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by J.T. Huber and J.M. Cumming

New! icon  A poster showing the history of the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids & Nematodes as a timeline is now available for viewing online. Click on the poster to access a zoomable, high resolution version. poster thumbnail

New! icon   Insect Collections of Canada Series: Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids & Nematodes, Ottawa
Owen Lonsdale & John T. Huber
Newsletter of the Biological Survey of Canada, Volume 30(2) Winter 2011

Download a pdf version of the new paper on the history of the CNC that was released January 2012 in the Newsletter of the Biological Survey of Canada in their "Insect Collections of Canada Series". Included in this paper is the history of the collection, the present day configuration, and many photographs. [5 MB]

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This historical review treats the taxonomy or systematics component of entomology and associated surveys in the Reseach Branch of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Ottawa that led to the development of the national collections of insects, spiders, mites, and nematodes. The development and growth of the department's entire collection facility (entomology, botany, mycology, and nematology) including biographical sketches of the associated professional staff members can be found in a bilingual publication commemorating 100 years of systematics in the Department of Agriculture (Cody et al. 1986). Since publication of that document several taxonomists have joined the insect systematics group (Table 3). Within a larger context of Agriculture Research, Anstey (1986) briefly discussed entomology, including systematics.

Beginnings of the Canadian National Collection (CNC)

In 1883 James Fletcher (Figure 1), an accountant in the Library of Parliament in Ottawa, was appointed as honorary entomologist to the Department of Agriculture following the formal recognition by the Canadian Government of the value of having well-informed entomologists in the Department. Although he assumed his duties in that year, Mr. Fletcher was not officially appointed Dominion Entomologist until 1897 when he moved to the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. He inaugurated the biological collections when he donated his personal collection of insects and plants in 1886. In 1916 the Parliament buildings burned and the parliamentarians moved to the National Museum. In 1917, because of the resulting congestion, the entomology collections consisting of 12 steel cabinets with 600 drawers located in the new Victoria Memorial Building (which housed the National Museum) were formally transferred to the Entomology Branch in the Department of Agriculture, on the fifth and sixth floor of the Birks Building. This transfered collection also amalgemated the much smaller collection of the Biological Division of the Geological Survey in the Department of Mines. The entire collection has remained the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture since that time.
Dr. C. Gordon Hewitt (Figure 2), the first Dominion Entomologist with a Doctor of Science degree, succeeded Mr. Fletcher as Dominion Entomologist and was assisted by A.G. Gibson (see Gibson & McSwaine 1920). In 1919 Dr. Hewitt formed the Division of Systematic Entomology and J. McDunnough (Figure 3) was appointed the Division's first Chief. In 1931, under Dr. McDunnough's direction, two of the first insect taxonomists on staff, W. Brown and S. Walley, moved the entire collection by horse-drawn wagon to the Confederation Building. Then in 1949 the collection was moved to its current home in the K.W. Neatby Building on the Central Experimental Farm. It was Dr. McDunnough's vision to build a truly national collection of insects and arachnids, together with an entomological library to go with it. To that end he instructed his small staff to collect not only their own groups of interest, but whatever they could to build a representative collection of Canadian insects. As a result the number of specimens began to accumulate rapidly and these form the nucleus of today's extensive collection (Table 5).

Historical Review

Over 120 scientists and biologists have worked in systematics or related areas in what was first known as the Division of Systematic Entomology. The name of the organization immediately responsible for systematics and the collections has changed eight times over the past 110 years. Except for one period under J. McDunnough, the duration of each name, as well as the immediate line manager's tenure, invariably became shorter over time (Table 1). Considering all the name changes it has been simplest and appropriate to refer to the entomology collections component of the systematics program as the Canadian National Collection of Insects and Arachnids (CNC) — a name and acronym that has effectively not changed since 1917 and is formally recognized in published world lists of collection acronyms (though CNCI has sometimes been used).

In 1973 all of the systematics programs in the Department of Agriculture were united in the Biosystematics Research Institute (BRI). In 1984, systematic studies on non-medical bacteria were added to the mandate. In 1986, the Institute was renamed the Biosystematics Research Centre (BRC). Over the past decade the name again went through changes and the systematics component in the Research Branch was reduced from its own Centre, to a Division in the Centre for Land and Biological Resources Research, and later to a Program within the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre (Table 1).

By 1986, the Program was responsible for developing and maintaining the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids, and Nematodes (about 16 million specimens), the Agriculture Canada Vascular Plant Herbarium (780,000 collections), the National Mycological Herbarium (250,000 collections), and the live Collections of Fungus and Bacterial Cultures. Systematics research was conducted by a staff of over 55 scientists, biologists, and technicians on insects, arachnids, nematodes, vascular plants, fungi, and non-medical bacteria.

The size and scope of systematic entomology has varied over time. For example, during a 25 year period (1959-1984) two non-taxonomic components were included - an Experimental Biology group and Apiculture. The contribution to systematics and the collections by members of these groups was understandably limited, and both groups dispersed as individuals retired or left for more appropriate locations. The pure systematics group has been reorganized internally many times into various units or sections usually based on a particular taxon or groups of taxa. These sections, taken from the annual reports issued since the formation of the Research Branch in 1959, are summarized in Table 2. Initially, the sections were taxonomically oriented, but from 1987 - 2002 more emphasis was placed on ecologically or client-oriented section names. In 1996 client-driven Research Studies headed by study leaders largely replaced the Taxonomic Units, which are still headed by unit curators. Because the underlying taxonomic groups still exist for collection-based research and for curatorial purposes the functional taxonomic units were reinstated in 2002.

