Four tightly closed doors protect the Entomological Collection of ETH Zurich from heat and daylight. The cold, dry air is the perfect environment for the two million insects that call these specimen drawers home – although it’s not particularly comfortable for their human keepers. On a trolley in one of the aisles is a small brown box filled with fruit flies. Upon their return from the Czech Republic, they were first placed in a four-week quarantine at minus 20 degrees Celsius. All insects must undergo this process after shipping in order to keep out pests such as the dreaded museum beetle. The staff here may love their job – but not every insect is
Sending specimens to researchers all over the world is all part of a day’s work for Michael Greeff, who manages the Entomological Collection. But there’s something rather unusual about this particular box from the Czech Republic, namely the fact that the researcher took a full 27 years to return it, despite repeated reminders. Greeff is sanguine, however: “The insects may be rather mildewed, but they did a great job of classifying them!”
ETH Zurich’s Entomological Collection is a significant collection of insects in central Europe, with a particular focus on Swiss fauna. It all started with a donation from a man who did not share his father’s passion for entomology. Alfred Escher inherited the insect collection from his father, Heinrich, upon his death in 1853 and promptly donated it to ETH Zurich in its entirety – a remarkable gift that included not only 66,000 specimens of 22,000 species but also a large, heavy book. “It’s a kind of ledger in which Heinrich Escher recorded his stock of insects. He kept detailed notes and dates for each transaction, describing which insects he swapped or traded with whom,” says Greeff. He carefully closes the book, anxious to protect its fragile, yellowed pages against further disintegration.