IOWA CITY — What may be the largest collection of Iowa insects ever assembled was at risk of being dumped in a dumpster, but it’s being rescued and preserved by the University of Iowa. Cindy Opitz, director of research collections at the UI Pentacrest Museums, says the Iowa City institution has acquired an extensive natural history collection from the former Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, which closed earlier this year.
“It’s about 50 to 60,000 insects — we’re not sure yet and we won’t know for sure until we get down to the business of cataloging all of the specimens,” Opitz says. “We also took in a few mounted mammals and birds, a few corals, as well as some other sea creatures.” It’s a priceless collection, she says, as it provides a valuable assortment of specimens that offer insights into Iowa’s rich ecological legacy.
“Collections like this function as archives of biodiversity. It allows people to look into what species used to be here versus what’s here now, helps us to understand our environment,” Opitz says. “People can study what makes insects and other species disappear from places.” The insect collection is housed in about 600 separate drawers and represents 22 orders and 462 families of insects, essentially, an entomologist’s dream.
“This collection is particularly significant because it was an early attempt in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s — and I think it might have extended into the ’50s and ’60s — to document all of the different kinds of insects found in Iowa,” Opitz says, “so it’s giving us a snapshot of what insect life used to be here.” The collection was the result of what was called the Iowa Insect Survey, which set out over several decades to discover all insect varieties in all 99 Iowa counties. Opitz says the U-I is applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation in order to upgrade how the massive collection is being housed.
“We took it in, in its as-is state, in old wooden boxes with acidic insect trays inside those boxes, and in cabinets that are dented and don’t seal well,” Opitz says. “So we’ll be looking to update those materials to preserve this collection for another 100 years.” The UI did not have to pay anything for the collection, according to Opitz, but only had to pay for the cost of transporting it to Iowa City from Mount Pleasant. She says there’s a plan to create an insect exhibit that will offer Pentacrest museum visitors an immersive and educational experience.
Had the UI not stepped in, she says it’s possible this broad viewpoint of Iowa history would have been hauled to the landfill.