum also holds a single medium sized detached drawer of two levels of Coleoptera (beetles). These are the remainder of the Bloom collection that was apparently not added to the 20 drawer cabinet with the rest of the specimens. They include non-British specimens, but the number of specimens is comparatively small, site data seems largely absent, so I have viewed the contents of this drawer only cursorily so far, as it is more useful to spend time on the great majority of specimens that provides more data and interest. A specimen with provenance data is considerably more value than one without.
Since the collection covers numbers of scarce and rare species the data is of both national and local value. Data will be passed to the Worcestershire Biological Records Centre and hence various recording schemes and hence will be also maintained on the national database of the Biological Records Centre (http://www.brc.ac.uk/). I expect to produce some paper(s) for journals myself as I look into the details of the collection. (For example, an endangered, in European terms, species of Carabid is present in the collection, found near Worcester by Fletcher; the species was unknown in Britain during the 20th century). The data will become be available for geographic analysis of species to further understand the present trends and state (especially relevant for nature conservation advance) and will add to data available from the web site of the National Biodiversity Network's Gateway (http://data.nbn.org.uk/index_homepage/index.jsp), from where incidentally one can obtain grid maps of distribution of species in Britain. Going through the species in the Coleoptera collection methodically has already provided points of interest that I have shared that goes towards development of identification keys and have been recorded on the Internet (http://markgtelfer.co.uk/files/2010/02/Carabid-Crib-v6-2010-10-26.pdf). I have received requests from museum and biological record workers to check the collection for particular species to review old records that ideally require a specimen to determine validity. Worcester Museum is pleased to have a collection catalogued and used for scientific purpose.
Ideally such a collection of insects at Worcester should be easily accessed by people of sufficient competence, including those making early progress with serious entomological study, but space in the museum confines the collection to the basement of the building which is not suitable for ready access. In years past the insect collections were housed in a room at gallery level now occupied by the café kitchen. Worcestershire, like other counties, would benefit from a updated and readily visitable insect collection, for example of Coleoptera (beetles) and other orders, in support of scientific work whether of paid, variously funded, unpaid or of productive leisure. It would be nice if in the years ahead that this could be achieved. Such advance could be combined with courses in invertebrate identification for people who would not cause damage to fragile specimens, to advance work and productive leisure interests and natural history knowledge necessary for environmental protection and advance. The study of Coleoptera (in natural history and related areas), as with many other orders, is much helped by using reference collection of named specimens. Specimens in the current Coleoptera collection, especially for pinned specimens, would have to be spaced out better for this usage to avoid damage occurring, and perhaps access restricted to specimens on cards. Ideally further specimens would be contributed to the collection - especially by those who make use of it.
My thanks to Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery and to the museum staff for providing regular access for me to examine the collection, - especially thanks to Garston D. Phillips for further help from day to day including the providing of documentation, for reading a draft of this document and providing me with historical information.
ANONYMOUS. 1902. Obituary [John Edward Fletcher]. Entomologist's Monthly Magazine: 38:134-5
DUFF, A.G. (ed.) 2008. Checklist of Beetles of the British Isles, 2008 edition. Wells: A.G. Duff.
MATTHEWS, A. & FOWLER, W. W. 1883. Catalogue of British Coleoptera. West, Newman and Co., London.
Reference was also made to pages of the minutes of the Museum Sub-committee (pages extracted by Garston D. Philips).