The entomological collection of the Royal British Columbia Museum is almost as old as the Museum itself. First founded by the provincial government in 1886 as the Provincial Museum of Natural History and Anthropology, the Museum’s first public displays occupied a single small room in the original wooden Capitol Buildings, which stood on the site of the present legislature. Insect collections were first displayed in 1892. The Museum was relocated twice, first to the original Supreme Court building nearby then, in 1898, to the East Wing of the newly constructed Legislative Buildings. The Museum remained there for the next 60 years. Across Government Street, most of the modern museum buildings were opened in 1968 and the institution was renamed the British Columbia Provincial Museum (BCPM). In 1986 it became the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) and, in 2003, with the addition of the BC Archives, it was designated a crown corporation.
The Museum’s first insect specimens were donations from W.H. Danby and Charles DeBlois Green (Figure 1), both well known BC collectors, especially of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). For years after, these insects were the focus of the provincial collection. In the first decades of the 20th Century, the collection benefited from its close association with the Entomological Society of BC, whose foundation in 1901 was spearheaded by R.V. Harvey (Fig. 2), a prolific collector and respected educator, whose death in World War I cut short a promising entomological career. British Columbia insect enthusiasts were well organized and active. Their frequent and diverse publications appeared in museum publications and in the Society’s Proceedings and are still impressive today. Rev. George W. Taylor (Fig. 3), Abdiel W. Hanham, and R.S. Sherman were among these early supporters of the collection.
Over the years, most collection growth resulted from gifts and bequests from a variety of sources and from concerted but sporadic collecting by a meagre staff. Well into the 1930s and 1940s, in addition to the Director, the Museum’s staff consisted of only one or two people involved in biology. Some years there were none. The first full-time entomologist was not hired until the early 1970s and, as a result, the collection has had a desultory past.
Ernest M. Anderson, Assistant Biologist from 1903 to 1916, was the first staff member to make significant collections of insects. He made several major trips (during which he collected plants and vertebrates as well as insects), for example, to the Okanagan Valley in 1913, the Atlin district in 1914, and the Lillooet region in 1916. Others, such as J.A. Munro and C.B. Garrett, later well-known BC biologists in their own right, acted as Anderson’s field assistants or collected on contract for the Museum before and during World War I. Based on his museum work, Anderson published the first provincial list of moths and butterflies and, although it contained many misidentifications, it served as a basis for future work. Anderson was dismissed for misconduct in 1916; among other things, he was accused of attempting to sell insects that he’d collected for the Museum to other institutions, such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
Ernest H. Blackmore (Fig. 4), perhaps the most significant of the early butterfly and moth experts in the province, was a post office employee in Victoria who, from about 1913 onward, collected and published extensively. In the 1920s he focused on micromoths and became a North American authority. He acted as a research associate in the Museum, donating and curating specimens in his spare time and, after Anderson’s departure, he was paid for this work. For a number of years after 1917, he contributed the entomology section in the detailed annual reports of the Museum, including photographs of Lepidoptera specimens of particular interest. He summarized his studies and collections in a new list, which corrected and updated Anderson’s 1904 version. Blackmore’s untimely death at age 47 in 1929 was a severe setback to the Museum’s Lepidoptera collection, which at this time numbered about 5000 specimens. Two large cases of mounted butterflies and moths from the Victoria region were exhibited to the public in those days and a research collection of insects comprised twenty glass-topped drawers. Experts considered the Museum’s holdings one of the 16 best collections of North American Lepidoptera. When Blackmore died, a few months before the onset of the Great Depression, the Museum could not afford to purchase his personal collection of 12,000 specimens. But George Spencer (Fig. 5), recently arrived at the University of British Columbia, found sufficient money and the Blackmore material now resides in the University’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum.
John F. (Jack) Gates Clarke, born and schooled in Victoria, was mentored by Blackmore at the Museum between 1920 and 1928 and developed a lifelong passion for moths. After Blackmore’s death in 1929, Gates Clarke was hired as Assistant Curator of Entomology and, for the next two years, mainly studied microlepidoptera. After 1930 he began university in the United States but, to some extent, continued his association with the Museum; for example, he wrote the entomology section in several of the Museum’s annual reports in the early 1930s. He went on to a long and distinguished career at the Smithsonian Institution; he died in 1990.
