When Museum Specimen Get Infested With Bugs, Curators Have to Freeze Them

Freezing and heating can oftentimes keep invertebrate enemies at bay

Photo: Richard Nowitz/National Geographic Society/Corbis

For museums, getting rid of weevils, moths, bedbugs and all the other pests that make their home among the collection is exceedingly difficult. Just think of how tricky it is to get rid of bedbugs in a small apartment. Now think about how difficult it would be to get rid of bedbegs at London’s Natural History Museum, which, Wired UK reports, houses 61 million stuffed animals.

Museums are meant to preserve relics from the past well into the future, but that task is complicated if pests begin chewing their way through stuffed animals, ancient textiles and wooden art. Unwanted museum residents usually hitch a ride on human visitors. Once inside, creepy crawlies inevitabley find a way into displays and establish a stronghold by laying eggs in unlikely places such as, say, the nasal cavity of a stuffed bobcat, as the UCL Museums and Collections blog explains. And not only do they eat through specimens, they also leave droppings, shed skins and move to other museums through traveling exhibitions.

Curators have a number of ways to deal with these unwanted troublemakers. Sticky traps are often set out of site of human visitors but within proximity of the museum specimen. This allows curators to assess what pests are present, and to make a rough estimation of the numbers they’re up against. Common culprits include various moth and beetle species, German cockroaches, booklice, silverfish.

Once those pests are identified, curators often turn to temperature and simple biochemistry. Here’s Wired UK with more on how this is done:

Seventy-two hours at -37C is enough to kill most insects and their larvae. For wood, the hot/cold chamber -- the only one of its kind in a European museum -- can heat objects up to 55°C, while keeping enough humidity to not bake the object. More delicate and valuable specimens receive anoxic treatment: smaller animals are placed in a sealed plastic bag ("the same as inside a packet of crisps") and the oxygen is displaced by an inert gas.

Despite these clever methods, however, the battle against the pests will likely never be won, at least so long as a string of human visitors fill the hallways of museums around the world—which is the point of museums to begin with. 

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