Montana State University

Two donated collections bring wild silks, rare entomology books to MSU

August 22, 2012 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Michael Ivie displays some of the textiles he recently received from a Texas professor. The fabric was made with the silk produced by wild moths. In front are brown cocoons made by wild moths. The white and yellow cocoons were made by domesticated moths. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - Two entomologists who live out of state but want others to benefit from their careers have donated collections to Montana State University.

One collection is the professional library of a world expert on a large family of beetles. The 20-cubic-foot collection includes rare books that few entomologists have the opportunity to consult first-hand.

The other collection consists of fabric made with the silk produced by wild moths. It also includes cocoons, unspun silk fibers, artifacts, and written material that explains how indigenous people collect and process wild silk.

"We were really honored," said MSU entomologist Michael Ivie, curator of the Montana Entomology Collection which is housed on campus and is one of the oldest research collections in Montana. Both donations will join that collection.

John Doyen, professor emeritus of entomology at the University of California, said he decided to donate his academic library to MSU because he wanted his library to be used and not merely stored. Since he and Ivie have both worked on the same groups of beetles, he was sure Ivie would use it.

"Moreover, Dr. Ivie is a highly regarded and productive taxonomist, certainly one of the authorities in the field today," Doyen said. "... I am pleased that my collection is going to Montana State and feel certain that it will be well utilized."

After recently meeting Ivie and Ivie's wife, Donna, Doyen said he felt confident that MSU was a perfect match for his collection.

Ivie, like Doyen, studies groups of beetles known as Tenebrionidae, Zopheridae and related families. Tenebrionidae are a family of beetles that are a "huge, huge, very important group, both economically and ecologically," Ivie said. The beetles can be as small as 1/20th of an inch or as large as three inches long. Some are grain storage pests. Some feed on and destroy the roots of commercial food crops. Many live in the soil. They live all over the world.

Ivie has also assembled the world's largest collection of West Indies beetles. He is past-president of the Entomological Society of America, past-president of the Coleopterists Society and a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.

Richard S. Peigler, a biology professor at a private Catholic university, the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, donated part of his wild silk collection to MSU. MSU is one of 14 universities and museums that have received his wild silks in the past several years, Peigler said. He prefers giving them to institutions in the Southeast and Western interior because "too many such cool things are concentrated in the Northeast, Midwest and California."

Once he photographs and studies a piece, he no longer needs to keep it, Peigler added.

Shortly before Ivie headed to California to prepare the academic library for travel, he said the two donations were unexpected and highly appreciated. He hadn't decided yet how to display the fabrics, but said they would be secured to avoid theft and damage. Clothes moths and fur-, hide- and skin-beetles would eat the fabrics if they had a chance.

Both collections will be accessible to MSU students, as well as internal and external researchers, Ivie said. He said he already knows of at least two courses in MSU's Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology that could incorporate the collections. They are his class on insect identification and Kevin O'Neill's course on general entomology.

Entomologists from all over the United States and the world visit MSU to conduct research, and the new collections should attract even more, Ivie said.

Ivie has studied Tenebrionidae beetles for several years and estimated that he has collected hundreds of species and tens of thousands of individuals. But classifying them is difficult, he said, especially since the entomologists generally have to rely on old literature that's difficult to access. Scientists often request those materials through inter-library loan and receive poor quality photocopies that are hard to decipher.

Doyen's donation includes some original books and drawings, Ivie said. Among them are hand-colored plates, a British book published during World War II by one of the world's top coleopterists, and a first edition "Beetles of the United States," a book that "nobody has."

Fabrics in the wild silk collection came from China, Nigeria, Java, Namibia's Kalahari Desert and other countries in the form of scarves, shawls, wall hangings, an antique handkerchief and fabric samples. Peigler said he believes in preserving wild silks because the demand for them is falling and wild moth populations are declining. The moths live in a variety of settings, including rainforests and deserts.

"A lot of factors are coming into play now, and these wild silks will be less and less available," Peigler said.

Ivie said most silk today is made by domesticated silkworms that eat mulberries, but 12 of the 13 fabrics in the wild silk collection were made by four of the five moth families that produce wild silk. People collected their cocoons and nests, unraveled the silk, spun the silk into thread and wove the thread into fabric.

One scarf from India carries a note that said its plaid pattern was introduced by Scottish missionaries in the 1770s. Ivie said a swatch from Africa could have special significance because the silk was so nasty to obtain. Instead of coming from cocoons, the silk came from entire nests. The men who collected it had to wear gloves, de-gum the silk, and pluck hair from the nests.

"Somebody really had to care. Think about how easy it is to get cotton thread," Ivie said. "It has to be a very high pride thing or some kind of spiritual value or something for somebody to put that much effort into it."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or