For nearly two years, I’ve worked in the Yale Peabody Museum Entomological Collections. We have all kinds of things: bugs, of course, dozens of Blue Morphos with their surreally glimmering wings and stick bugs as long as your forearm. We have other bug ephemera, too; there is a baby mobile with real, dried moths hanging from it, and circa-1880s art made from the wings of locusts pasted onto wood. Most of my time is not spent with these oddities, as much as I would like it to be. Most of my time is spent in a room simply labeled “The Morgue”—a temperature- and humidity-controlled area behind the main office that houses thousands of insect specimens, mostly butterflies, moths, and skippers. Some of my friends call me Bug Girl; it should actually be Moth Girl.
We have nearly 5,000 moths that were collected over several decades by Margaret M. Cary, a scientist whose name is infamous in the admittedly small circle of people who spend their time in the entomology collections. The first drawer of specimens I ever worked with was one of hers. Between the 1920s and 1960s, Margaret and her collaborators collected lepidopterans (butterflies and their associates) in Venezuela, Jamaica, Florida, Haiti, and just about everywhere in between. She did all of this as a female socialite whilst the Depression and then World War II raged on. Frustratingly for those of us paid to do data entry for the Yale Peabody Museum, she wrote all of her specimen labels in some of the worst handwriting I have ever seen. Take, for example, a swallowtail she collected in Guatemala City in 1941. As the war raged on in the old world, Margaret, whom I tend to imagine in the finest safari-type uniform money can buy, was dashing through Guatemala with a butterfly net, chasing down the swallowtail, and going through the painstaking, steady-fingered process of pinning and drying a butterfly. She then writes out her label, in dull pencil: “Gu.… C..y. Papi..o. [DATE ILLEGIBLE] 1941.” Why, thank you, Margaret. Quite illustrative.
Labels are one of the most important parts of the entomological process, sometimes more so than the specimen itself. The label is meant to be preserved with the specimen for all time. It tells you the species, exactly where the insect was caught, the date of its capture, any relevant details regarding its habitat, and the collectors of the insect. If all of this information is in a database like the one we use at the Peabody, you have a powerful knowledge base: you can see how species distributions have changed over time, or you could track genetic differences between geographically isolated populations of the same species. This, like so many things, is especially pressing with the specter of climate change looming before us. Keep all of that in mind when you read this label:
The student assistants in entomology have bonded over the agony of reading Margaret’s spidery (ha…) scrawl. “What does this say!? Can anyone tell…?” one of us will often sigh while holding a Margaret Cary label. We pass the septuagenarian paper back and forth, holding it under a magnifying glass. Together, we Google the known species range of the moth on our hands. It doesn’t help—Margaret has caught some of the only specimens in existence. It is Colombia, somewhere, we decide.
Last year, on my mother’s birthday, I found several moths that Margaret had collected on that same day 70 years earlier. I can’t tell if the ghosts I feel in the collections room belong to the insects or to people like Margaret. They might also come from being alone, breathing the dust of dead moths. Sometimes I imagine a deceased Margaret chuckling at us from Heaven while we pore over the moths whose forms have outlasted her. I often picture Margaret in 1920s Cuba, chasing down the sphinx moth whose eyes I gaze into now. A 70-year-old dead sphinx moth’s eyes are much like deflated globes—once bulbous, now a bit flat in both color and dimensionality. They conjure just as much of the world.
Nobody knows much of anything about Margaret’s life. I do know that she either loved or hated sphinx moths. Only these two feelings could bring someone to travel far and wide, kill thousands of them, and ship them across the Caribbean and back up the coast of the Atlantic. They are the kind of moth—large, fat, and fuzzy—that might make you jump if it flits too close in the night. I have decided, though, that it was love.
Many entomologists wait in fear for one question: “How do you get the bugs?” This is often followed with: “Do you find them dead?” Entomologists do not (usually) find them dead. Usually, one will use a Kill Jar, which is exactly what it sounds like. These days, I don’t often need to preserve a bug I find. If I do, into the kill jar it goes, and the jar’s toxins put it to sleep forever. I’m told that bugs don’t have the same kind of pain reception that we do. This isn’t a comfort to me. Even if the bugs don’t feel pain when they die, I sure do.
Margaret was a great scientist, even though there’s not much left to read about her. Handwriting aside, each of her moths is pinned near-perfectly, with wings spread just so, and pins centered in thoraxes. Margaret’s obituary, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1969, notes that her Sphingid moth collection is one of the finest in the country, and to omit flowers if you plan to attend the funeral.