The insect, spider, mite and centipede collections of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences contain between 15 and 17 million specimens. They span most of the known orders and contain at least 15,000 type specimens. As the unique specimen from which a particular species was described, these samples are important reference sources. About 1,000 such "types" have been added in the last ten years. 

800 oak cabinets for our dry specimens

The collections are held under ideal climatological conditions in eight storage rooms. The "dry" specimens are organised into 75,000 drawers in more than 800 oak cabinets. The "wet" collection (preserved in alcohol) contains about 5,000 jars of spiders, scorpions and centipedes. The specimens have been systematically categorised according to insect order and then subdivided into family, genus and species. Several private collections have been preserved intact, such Emile Derenne's collection of beetles (containing 90,000 Belgian specimens) and a collection assembled by Baron Michel Edmond de Selys Longchamps is one of the world's largest collections of dragonflies and damselflies. 

Carabid beetles (Photo: Thierry Hubin, RBINS)
Barometer of Belgian species

New specimens are always being acquired: on average more than 100,000 insects and arachnids are added every year. The institute's own entomologists collect a large proportion of these during their field expeditions. A great many specimens are bought in, donated or swapped with collections from institutes in other countries.
We have specimens from around the world for most groups, but many are weighted towards Belgian material, which has been collected systematically since the middle of the 19th century and reached its peak in the nineteen forties and fifties. These collections provide excellent comparative material, which the entomologists of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences use to gauge progressive or regressive shifts in species distribution. They have noted, for example, an increase in mosquito species that live near human settlements and are known to spread disease.

Freeze treatment to protect the storage cabinets against fungal contamination and infestation by the larvae of the museum beetle
Comings and Goings

At the department in charge of the entomology collections, the researchers and insects come and go frequently. On average about 200 to 300 foreign biologists and amateur collectors come to see the collections every year and 60,000 specimens are sent out to other parts of the world, mostly to assist in taxonomic studies. This is a well organised operation: the entomologists have to freeze treat and systematically check all the collections when they are returned. They do this to protect the storage cabinets against fungal contamination and infestation by the larvae of the museum beetle.
There is plenty for the team of experts and technicians to do: the collections still contain a great many undetermined specimens, and much of the material is as yet unprepared. Today, work continues apace to digitise the collections so that more specimens can be consulted online via the MARS and DARWIN database.


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