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ACCI flows from the knowledge that Cree culture must be captured, maintained, shared, celebrated, and practiced. Cree Elders have spoken of the need for a central place for the protection of the way, and have developed a vision for Aanischaaukamikw over several decades.

May 4, 2020

Pandemic Isolating: What I’m doing with the 'Reesa' my time

Jessica MacLean, the conservator at Aanischaaukamikw, shares some information about how we keep our collections safe and free from insect damage.

On a bright spring day in April 2020, 1120 km from Ouje-Bougoumou amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself sitting at my kitchen table in Toronto doing watercolour sketches. The subject of which are the bane of my professional existence - Reesa vespulae

‘Adult Reesa vespulae’, a portrait in watercolour by Jessica MacLean, 2020.
In the Linnean classification system that is used by Entomologists, Reesa is a monotypic genus of beetles in the family Dermerstidae, meaning the only species in the genus are Reesa vespulae. Adults are 2.5–4 mm long, with elongated oval bodies. The hardened forewings of these beetles, the elytra, are brown and have a yellowish-brown stripe. The small larvae have a hairy appearance, leading to their colloquial name of “woolly-bears” in museum literature (not to be confused with caterpillars of the same name). Sometimes referred to as ‘stored grain beetles’ or ‘wasp nest dermestid’, I will be referring this beetle as ‘R. vespulae’ in this article.

Aanischaaukamikw exterior. Photograph: Mitch Linet.
In my non-pandemic life, I am the conservator at Aanischauukamikw Cree Cultural Institute and the R. vespulae is my least favourite museum guest. I have spent the last two years meticulously researching, identifying, monitoring, and admittedly stressing about a small population of beetles that are trying to make their home in our beautiful facility. R. vespulae are a common pest of insect collections, and well known to many conservators and collections managers. Having worked primarily with Indigenous collections in Canada, this was the first time I had encountered the species. When they were first discovered in our building, I was admittedly stumped; these beetles were simply too small to fit the description of any of the usual suspects. As I was unable to properly identify the species at first, I looked at the similarities in appearance and diet to other dermestids and made an educated guess that these beetles were part of that family. This guess was supported by the fact that I was able to trap them in baited dermestid lures. R. vespulae are simultaneously my least favourite part of my job and probably one of the most interesting parts of my job.

However, in this darkest timeline we are currently living, I am more than a 12-hour drive south of Ouje-Bougoumou, and there is nothing I can do about the Integrated Pest Management plan I employ to keep these unwanted visitors away.

Dermestidae are a family of beetles commonly referred to as skin beetles and includes a variety of species that are commonly found in museums such as hide, larder, and cigarette beetles, all of whom are identified as pests. I think the title of ‘pest’ that we use in museum preventative care is a bit of a misnomer, like the word ‘weed’. ‘Weeds’ are a social construct; I’m sure you have heard the phrase “a weed is a plant in the wrong place.” I think of the R. vespulae in similar terms. These beetles are neither good nor bad, they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. All organisms, including insects, have their place within an ecosystem; all of these Nations are our relations. To assign a negative value to a living thing because it is not wanted by humans is to disregard the natural order of things and the value we should place on our interrelations with all things, human, non-human and beyond-human. That said, as a conservator, my job is to make sure the collections do not become damaged, in this case – eaten. So, in this instance, these insects are considered predatory threats. 

Dermestidae, R. vespulae among them, are scavengers, meaning they feed on whatever desiccated animal and plant material they can find. Luckily for us, R. vespulae are partial to the carcasses of other insects, which means they are possibly helping to keep the populations of other, more destructive museum pests down.  With a little distance from the tunnel vision caused by the constant stress of work, I have come to realize that the R. vespulae are not, in actuality, all that bothersome. They are actually the least of my worries with the Cultural Institute closed at the moment. I am far more worried about my colleagues catching COVID-19, floods, leaks, power cuts, and any number of the other emergency situations that hover in the back of my mind. Luckily, our Facilities Manager and maintenance staff are still close by and check the building daily. There are other staff still in Ouje-Bougoumou who can help out in case any of these admittedly unlikely events occur.

