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Unwelcome Guests…The Pests of Oldfields

Our guest blogger today is Lori Phillips, an IUPUI Museum Studies Graduate Student who completed an internship as the Lilly House Conservation Technician Intern.

Why would one have to know about insects and mice when learning about the ins and outs of the museum world?  Just like at home, any building will have some level of pest activity – it’s just a matter of controlling it. This is particularly important in museums where protecting the collection is a top priority.

Oldfields, like any other historic house, poses an interesting dilemma in pest control because the property was not originally created to protect and preserve an important museum collection from the elements.  Because of this, the museum must remain diligent in pest management at Oldfields.  Luckily for the IMA (and any museum!), there is an entire field called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, that provides resources and systematic methods for controlling pests.  As part of the museum’s overall IPM program, Pat Kelley of Insects Limited Inc. makes monthly visits to each of the museum’s buildings, including Oldfields.  Check out this blast-from-the-past blog post to learn about the types of resources Insects Limited provides for museums locally and globally.  I’ve now had the opportunity to accompany Pat on multiple visits to Oldfields.

On these trips we clean up areas where insects tend to gather and check traps for any activity. After years of these visits, obvious patterns in pest activity have begun to emerge.

During the more active months of January and February a pile of ladybird beetles is not an uncommon sight, particularly in sunny window wells.

The quantities of pests found in Oldfields are not surprising and have remained under control, thanks to these preventative measures.  Ladybird beetles (known colloquially as lady bugs, but don’t call them that if you want to stay friends with an entomologist or a conservator) are by far the most prevalent pest at Oldfields. They tend to gather in and around windows, primarily in the southernmost rooms of the house.  The typical pattern of insect activity begins in late October or early November when insects enter through cracks and gaps around doors, windows, and the roof line. The insects fill wall voids and attic spaces where they hibernate over the winter.  They then emerge in the first warm days of January and February in an attempt to return outdoors. When they find themselves inside the home instead of outside they accumulate near the windows and die. These insects are predominately ladybird beetles, but also include some boxelder beetles, pine seed bugs, and cluster flies.  Ladybird beetles themselves do not pose a major threat to the house or objects.

The danger is that the ladybird beetles become a food source for dermestid beetle larvae, which feed on textiles and other vulnerable natural materials such as leather, silk, or fur.  It’s important that the ladybird beetles are swept up and removed from the house so that dermestid larvae do not become a problem. So far the objects have remained safe from dermestids, but this requires consistent monitoring.

This chart provides a visual representation of pest activity at Oldfields from September through April, the typical months of the cycle described above. The chart, which combines information from the last three years of IPM monitoring, illustrates the types of pests present in each month and the location where they were found on each floor.  The colors represent a generalized quantity of pests found, with gray illustrating one pest, yellow around a dozen, orange around one hundred, and red representing hundreds of insects found.  This shows that ladybird beetles are in fact the most prominent pest at Oldfields and illustrates their rising quantities as the winter progresses. Another important point is the location of the pests, which tend to remain in the same rooms each month. There are many rooms where pests are never a problem, while areas like the library and southwest end of the house see a predictable level of activity from year to year.

Another component of Pat’s role at the IMA is to identify any insects that are found in the museum.  Staff at the museum take IPM very seriously, which helps to prevent any issues from occurring.  If an insect is found, it’s placed in a sealed bag and given to a conservator, who then passes it on to Pat for identification in the lab at Insects Limited.  Bugs are something that a lot of people don’t talk about in everyday life, but museum people do!  The staff knows that when you find an insect in a museum, you certainly can’t ignore it (or scream and run away) like you might at home.  It’s important to get past the “Ew! Gross!” mentality and simply protect the collection. Perhaps now, if you happen to hear someone in the museum field throw out the phrase “IPM” and act like they know something you don’t, you can respond, “Oh? How are the ladybird beetles this year?”

Filed under: Conservation

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