Insects and other tiny animals are delicate, and the scientists who study them have to be very careful with their specimens. This is even more true when the insect in question has been dead and sitting in a drawer for a century or three.
The insects in museum natural history collections aren’t just dusty relics, but continue to be important to research today (by giving researchers something to compare new species to when figuring out their place in a family tree, for just one example). These insects used to be preserved by drying them on a pin. While many specimens today are instead preserved in ethanol, on microscope slides, or in plastic envelopes, the vast collections of historical specimens—like some 27 million insects stored at the Natural History Museum in London—are still on their pins. While these pinned specimens are well preserved, they’re incredibly delicate and prone to damage when handled during research. Many museums are trying to ease this problem by digitizing their collections, taking pictures and scans of specimens from different angles to create images and 3D models that can be studied and even loaned out without excessive handling and shipping. Getting all those images, though, often requires the sort of handling that digitization seeks to avoid.
“With the rapid increase in collections digitization, museum specimens are handled to a much larger extent than ever before,” says Steen Dupont, a biologist at the Natural History Museum. They have to be retrieved, positioned and repositioned for pictures, putting them at “immediate risk of damage, especially to the fragile extremities” like legs, wings and antennae. Special manipulation tools are available for handling delicate dried bugs, but they’re often expensive and come in just a few sizes, which might not work for some groups of insects and can’t be used across a museum’s whole collection. Curators and researchers can also make their own manipulators, but many of the plans available, Dupont laments, call for tools and materials that aren’t easily available, especially to students or scientists in developing countries.
Dupont wanted a better solution, so he turned to a material that almost anyone can get their hands on and customize to their own needs: LEGO bricks. He and LEGO are both natives of Denmark, and the colorful blocks were one of his favorite childhood toys. He continued to tinker with them even after he grew up and moved to the UK, and it seemed only natural to try and use them to solve his insect manipulation problem.
Dupont and his colleagues designed and built a DIY bug handler, dubbed the Insect Manipulator, or IMp (named after the imps that appear in folktales helping witches and warlocks, who Dupont calls the “academics of mythology”), with LEGO Digital Designer software and LEGO blocks, beams, beam connectors, connecting pins and gears ordered straight from the company’s website. To digitize a specimen, the insect’s pin is stuck into a bit of cork or foam stuffed in a LEGO connector peg in the middle of the IMp. By turning the peg or the whole contraption, the insect can be manipulated and viewed from various angles without being touched.
While the IMp is made out of kids' stuff, the researchers think that it’s superior to commercial and other home-brewed manipulators because LEGO bricks are cheap, readily available and endlessly customizable. Plus, the IMp can easily be taken apart and put back together by a museum curator on the go and the open design leaves room for light sources, cameras and microscopes.
If you ever find yourself in need of a way to handle your own dried insects without turning them into dust, the team’s design and assembly instructions are available here.