As a conservator, I am always planning for the worst possible scenario and strategizing how to minimize any possible risks to our collections. That is part of what this job is about; knowing how to make a plan for when things fall apart (physically and/or metaphorically). I am always trying to think 2 steps ahead of a number of possible disastrous scenarios, which means I suggest strict guidelines for any plans that involve, or could impact, our collections.  My colleagues in the field might be able to relate to the self-conscious feeling I have when trying to communicate the value of following conservation centered ‘rules’ in order to ensure the collections we care for can be enjoyed into the future.  

At Aanischaaukamikw our focus is on Eeyouch / Eenouch culture, so the majority of our collections are made from materials sourced from the land. When belongings made of hides, furs, and feathers come into the building, they are placed in clear resealable plastic bags as part of our quarantine procedure before they can enter areas where the rest of the collections are stored. The museum recieves donations and loans such as moccasins that someone has just finished making, hides that have been fixed out at someone’s camp, or objects that have been sitting in someone’s living room for decades before coming into our collection. We are not making any judgements about the use or condition of these belongings when we quarantine them; we simply have to do this so we can make sure our other collections remain safe. With the widespread social distancing and isolating we are all engaging in due to the pandemic, I think now is a good time to cultivate an understanding about why we perform this essential part of our entry procedure.

In our quarantine area, I place the belongings inside a resealable bag; gently removing as much air from the bag as possible without crushing the object; then I let it sit in this designated quarantine room for two weeks or more weeks. This allows me to check if any insects have hitched a ride into the building. Some insects will die in the oxygen depleted environment, others will crawl out into the bag making them easier to spot, but a thorough examination will be undertaken before anything is moved into spaces where collections are stored. I closely inspect furs and hides when they come into the building, including materials that come in to be used for workshops and craft activities. Dermestids like to graze along the skin and clip the base of the hairs as they eat; they can do a lot of damage right under your nose if you don’t catch them in time. Once a pest population takes hold in the building, it is difficult to stop them from consuming the rest of the organic collections. If we do see signs of any pests, including droppings (frass) or skin casings from a previous infestation, we will freeze that item and make sure everything is dead before bringing it to the conservation lab for cleaning.

Larvae found on bandolier bag

In one such case, we found evidence of pests in a pair of bandolier bags that came in on loan to us. In quarantine, our previous conservator Fiona noticed that there were some live larval stage insects of a type that are sometimes found inside the rotting matter of antlers in this region. The lender was surprised when notified of this infestation as he lives in a large urban area, and does not have any rotting animal parts in or around his home. With further discussion, it was determined that the bandolier bags had been transported in a duffle bag that was stored for a few days in a closet at a lodge in a hunting community prior to coming to Aanischaaukamikw. It is entirely possible the larvae had come from this closet, perhaps a previous guest had left hunting gear or boots in the same space and this is how the larvae managed to find their way to the precious beaded bags he brought to us on loan. These are the realities of life given our location in the non-urban, heavily forested Eeyou Istchee territory.

Evidence of pest grazing, tamarack decoy

Larger dense objects can be harder to inspect for pests. A few years ago a large tamarack decoy on a log stand came in on loan. The standard quarantine procedures were followed before placing the tamarack bird decoy on display with the rest of our tamarack collection. A short time later, small dark spots were noticed under the decoy. The floors of our display cases are purposely painted white for this exact reason; it is easy to spot something that doesn’t belong. The tamarack was removed and re-inspected in the quarantine area, where it was determined that the freezing time needed to be increased to reach the dense insides of this large decoy. It was frozen for a longer-than-usual period, re-inspected, and placed back on display once it was determined that the pests were, in fact, dead. The case was closely monitored for renewed signs of pest activity; however, nothing has been found since.

Tamarack decoy on log, on display at Aanischaaukamikw

Aside from looking for pests in quarantine, we have pest traps placed throughout the building. Next time you visit a museum, see if you can spot these traps. Sticky traps are placed in inconspicuous locations around the building. The purpose of a trap is not necessarily to exterminate the pests, but rather to collect a sample of the pests in each area in order to identify those that are particularly dangerous to the collections and monitor their numbers. The first day of the month is ‘Bug Day’ for me at work. With my logging sheets, I go around picking up last month’s traps; counting the numbers and types of pests; and placing a new trap. Traps are placed where the wall meets the floor, with the opening parallel to the wall, as pests have limited vision and crawl using the seam as a guide. I add the new data to an on-going graph of pest populations over time. Currently, our maintenance staff has taken over the task while I am working outside the community and seem less enthusiastic than I am about this essential task – maybe this blog will make checking the pest traps more exciting! I admit, it is tedious and creepy-crawly work, but the information collected is vital to the safety of our collections, and an important aspect of good collections stewardship.

