HALLOWELL — William Shakespeare was doubtless thinking of something other than bugs when he mused that what’s past is prologue, but that’s only because he never tackled an outbreak of emerald ash borer.

Insects collected over a century or more not only tell the state’s ecological narrative to the state’s entemologists, but provide keen insight into its present.

All of which makes the University of Maine’s decision to donate more than 107,000 insects to the Maine State Museum in Augusta for preservation an historic development, even if your passion isn’t studying bugs.

“Collections aren’t just for a bunch of nerds,” said Andrei Alyokhin, entomologist with the University of Maine at Orono. “They have extreme practical significance.”

The university’s collection was moved Thursday into a Maine State Museum climate-controlled collections room on Water Street in Hallowell. After years of care by university scientists, the collection spent about a decade in the attic at Child Development Building on the Orono campus because a lack of money and storage to properly care for the cases of insects.

Entomologists with the state and at the university feared the rare collection — which the museum called “priceless and irreplaceable” — was in danger of being damaged and rendered useless for research.

Planning for the move to the museum began six years ago and was completed Thursday. The collection will become part of the museum’s natural science collection. Coupled with a collection of roughly 60,000 Maine Forest Service specimens already being used by the Maine Forest Service, the new insect collection will provide an expansive look at Maine’s insect history, officials said.

The collection includes specimens dating from the 1800s, rare tropical butterflies and a compilation of moths collected by Auburn Brower, a state entomologist in the mid-1900s. Part of Brower’s collection is stored at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“It’s irreplaceable,” said Charlene Donahue, entomologist with the Maine Forest Service. “There’s material in here that has never been identified.”

Museum officials said the collection will be stored in 29 cabinets, also donated to the museum by the University of Maine, and will hold more than 500 drawers of insects.

Cataloging the collection will take years, Donahue said, and will likely involve volunteers. “It’s a huge project,” she said.

But the work will be worth it, Donahue said. Scientists use the specimens to research current species and to find out how the state’s bug population is changing. If there is an outbreak of a invasive insect, scientists can use the specimens to research the offending bug and even search out natural predators.

In the case of the emerald ash borer, for example, entomologists learned there is a type of non-stinging wasp that uses the beetles to stock its nests. The wasps could be used to monitor the ash borer’s spread, but first scientists had to find out if the wasps even exist in Maine. Turning to their insect collection, entomologists can find that out — when they were present and where they were found.

“These are crucial king pins in the study of Maine and what’s happening,” said Paula T. Work, curator of zoology for the Maine State Museum. “Everything has a ripple effect. Until you understand what you have, you can’t ask the proper questions.”

Museum Director Bernard Fishman said the museum staff have the expertise and the space to care for the insect collection for the next century.

“It’s a great collection and I’m delighted the museum can fulfill its function of preserving history, and preserving natural history, for the state of Maine,” Fishman said. “We think they’re worth preserving and we have the skills to do that.”


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