MacRae Entomology Museum Expansion

Badly needed drawer space is provided by these gorgeous, antique, hand-made, wooden insect cabinets.

Every five years or so I find myself facing the same dilemma—too many bugs and not enough space to keep them. Each time this occurs, I go through the same thought process trying to decide the best way to solve the problem. Do I create new space by buying new cabinets, or clear existing space by donating “excess” material? If money was no object it would be the former. However, money is an object—a new, premium 25-drawer cabinet costs more than $1,000, not to mention another $400 for the drawers to fill it (if I build them myself—3 times that amount if I buy them already made). In my younger, more care-free days I got away with plunking down this kind of money several times, eventually assembling my current battery of three half-size and three full-size cabinets holding a total of 111 Cornell drawers fully stocked with unit trays. These days, however, there are kids to feed and college costs looming on the horizon. I just can’t swing that kind of dough.

Each cabinet came complete with 10 hand-made, wooden, glass-topped drawers.

The alternative, however—donating away part of my collection, is equally unattractive. I’ve been collecting insects for most of my life, so it’s more than just a hobby—it’s a part of me. Nevertheless, I am able to draw a distinction between a working collection and a hobby collection, and for the most part mine is the former. I have a few “hobby” taxa like treehoppers and leaf beetles and such, and I’ve already made a number of donations from these groups over the years. However, the bulk of my collection—and hence drawer space—is taken up by just three taxa; jewel beetles, longhorned beetles, and tiger beetles. Not only are my research activities in these three groups ongoing, but a considerable amount of the material in these groups consists of voucher specimens for my publications. I just can’t think about divesting myself of material in these groups, at least not at this point in my life. Besides, pulling material for donation is, in itself, a long and very time-consuming process that I would not look forward to.

I’ve actually been debating my options for the past couple of years now, watching nervously as my inventory of specimens housed in temporary cardboard boxes started to balloon from the successes of the past several years of collecting. Temporary boxes are bad—not only is it impossible to integrate the specimens into the organization of the main collection, but they remain vulnerable to that dreaded pest of insect collectors around the world; DERMESTID BEETLES! (The one beetle I don’t like!) The likelihood of having specimens damaged by dermestids is directly proportional to the number of temporary boxes that must be checked periodically looking for any evidence of their presence. I’ve been hit by dermestids more than once, and with the number of temporary boxes that I currently have (more than 50) it has become almost impossible to monitor them frequently enough.

Unit trays designed for Cornell drawers fortuitously fit nicely inside the custom-sized drawers.

Of course, patience is a virtue, and my reward this time for not acting too rashly came in the form of an email sent to the members of our local entomology group by Mark Deering, Director of the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House just a few blocks from my office. Mark was an avid butterfly collector in the past but has divested much of his collection in recent years and, as a result, no longer needed the cabinets and drawers he was using to store his collection. The list of items he had for sale included a few Cornell cabinets with drawers, ostensibly perfect for my needs, but it was the last item in the list that caught my eye—several antique, hand-made, wooden, 10-drawer cabinets with drawers. Now, I love my Cornell cabinets—they provide state-of-the-art (albeit industrial-looking) protection for my collection. However, there is something appealing about hand-made, wooden insect cabinets. I can almost see John L. LeConte and George W. Horn themselves standing next to one and pulling a drawer to have a look at its contents. I quickly contacted Mark and made arrangements to look at the cabinets. Mark explained that they were part of a 40-cabinet set housing a collection of pierid butterflies that eventually found its way to the Smithsonian Institution… yes, the Smithsonian (such history!). He had gotten ahold of seven cabinets and was now selling them for a very reasonable price. The cabinets were gorgeous, and it didn’t take long for me to do the math; I could afford to buy three cabinets with drawers for a fraction of what a 25-drawer Cornell cabinet with drawers would cost. That’s 30 drawers total, each with almost as much space as a Cornell drawer.

Drawer 1 of my tiger beetle collection.

I picked up the cabinets a few days later and spent the next two days rearranging furniture in my ‘museum’ to create the perfect showcase spot, cleaning the glass on each drawer (both sides), and transferring my tiger beetle collection into the first cabinet (drawer 1 of which is shown at right). Despite their age several transfers of ownership, the finish is still in very good shape with only minor nicks and scratches that add a sense of history yet don’t detract from their attractiveness. Especially pleasing was the discovery that the Cornell unit trays I use for my collection fit almost perfectly in the drawers (just an annoying empty spot in the upper right corner—this can probably be fitted with a California Academy-sized unit tray, perhaps for holding insect repellent blocks since the drawers and cabinets are not as air-tight as my modern Cornell cabinets). I’ll probably move the rest of my “hobby” taxa into the remaining drawers to free up the Cornell cabinets completely for exclusive use in housing my Buprestidae and Cerambycidae. That will take some time, but it’s a good problem to have. My only fear is that after I move things around and incorporate all of my backlogged material, I will have once again used up all of the newly available drawer space and find myself facing that same dilemma that I face every five years or so!

Perhaps a little teaser is in order—one of the species in the drawer shown at right will be the subject of an upcoming post—can you guess which one? Also, 2 BitB Challenge points to anyone who can correctly identify the country shown in the map behind the drawer.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

30 thoughts on “MacRae Entomology Museum Expansion

  1. Ecuador.

    You know, if you find that you absolutely have to lighten the load (of beetles) at some point, I know a guy who can help. Well, yeah, me.

    I’m going through similar growing pains, although to a much lesser degree. Presently, I’m trying to figure out how to move another Cal Academy cabinet into the house. Fortunately, I already have a couple spares in the garage, but the drawers are another matter. Oh, it’s all fun, though.

