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College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
University of Idaho
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Moscow, ID 83844-2331

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University of Idaho
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University of Idaho
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Agricultural & Life Sciences
University of Idaho
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Frank Merickel in William F. Barr Entomological Museum

Insect Collection Aflutter with Butterflies

Late professor’s specimens fill out
William F. Barr Entomological Museum

By Joel Mills

Curtis Nelson up in a tree."While most people take vacations to Disneyland, we took vacations to remote areas of the Pacific Northwest to collect butterflies and document their occurrence."
- Ann Curtis

The average butterfly lives for only a few, fleeting days. But at the William F. Barr Entomological Museum at the University of Idaho, tens of thousands of the ephemeral creatures have achieved something akin to immortality, perfectly preserved in drawer upon drawer of pinned and labeled precision.

"It's an honor for me to be a steward of these resources, and manage these collections," said Frank Merickel, a professor of entomology known as the University of Idaho "keeper of the bugs."

The museum has existed for more than a century as an essential part of the university's land-grant mission. In addition to butterflies, it houses approximately one million other specimens that form a physical database of the insects that inhabit the Gem State and the rest of the world.

Merickel said entomological knowledge is key to the understanding of soil and plant health, and is therefore an important part of supporting Idaho's agriculturaleconomy. It is also a part of the university's outreach mission, and Merickel frequently teaches schoolchildren and farmers about bugs, and helps homeowners deal with pests.

"It is an exquisite example of the land-grant function," he said.

The museum's collections, which were already impressive, recently got a boost with the donation of more than 17,000 butterfly specimens from the collection of university professor Nelson Curtis. Curtis died last year, and his wife Ann donated his butterflies to the university before she died earlier this year.

And while the collection is fascinating in and of itself, it is interesting to note Curtis was not a professor of entomology, but of art.

butterflies in a traythree of the same butterfliesa two color butterflySome of the 17,000 butterflies donated to the university from the collection of late art professor Nelson Curtis.

"He saw the beauty in butterflies," Merickel said, noting not just the visual allure of the specimens, but of Curtis' meticulous preservation. "It's just gorgeous in terms of the organization of it."

Curtis collected butterflies for 30 years, starting in the early 1970s. He became so obsessed that he arranged nine-month employment contracts with the university to ensure that his summers were free for collecting.

In a short bio of Curtis written by Merickel, he quotes Ann Curtis as saying, "While most people take vacations to Disneyland, we took vacations to remote areas of the Pacific Northwest to collect butterflies and document their occurrence."

Curtis arranged his collections by county, which detracted from their efficiency as a scientific resource, but added to their aesthetic appeal, Merickel said. Curtis was also diligent about mounting specimens both ventrally (upside down) and dorsally (right side up), and including widely varying examples of the same species from different seasons.

"The spring and fall form of the same butterfly can look very different," Merickel said while standing over a specimen drawer full of examples from the genus Plebejus.

Merickel in the museum."It's an honor for me to be a steward of these resources, and manage these collections," said Curator Frank Merickel

Merickel guessed that the Curtis collection represents every butterfly species in Idaho, and almost all of the species in the Northwest. And he described the lengths that Curtis would have gone to capture some of them. "Idaho is a horrendously diverse state, from north to south and east to west," he said while looking at a drawer full of three specimens, which prefer to fly on steep mountainsides. "So I know Nelson had to work to get these."

And preserving butterflies in the field can be a challenge, especially in the summer months when they can dry quickly and resist proper mounting. "Once they dry and that musculature dries, if you attempt to spread them, you'll break off the wings."

Successful collecting also requires, at minimum, a basic knowledge of the host plant where butterflies lay their eggs, and the type of flowers where they prefer to feed, or "nectar."

Merickel made a point of giving credit to all the people who have made contributions to the museum over the years. They include the late University of Idaho professor William Barr, for whom the museum is named, and Frank M. Beer of Oregon State University. Both men amassed renowned collections of beetles, which they donated to the museum.

Merickel also expressed a profound respect for insects themselves, and the crucial role they play in the global ecosystem.

"They are the fundamental life givers," Merickel said. "They bring life to the soil and the water. Everybody feeds on insects, in one way or another."

Reprinted courtesy of the Lewiston Tribune