Other ways we try to reduce pests inside the facility include:

·         annual spraying of the perimeter of the building. This spraying is usually done in May, when it is the optimal time in the insect life cycle to reduce their numbers.
·         All staff, building tenants, and visitors remove dirty footwear when they enter. Limiting the amount of dirt and water tracked into the building helps to make the building less hospitable for pests; they thrive in dark, moist, dirty places. Staff and building tenants are encouraged to have indoor footwear to wear when they are inside the building – added benefit, everyone gets to show off the beautiful moccasins they wear at work.
·         Food and drinks are only permitted in designated spaces, where
garbage receptacles are emptied on a daily basis.

Red Zone - No food or drink is allowed in rooms in the Red zone.

When I first found R. vespulae, it took me some time to correctly identify them. They were not any of the usual museum pests I had studied. Though I had found the R. vespulae larvae, ‘woolly-bears’, in sticky traps in non-collections areas of the building for months, I could not locate an infestation of adults, meaning the large centralized population of the insects was undetected. I found approximately 1 adult to every 10 larvae. To add to the stress of not knowing what these beetles were, and therefore unable to make a plan to deal with them, the ‘woolly-bears’ shed so rapidly that I realized individuals stuck to the edge of a pest trap were not necessarily dead. They could, in fact, free themselves by shedding their casing. These 'Houdini' larvae were entirely new to me.

'Larvae & casing Reesa vespulae’, a portrait in watercolour by Jessica MacLean, 2020.

Luckily, we have an amazing environmental non-profit organisation in our region called FaunENord. They ensure the sustainable development of the Nord-du-Québec by offering consulting services and developing projects in the areas of integrated land use planning, to consider the needs of environment, education and ecotourism. One of their biologists was able to identify these larvae as R. vespulae and offered some helpful advice. They had a small infestation in their larger entomological specimen collection a few years back. The R. vespulae apparently preferred to eat their moths and butterflies, but had also sampled some of their dragonflies, larger beetles, and bumblebees. FaunENord pointed me towards an article on the diet and habits of R. vespulae.  

In researching these pests, I found that while R. vespulae are not an ideal pest to host in our facility, there may be some benefit to having them instead of other species of dermestids. One article from the Natural History Museum of Dublin described a similarly difficult situation where the local infestation of these beetles acted as a possibly beneficial factor in helping to bring a secondary infestation of moths under control. It has been observed, in some species of dermestids the beetles have been known to attack live moth larvae. It is now my intention to breed R. vespulae (outside of the museum), in a controlled environment, to observe their eating habits by tempting their palates with several of the other common museum pests we have located, namely psocid and springtails, to test this theory (to the abject horror of our registrar and other staff who find my intrigue pretty creepy).

The R. vespulae are common pest of entomological collections due to their ability to eat their way through them like a buffet lunch, and as such are well known to many collections managers and conservators. This was my first encounter with the species in a collection of Indigenous belongings which is why it took me some time to positively identify them. I suspected that these beetles were part of the dermestid family because of similarities in appearance and diet, but they just seemed way too small to be the ones usually found in museums. Our non-urban location and sub-arctic climate means that we often deal with situations that are different to typical museum conservation experiences. Finding insects that are less common elsewhere is one example of our unique situation and demonstrates the type of scenarios I have had to think about in tailoring an Integrated Pest Management plan that will be effective for our needs in Eeyou Istchee.
I have included my sketches of the adult R. vespulae, and larvae with a casing. Feel free to print them off and colour them in. If you do, make sure to share a photograph of your creation in the comments on our Facebook page Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute@CreeCulture on twitter
or Instagram - aanischaaukamikw.

Click links  to download pdf to colour: Adult R. vespulae Larvae and casing, R. vespulae