    • You were so quick with the answer I thought it was gonna be an avalanche. 2 pts, plus a bonus pt for being first.

      You have spare cabinets in the garage?! 🙂 You know, I wish I’d started out with Cal Academy instead of Cornell – more unit trays to the drawewr and more drawers to the cabinet. Most of my stuff is small, so I don’t need the height for #7 pins. But once you start using a system, you’re committed.

      • Ah, well, the Google Fu was strong with me that night.

        When Essig Museum moved to their new space and made the change to a compactor system, they sold the old cabinets for a song and a dance so I got several. I like my blocky, metallic cabinets, but they’re not as easy on the eye as yours, I must admit.

  2. Hi Ted, I’m a new follower of your blog. What beautiful new cabinets! Given how expensive they usually are, I thought I’d offer a little funding suggestion. Have you ever considered a microgrant from I’m guessing it’s hard to get conventional funding for more cabinets, but it might be easier to get a loan from the general public. I have a friend who use RocketHub for a chameleon research grant and gave away small prizes (chameleon photographs, postcards from where the research was conducted in South Africa). Just a thought!

    I’m looking forward to your future posts.

  3. Congratulations on the find of beautiful insect cabinets! I decided long ago not to keep an insect collection at home as I didn’t have the time or space. [I’ve currently a study collection of road-kill butterflies housed on three Styrofoam meat trays which is good enough for my purposes.] Wow, look at all the Ground Beetles! Map is of Ecuador – Peru – western Brazil, the Pastaza is a western tributary of the Amazon.

    • Raod-kill butterflies – now that’s an interesting collection. Part of a study looking at the effect of auto traffic, I presume?

      Yes, Ecuador and Peru (but not western Brazil) – I’ll give you 2 pts for each. That doesn’t change your position in the overalls, but you’re now nipping at the heels of the 2, 3, and 4 positions. Cheeky move!

      • Road-kill butterflies….exactly what it sounds like and just for personal study. I’ve taken to walking the roads near my home. There is a large river, corn, soybeans, and truck-farm vegetable fields in the neighborhood and in the summer I find more road-kill Leps than I ever thought I would. They’ve been damaged and whipped around by autos and pick-up trucks and are there for all to see there on the side of the road. I’ve scraped some off the pavement, I’ve one with ‘attached’ microgravel, I’ve also a Polyphemus moth from the bike trail missing half it’s thorax….someone’s snack leftover. This started because they’re pretty, maybe I’ll collect the wings for an Asian inspired art project bur mostly due to a couple dead skippers found when really trying to learn the Hesperiidae of my area. I strongly suggest it for your squeamish pre-teens getting into entomology for practice and learning. Half the Lep is usually in better shape and can still be keyed, it can be pinned after careful hydration or by gluing on a card triangle.

  4. Ted, thats the cabinets…and hey.. I would love to some day just look through your amazing collection…. jewel beetles, tiger beetles and long horned beetles… thats treasure right there…. and 100 boxes… !!! wow..

  5. Colombia, The city on the coast at the top of the drawer is Buenaventura.

    Congratulations on the new space! I know how frustrating it can be.

  6. Not airtight is of course a problem, I hope you don’t have to sleep too close to all that repellent. All 2 milion specimens of the UAIC are in drawers like that, not as pretty, but also just not quite tight. The rooms smelled strongly when I started working there, even though the new chemical is marketed as odorless. Now I don’t smell it anymore – even more scary. We have begun to move everything into new drawers as we can afford them (a grant appl to NSF is pending) and now the old drawers are piling up under tables and on top of refrigerators, to maybe given to schools. There will of course be hundreds of them. The cabinets will also have to go – IF we get the money for compactors
    Sorry – didn’t mean to sound negative: your new cabinets are absolutely beautiful and full of history. and your collection looks awesome in them. I guess those fumes just got to me.

    • Hi Margarethe – I haven’t used fumigants for about the last 20 years. Napthalene gives me headaches (of course, everything gives me headaches!), and I know too many beetle men that used Vapona more recently that ended up with weird types of cancer. I can’t say the two are related, but the association is a little too close to pass off without a thought. Going fumigant-free is easy to do with the airtights, but as you note not so easy with less than airtight. I’ve relied on regular inspection of the temporaries and Schmidt boxes to catch any infestations in the early stages and used freezing and alcohol immersion to nip it in the bud. That’s worked for me so far, but as the number of temporary boxes grew the number of instances where I didn’t catch an infestation as quickly as I’d like has grown. I’m nervous about continuing to rely on inspection, but I’m still more hesitant to go the fumigant route right now. At any rate, if I ever have to the “museum” is well isolated from the rest of the living quarters.

      Uhm, how do I get in line for some of those cabinets/drawers???

  7. If no one else will, I’ll make a guess to get things going: the big guys in the second tray from the top of the left column. Of course, I’m also curious if the color labels have any significance. If so, then my alternate guess would be that first tray since it has the only pink label.

    • Yep, the big guys 🙂

      The header labels in the unit trays indicate higher categories – white for genus/subgenus, yellow for tribe/subtribe, green for subfamily, and pink for family (I know, most now regard tigers as a subgroup of ground beetles, but for my collection it’s more convenient to treat them as a family-level group).

  8. Ha! Staring us right in the face, weren’t they?

    I figured those were header labels, but I wasn’t able to read the text. Oh, and regarding the tiger beetles being in their own family…of course, they are. Also Ceratopsyche is a good genus, and Han shot first. Everyone who’s anybody knows these things!


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