Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Digitising Insect Specimens

A brilliantly colored Cuckoo-wasp imaged using the Lego pinned insect manipulator. Photo: Steen Dupont.

Nicholas St. Fleur, Solving a Museum’s Bug Problem With Legos, The Atlantic, 20 February 2015


An insect manipulator that can position and rotate pinned specimens for imaging.

An entomologist from London is using his favorite childhood toy to build a device that holds fragile insect specimens.

The Natural History Museum in London has a gargantuan task ahead: the mass digitization of its sprawling collections. Over the next five years, the museum plans to scan more than 20 million pinned specimens. The job will require imaging an inordinate variety of insects, from metallic-green beetles and butterflies as colorful as a Monet, to tropical parasitic wasps and grasshoppers from Mount Everest.

But photographing tiny bugs can be tricky. Meaningful images must capture minutiae such as leg hairs, wing tips, and antennae. And gathering those details is challenging for museum researchers dealing with fragile specimens, some of which are more than 300 years old. “Every time you pick one of these up on a pin, there’s a chance they will break because they are very brittle,” said Steen Dupont, an entomologist at the museum. “But we still want to image the insects to make them available.”

Though there are several commercial devices that allow entomologists to manipulate pinned insects without touching them, most are often bulky and expensive. Dupont wanted something that was cheap, portable, and customizable so that he could observe the wings of his moths easier. So he turned to Legos, his favorite childhood toy, to construct something new. From the black and grey building blocks and connectors he crafted several insect manipulators called “IMps” that can position and rotate pinned specimens for imaging and 3-D modeling. (The name is inspired by imps, the mischievous assistants to warlocks and witches, whom Dupont called the academics of the mythological world.)

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