Behind the Scenes at the Natural History Musuem

The stores: climate-controlled, pest-controlled, light-controlled...

On Sunday 19 September, Dani and I were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre II, specifically the entomology stores and even more specifically, the hymenopteran collections. We have our friend David Notton to thank for this treat, as David works as Senior Curator of hymenoptera – that’s social insects, like bees, ants and wasps – and kindly offered to show us his incredible workspace.
Call it luck, serendipity, or fate, but I met David through researching my latest book, which is about astronomy, not insects. My novel Double the Stars, a fictionalized biography of the extraordinary life of astronomer Caroline Herschel, led me to meeting some of Caroline’s descendants, who have proven encouraging and enthusiastic about the book. Cassie, Caroline’s great (great, great) niece, happens to live about 10 minutes’ walk from us, and David is her partner.

David pointing out some hymenopteran samples.

When David and I met, the conversation went something like this:
Me: ‘And what do you do?’
David: ‘I work with ants and bees…’
Me: ‘That’s hymenopterans, right?’
David: [Huge grin] ‘Well done!’
And thus I gave them a copy of Darwin’s Microscope, and subsequently David extended his kind invitation.
David met Dani and me at the reception desk of the Darwin Centre. An excellent picture of this, the newest, 8-story wing of the grand Natural History Museum, can be seen here.…the Darwin Centre is the strange white cube to the left of the grand old Victorian building, within which is ‘The Cocoon’ (more on that later). Some architectural highlights of the DC II are described here.
David took us up to Level 3, behind many locked doors requiring passes, to the entomology floor. A long hallway stretched out with tall glass windows on one side, overlooking the Cocoon. To the right sprawled the office spaces of the entomologists. To the left, another locked door: the Store Room. David swiped his key card, and we walked left. Automatic lights flicked on with the precision of a one-year-old, £78 million new wing. We were greeted by long rows of cool grey cabinets on rollers, which could be pushed back and forth for access: a large part of the 17 million insect specimens housed in the new building.

Darwin's wasp.

Navigating and unlocking cabinets with expert ease, David showed us a ‘sample tray’ to give Dani an idea of what we’re talking about with hymenopterans. I learned that though this does include social insects, they are not all social by any means; David showed us some bees that build individual cells of wax in which to plant their offspring. It’s odd to imagine a bee without a hive!
We saw a tarantula-eating wasp (it was huge, with bright orange wings,) and iridescent bees of brilliant blue and green colours; entomologists still aren’t sure why the bees are so brilliant, as both males and females are iridescent (shaking up the question of sexual selection or favouritism by females). It may have to do with bees being able to see into the infrared spectrum. Apparently, these critters collect bits of pretty things to bring as gifts to the nest, and David cited an example of DDT being carried by some of them! ‘That didn’t last long.’
Of course, I requested the obligatory ‘Darwin Sample,’ which is still, let’s face it, so cool, and David obligingly pulled out a drawer full of teeny, tiny wasps, one of which had pride of place in the middle, with space around it, and a little tag: ‘Conception, Chile. C. Darwin.’ What is likely Darwin’s own handwriting can be glimpsed beneath the typed tag –
it looks like Darwin’s handwriting to me…
Next, David showed us his office area, where he is working on researching some little wasps which look quite a lot like the Darwin specimen. He switched on his microscope and we got to see the little beastie up close.
The icing on the cake was going up to the roof terrace of the DCII for tea and biscuits. Tea and biscuits on the roof of the Natural History Museum! And this was the staff room – these guys get to hang out here every day! I can’t say much more but THANK YOU, David!

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