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The Bubble vs. the Bugs

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There’s a room just off the museum’s loading dock marked “Before Entering: Check CO2 Monitor.” This is where the museum’s CO2 “bubble” is located, and it’s where many objects entering museum collections spend their first month.

Because many of the museum’s 10 million objects in collections are highly susceptible to the depredations of a host of fur, feather and flesh-eating insects, we take pest control very very seriously. Pests in the museum range from dermestid beetles and silverfish to ladybugs and brown recluse spiders.  It’s impractical, and not very healthy, to constantly treat the building with pesticides.  Instead, the museum employs an Integrated Pest Management System that 1) implements certain rules and procedures to keep incoming pests to a minimum and 2) monitors the whole building to keep tabs on what pests do get in, and where.

To keep from bringing in a nest of insect eggs that could hatch in collections, we need to be sure that any object or specimen coming in has no viable eggs or bugs on board.  Since insects and their eggs are very very small, almost every object that comes into the museum has the potential to house a hidden host of them.  Some objects have greater potential for hiding pests.  Animal skins or taxidermied animals are of particular danger, as are any wooden or paper objects that may have been stored in a place where insects were present. Fresh flowers or plants are not allowed in the museum for obvious reasons.  Less obviously, corrugated cardboard is not allowed because the spaces made by the corrugation serve as excellent insect condominiums.co2-bubble

To kill any insects or eggs they could be hiding, all objects or specimens destined to go into museum collections are loaded into the “bubble” – really more like a fabric sided tent – which is sealed up and then pumped full of a mixture of carbon dioxide and oxygen for a month. When the CO2 is vented and the bubble opened up, any pests or their eggs that may have been hiding are dead, and the objects are safe to go into collections.

Interestingly enough, pure CO2 is not used.  It turns out that some insects have the ability to go dormant under anaerobic conditions.  These insects would simply shut down for their month-long stay in the bubble and then reanimate when the bubble was opened and oxygen was again present.  A mixture including just enough oxygen fools the insects into continuing to try to breathe, a process which actually results in their death by dehydration, not asphyxiation.

Sticky trap

It sounds sort of unpleasant, but it is vital to the preservation of our collections that we keep these pests out.  An invasion of flesh-eating dermestid beetles can devastate a collection of animal skins or Native American buckskin or feathered objects in a very short time.

Of course it’s not possible to keep all insects out of the museum.  That’s where the second approach of the IPM system comes into play:  monitoring the insects that are getting into the museum. Hundreds of sticky traps are located at key points all over the building.  Every few months, Roxie Hites, our IPM technician, (fondly referred to as the Bug Lady) collects the traps and records all the pests she finds in them - their location, species and number.  By keeping track, she can spot a sudden uptick in the numbers and head off a disaster before it happens.