George A. Hardy (Fig. 6), as Assistant Biologist from 1924 to 1928, curated all plant and animal collections. His greatest entomological contribution during this period was the development of a large collection of Vancouver Island beetles. He rejoined the Museum in 1941 as Botanist, but also was responsible for the entomological collection. While most of his work time was occupied in the herbarium, he continued his research into his first love, the Long-horned Wood-boring Beetles, but more and more began collecting and rearing butterflies and moths. He published many papers on the life histories of Lepidoptera from southern Vancouver Island, especially during his retirement.
In a letter to Dan Bonnell of Oregon State College in April 1942, Hardy noted that the provincial collection amounted to 52,000 specimens of all orders. He went on to say: “Since 1930, apart from brief notes and identification of specimens by specialists, little progressive entomological work has been accomplished excepting the constant influx of very desirable local collections and odd species of all sorts sent in for clarification.”
Thus, through most of the 1930s and after Hardy’s retirement in 1953, right through to the early 1970s, there was little entomological activity in the provincial collection, except the deposition of Hardy’s own material. Indeed, after Hardy became inactive, and especially after his death, the collection was neglected. In 1963 at the centennial meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada held in Ottawa, George Spencer, that powerhouse of BC entomology, gave the plenary address on 100 years of Canadian entomology. How embarrassing to the BC Provincial Museum that, while discussing all the important insect collections across the land, Spencer could omit any mention of the Museum’s collection! Its once glittering reputation had sunk that low.
In 1970 when the Museum moved from the legislative buildings to the new curatorial tower (Fannin Building), the insect collections were fumigated and stored in this new facility. Bob Carcasson, when Curator of Entomology a few years later, noted that these collections, “consisting of some 100,000 specimens housed in an assortment of storeboxes, shoeboxes, cigar boxes and in a few poorly designed, home-made cabinets, were in a bad state…. they had been stored in a damp basement and many had been damaged by carpet beetles and mildew. Douglas A. Ross (Canadian Forest Service) spent some time in 1970 sorting the material but, beginning in June 1972, Brian D. Ainscough, a Victoria mite expert, handled much of the early curation. Carcasson observed that “…no attempt had been made to amalgamate and to arrange the specimens in any kind of systematic order… Much of the material was damaged or without data and had to be discarded. The coverage of the Coleoptera (beetles) and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) of southern Vancouver Island was reasonable, but the representation of other orders and the coverage of other areas was… deplorably inadequate.”
Ainscough noted that “the only satisfactory nucleus for a properly integrated main collection… was about 2500 specimens of BC butterflies, moths, beetles, true bugs, dragonflies and damselflies …housed in glass-topped drawers in five modern cabinets… All the specimens are in apparently excellent condition, properly labelled and determined.” Among other things, this probably contained the Hardy beetle specimens, mostly from his work in the 1920s. The vast majority of the pinned collections, comprising about 72,000 specimens of all the major orders, likely included most of the collections donated in the distant past, such as those of A.W. Hanham, R.V. Harvey and J.K. Jacob. G.H. Lardner’s 4200 specimens, mostly beetles, and Hardy’s fine collection of 8300 BC Lepidoptera were in addition to this material; both of these collections were housed separately and were labelled and mostly identified. Five large display cases containing an assortment of BC insects, presumably those exhibited in the former Museum building, were also inventoried. No record was kept of the number of specimens discarded when much of this material was sorted and amalgamated into recently acquired storage cabinets. In 1973 the Friends of the BCPM bought 200 insect drawers and an additional 124 were obtained from the University of BC and other sources.
