That’s it’s not a job for the faint-hearted…
I’ve spent some time recently in the Zoology department, effectively volunteering one day a week (but getting paid for it!) to get some experience and help out. And this is what I’ve been doing (some of the time, anyway):
Pinning insects. Which, when you get past the grossness of the idea of jabbing pins into dead animals, is actually quite fun. Well, as much fun as jabbing pins into dead animals can be! It takes a fair amount of skill, especially with the smaller beetles (some of which have incredibly tough exoskeletons, and getting the thin wobbly pins through their elytra without pinging them across the room is quite a challenge!). You also get to study the insects under a microscope, which is quite fascinating. Live insects I’ve really never been a fan of, but dead ones are actually quite beautiful. I had a little freak-out when the first insect I had a go at (one of the locusts) moved when I gingerly tried to stab it through the head (well, the thorax really), but after that I was fine. It becomes a mechanical process, and the hands work away without the brain having to think about what it is you’re really doing! Which is not really that disgusting anyway. And as the curator pointed out, they’ve been dead a long time, so they’re not exactly going to feel it!
The basic process is really quite simple:
You have a load of pitfall-trapped insects in a tube of alcohol, you tip it out into a petri dish, choose an insect, dry it off, and stick a pin through its thorax (or elytron if it’s a beetle) just to the right of the middle line (so as not to destroy characters that are useful in distinguishing between species). Easy. Except that (as previously mentioned) some of the beetles are a bit of a bugger, and if you get the pin too close to the middle then the wing cases won’t sit closed and it looks rubbish. Which I managed to do a few times, but not too many.
I also got to glue the heads back onto a couple of beetles, which was also pretty challenging, mostly because they were so damn small! And getting the head to go back on the right way up is not easy.
I’m told there are some wet-preserved mammal and fish specimens in the department that are going rather unpleasant and need to be decanted and disposed of as well. Can’t wait! Mmm, I love the smell of formalin in the morning!