UAM Summer Internship Blog 2019: From Fear to Fascination

Working with insect specimens in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum.

Fatme Elkadry - 28 June 2019

Close-up of a blue-green butterfly specimen.

My first memory of bugs is one of utter horror. I still remember it distinctly, almost 20 years later: my twin brother and I were playing outside on an ordinary summer's day. My brother picked up an ant, so I picked one up, too. I innocently observed the red ant as it crawled around my fingers. Totally unwarranted; the ant bit my tiny finger. The battle scar that remained served as a reminder of the foundational lesson I learnt that day: bugs are my enemies.

Even as an adult, I have a low tolerance for insects of any kind (excluding ladybugs and butterflies, of course). Whenever a bug trespasses into my room, I need to call my sister to remove it, even if it's the middle of the night. I felt pretty nervous about working in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum, one of the 29 University of Alberta Museums' registered museum collections, which contains about one-million specimens. The last thing that I expected was to feel awestruck by the wonders of insects. 

I spent two weeks in the museum working with over 1,600 beetles from the West Indies. These specimens were collected during research trips that ranged from 1934 to 2006. Although these beetles are in the collection, their information hasn’t been uploaded to the Entomology Collection online search website. Using an Excel spreadsheet, I input data on each beetle’s characteristics (including its species, subspecies, habitat, sex, and life stage) and details on each beetle’s collection (including where it was collected and how). I then used Google Earth to find the latitude and longitude coordinates of where each beetle was collected. This allows the search website to visualize the distribution of specimens on a map. Digitizing the data for the beetles will increase their exposure to the world, and makes the collection more accessible to both local and international researchers. 

Boxes of pinned beetle specimens.

It was inevitable that I would feel astounded by the beetles after working so closely with them. Danny (Assistant Curator of the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum) taught me that there are over one-million insects identified in the world (with more being discovered), and 40% of them are beetles. I worked with beetles that are menacingly large and beetles that are smaller than a speck, and each of them plays a pivotal role in sustaining our Earth. 

My two weeks in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum taught me that it’s easy to enjoy my work when I’m among incredible people, even if I’m working with insects. Danny and Felix Sperling (Curator of the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum) are experts in their fields, and it was a privilege to spend time with them. Every day with them was full of adventure and new learning.

Thanks to Danny and Felix, my fear has been replaced with fascination at the insects that live amid us. Watch the film to get an inside look at my unforgettable time in the E.H. Strickland Entomological Museum!