Ohio State's unexpected butterfly bonanza

Luciana Musetti is swamped with butterflies. She opens one of several cabinets labeled “Miscellaneous Unsorted Lepidoptera,” revealing cigar boxes, candy boxes, even an old

sewing tin filled with the winged insects.

This butterfly bonanza is a new thing for Ohio State University's Museum of Biological Diversity. Over the past six years, the institution inherited a few small- and medium-sized collections. Then in 2015, Dave Parshall, an OSU graduate and retired Pataskala high school teacher, donated his massive butterfly collection—50,000 mounted specimens and 50,000 more in envelopes. “He did an amazing job,” says Musetti, the curator of the museum's Triplehorn Insect Collection. “He was an amateur collector with a professional feel.”

Musetti and her colleagues were thrilled to accept Parshall's gift, which filled a void in the museum's insect collection, one of the largest university collections in the country. While the museum boasted an amazing array of ants, flies, bees, wasps and beetles, it lacked lepidoptera (moths and butterflies).

But the addition also posed a challenge. Someone needed to separate and record the specimens—a process that takes time and money, two things in short supply at the museum. Then there's this: Musetti, a wasp expert, doesn't know butterflies well. The same goes for Triplehorn director Norman Johnson, another wasp expert bewildered by butterflies.

So Musetti asked for help via the collection's blog, The Pinning Block, hoping to find volunteers to help organize and identify unsorted butterflies and moths so the museum can digitize specimen data for the LepNet database, an ambitious nationwide online repository of butterfly and moth images and specimen records.

Members of the Ohio Lepidopterists Society have stepped up. One volunteer mounted several hundred butterflies, including some that date to 1884. Another member and his daughter sorted butterflies into groups—such as fritillaries, satyrs and skippers—and plan to return to separate them into species. Others, including OSU students, are moving and repairing specimens, labeling trays, drawers and cabinets and making digital images. “When completed, the LepNet database will be one of the largest repositories of biological data in the world,” Musetti says.