Scientific Staff

As mentioned above, the first scientist with a doctor of science degree was C. Hewitt (see Gibson & McSwaine 1920). Since then about 65 individuals with Ph.D. and M.Sc. degrees in some branch of zoology have worked strictly in the area of Systematic Entomology and Arachnology at the CNC. Another 13 worked in Nematology. They are listed chronologically by starting date in Table 3. The early entomologists researched more than one order, but the general tendency has been to specialize on only one order, or some part of an order, because of the vast amount of taxonomic knowledge that has accumulated over the past century. Because Experimental Biology and Apiculture were at one time part of the Entomology Research Institute (Table 1), those areas are also listed for completness; they included 19 and 5 individuals, respectively. Several scientists were on contract, or were technicians before becoming qualified as biologists or scientists, or they were postdoctoral students. Unless they eventually became part of the permanent staff they are not listed.

After retirement many taxonomists have remained for a period as Honorary Research Associates and have continued to do collection-based research and develop the CNC. Currently, several retired scientists hold appointments as Honorary Research Associates. Their presence is extremely helpful because of their expertise and long experience in identifying species in many taxa no longer covered by the current staff. Only one honorary researcher, W. Thompson, was not previously on staff; he worked on the taxonomy of Diptera from 1958-68 after retiring as director from the Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control. In addition, one scientist, M. Schwartz, has worked with the Heteroptera collection since 1989 through contracts partly obtained from the Department.

The National Identification Service (NIS) was formally established in 1974, though the need for identifications was one of the initial reasons for building the collections and employing taxonomists to work on them. J. Martin was the first NIS officer, and he was followed by S. Allyson (1985 - 1988), J. Poirier (1989-2003), E. Rickey (2003-2009), and O. Lonsdale.

Biological control research and support is a relatively recent addition to the mandate. In 1974 a quarantine facility was established in Ottawa after the Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control Laboratory in Belleville was closed in 1972. J. Kelleher, formerly a research scientist in biological control in Belleville, was the first biocontrol officer in Ottawa, but he did not officially join the Entomology group until 1986. He was assisted by a technician, G. Williamson, who helped compile the Canadian Insect Pest Review. A. Schmidt, seconded from the Food Production and Inspection Branch, took the position after J. Kelleher retired. Since 1996 the quarantine officer, M. Sarazin, was also acting in this role until P. Mason filled the position as a research scientist in 1998.

Technical Staff

This account would be incomplete without mention of the collection support provided by the technical staff. Cody et al. (1986) did not mention technicians by name and neither do Research Branch Annual Reports (1959 to present). It is therefore difficult to determine who worked for the various scientists and when. Technicians are listed in Table 4 by decade with the group(s) in which they worked for most of their career. Only technicians who worked in insect taxonomy are indicated; those that worked for scientists in the experimental biology or apiculture units are not.

The technicians' contribution to the CNC in terms of collecting, mounting, labelling, maintaining, and curating the collections is immense. Initially, there were relatively few technicians, only one per order until the 1950's, but more were hired and by the 1980's the ratio of scientists to technicians was about 1:1. Because taxonomic coverage by scientists was, and still remains, incomplete, several technicians developed considerable expertise in particular groups, sometimes to the point where they were considered authorities in their groups, at least for the Canadian fauna. The earliest technician's on permanent staff were W. Curran, sister of the dipterist C. Curran, and W. Law. Both were hired by McDunnough and worked for several of the scientists. In recent years many technicians have become more involved in direct research support and computer work for their immediate supervisors. The routine but important work of mounting and labelling has been taken up more and more by contract workers, summer students, and occasionally by volunteers.

Expeditions and Field Work

The remarkable growth of the collection (Table 5) has been largely a consequence of the field work of CNC staff members. Survey work by individuals, as well as large scale expeditions, have been continuously supported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada as part of the department's sponsorship of the systematics research program.

The most extensive survey work undertaken by the department was that of the Northern Insect Survey (1947-1961), which involved no less than 66 field parties collecting specimens from more than 64 arctic and subarctic localities. Other notable expeditions that involved several staff members were made to Florida (1952); Mojave Desert (1955); New Guinea (1957); Highlands, North Carolina (1957); southern Manitoba (1958); southern Texas (1959); Terrace, British Columbia (1960); Colorado (1961); Mexico (1962, 1969); Nepal (1967); St. Lawrence Islands National Park, Ontario (1975-1976); Kouchibouguac National Park, New Brunswick (1977-1978); Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba (1979, 1980); Waterton National Park, Alberta (1980); Yukon (1980-1987); Gatineau Park, Quebec (1982); Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia (1983-1984); Guatemala (1985, 1986); and southeastern United States (1987).


Anstey, T.H. 1986. One hundred harvests. Research Branch, Agriculture Canada. Historic Series No. 27. 432 pp.

Cody, W.J., Savile, D.B.O. and Sarazin, M.J. 1986. Biosystematics Research Centre, Agriculture Canada. Historical Series No. 28. 164 pp. (Available from the Program Director, ECORC).

Dang, P.T. 1992. The Canadian National Collection of Insects and Arachnids: Past, Present and Future. Entomological Society of Canada Bulletin 24: 22-27.

Gibson, A. & J. McSwaine. 1920. Charles Gordon Hewitt. Canadian Entomologist 52: 97-105.

Holland, G.P. 1956. Systematic entomology, pp. 300-304, in Glen, R. (compiler), Entomology in Canada up to 1956: a review of developments and accomplishments. Canadian Entomologist 88: 290-371.

McDunnough, J.H. 1926. The Canadian National Collection of Insects. Canadian Field Naturalist 40: 36-40.

Spence, G.J. 1964. A century of entomology in Canada. Canadian Entomologist 96: 33-59 (CNC on p. 46-50).

Vockeroth, J.R. 1981. Canadian entomology of the last century. Canadian Field Naturalist 95: 18-23.