In February 1973 the Entomology Division was established with the appointment of the first Curator of Entomology, Robert H. Carcasson and an Associate Curator, Brian Ainscough. Alexander Mackie joined the staff in 1974 as a technician but resigned late in 1975; unfortunately, he was not replaced. Carcasson retired in 1979 and died in 1982. Born in Britain, he studied tropical agriculture in Italy and served as entomologist at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi from 1955 and as director from 1961 to 1968. His specialties were biogeography and African Lepidoptera, especially sphinx moths. He came to Canada as chief curator at the Centennial Museum in Vancouver (1969-1971). At the BCPM most of his efforts focused on tropical and Old World Lepidoptera. Ainscough’s specialty was the fauna of the soil, especially tortoise mites. When he retired in 1983, most of the mites he had collected were sent to the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes in Ottawa, where they could be curated and studied by the active mite research group there.
Rob Cannings (Fig. 7) replaced Carcasson as Curator in January 1980. Although Cannings publishes on a wide range of insect groups, his research has focused on dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) and robber flies (Diptera: Asilidae). Since the 1980s the collection has grown considerably in size, diversity, in the quality of storage and data and, in most groups, in geographical scope. For example, the dragonfly and damselfly collection has increased from a few hundred BC specimens (mainly from the Frank Whitehouse collection) to over 40,000 from around the world. The spider collection has become a significant Canadian research resource. The RBCM’s close ties with the University of BC’s Spencer Entomological Collection resulted in extensive exchanges of specimens and donations over the decades, including significant material collected by well-known entomologists such as Kenneth Jacob, Harold Foxlee, George Spencer, and RBCM Research Associate and UBC Professor Emeritus Geoff Scudder. Some of the material gathered by agencies of the provincial government has been donated to the RBCM. For example, specimens gathered in the first half of the 20th century in the Okanagan Valley by Max Hermann Ruhmann (Fig. 8), one of the many prominent agricultural entomologists to serve as Provincial Entomologist, are now in the collection. Cooperative projects in the Yukon with Syd Cannings of the Canadian Wildlife Service have brought extensive insect collections from that territory to the RBCM collection, where they greatly help in the study of BC’s northern fauna. Donations of personal collections, such as the large one of RBCM volunteer Gord Hutchings, are valuable additions. Robb Bennett and Darren Copley, along with Claudia Copley, have built the RBCM spider collection into one of the best in the nation. James Miskelly’s collections and research into the grasshopper and crickets of BC and adjacent regions have greatly improved the RBCM collection of those groups.
At three separate times during Cannings’ curatorship, the RBCM has been fortunate to have had dynamic entomology collection managers on staff: Crispin Guppy (1987–1993), David Blades (half-time, 1997-2003) and Claudia Copley (half-time, 2004-September 2010; full-time, September 2010-present) (Fig. 9). A highlight of Guppy’s tenure was the influx of funds for new storage cabinets and for specimen databasing that accompanied a massive collections move precipitated by the removal of asbestos from the collection building. All old wooden cabinets were replaced with new steel storage. Guppy implemented the collection’s first computerized data management system and oversaw the initial databasing of the collection. At that time, every specimen received a unique acquisition number and complete data records were produced for butterflies and Odonata. Cris is well known as an author of “Butterflies of British Columbia”, a significant book extensively based on RBCM collection data that was published by the Museum in 2001. Among many other contributions, both Blades and Copley aggressively expanded and improved the database; added tens of thousands of specimens to the collection and identified thousands; reordered and relabelled pinning trays, drawers and cabinets; and expanded and relabelled the alcohol collection, converting it to screw-cap vials. David developed the ziplock polyethylene envelope and unit box system to house the Odonata collection.
The research collection database contains about 250,000 accessioned specimens or lots, each having a unique accession number. Over 150,000 specimens are not yet accessioned. For a detailed assessment of the RBCM’s entomological collection and its scope, see here.
Time flies, and over its 122 year life, the RBCM entomology collection has seen good times and bad. Since the 1980s it has flourished and become a major resource for the people of BC and the world. With dedicated staff and sufficient resources to ensure success, entomology at the Museum will continue developing as a unique and dynamic source of knowledge on BC’s diverse and changing insect and arachnid fauna.