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Collaboration Brings Beetle Collection and Curation From Illinois to Cambodia

Beetle collecting in Cambodia

Students in the Cambodian Entomology Initiatives program learned sweeping and beating techniques from Tommy McElrath, Ph.D. of the Illinois Natural History Survey, and then examined their catch, during a course on beetle collection and curation in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Cambodian Entomology Initiatives)

By Laura Kraft

Tommy McElrath, Ph.D., held on tight to the back of the motorcycle as he and collaborator Sophany Phauk swerved through honking, congested holiday traffic in Phnom Penh. Their mission: Finding funnels for Berlese traps. The two-week course McElrath intended to teach was scheduled to start beetle collecting in the rainforest the next day.

Laura Kraft

Laura Kraft

The whirlwind adventure started when Christopher Dietrich, Ph.D., walked into McElrath’s office and proposed he write a grant application to a CRDF Global program intended to initiate new global partnerships in science for early-career scientists in the United States. McElrath currently serves as the Insect Collections Manager of the Illinois Natural History Survey, which had worked with Phauk’s Cambodian Entomology Initiatives (CEI) in the past on a USAID grant in 2011, and the two were looking to continue their collaboration.

McElrath proposed to teach a three-week course on beetle collection and curation to the students at the Royal University in Phnom Penh who were associated with CEI.

However, the grant would not include funding for equipment, so McElrath and Phauk spent the week before the grant application was due discussing what type of equipment would be feasible to bring from the United States and what Phauk could try to put together on his own in Cambodia before McElrath’s arrival. McElrath ended up bringing some equipment, incluing heavy crowbars to peel bark in search of his favorite little brown beetles.

On the other side of the world, Phauk and the student members of CEI were building Berlese funnels using instructions they’d gotten from McElrath and online. Once McElrath arrived, though, he realized that the setups themselves were much too small for the amount of sampling that they would do, which led to the hair-raising holiday shopping trip to find bigger funnels and other equipment.

“We had to custom-wire our own lights for the Berlese funnels, which I had never done before and Phauk had barely done,” says McElrath. “We left that day with lights going on all these things we had just wired ourselves and said, ‘Well, I hope it doesn’t burn down the lab.’ Then we left for the two-day holiday.”

The collection portion of the trip went a little more according to plan. “One of the perks of working with Phauk is that he has really good relationships with people working at many of the field sites all over Cambodia, and he knows sites where you can get good biodiversity,” says McElrath.

Thanks to Phauk’s know-how, the group ended up collecting beetles in the Chambok Ecotourism Site, which flanks the Kirirom National Park but has the benefit of not requiring researchers to get permits to collect there. “The Chambok Ecotourism Site is run as a small business by some people in the nearby village who provide homestays and meals for people coming to visit,” says McElrath, who was happy to stay in the extra bedroom of a local family, on a comfortable mat on the floor with a fan and mosquito net, especially if it let him and the student group collect in the biodiverse habitat at Chambok. The site included excellent areas for aquatic and terrestrial collecting, with everything from bamboo stands to secondary forest to old-growth podocarp forest deeper inside.

Homestay at Chambok Ecotourism Site

While teaching a course on beetle collection and curation for the Cambodian Entomology Initiatives program in 2018, Tommy McElrath, Ph.D., of the Illinois Natural History Survey, stayed in the home of a local family while taking students to the Chambok Ecotourism Site for collecting (Photo credit: Tommy McElrath, Ph.D.)

“CEI in the past has focused on leafhoppers, or membracoid insects, so they have a lot of methods of collecting plant-dwelling insects … but the whole world of specialized beetle microhabitat collecting was brand new to pretty much all of the students and to Phauk,” says McElrath. “In the field, we were trying as many different collecting methods as I could bring or find equipment for, including flight intercept traps, Berlese sampling and soil sifting, bark peeling, pitfall traps, and all these other sampling methods you use specifically for beetles.”

While using these methods, McElrath also explained to students why they were collecting in this manner and what microhabitats they were accessing with each of the techniques used. Says McElrath, “That part went really well.”

The students agree. “During the field-work, Tommy, other members, and I found a dung beetle in cow dung. Oh my God , I have never done that before, and it was so funny to me,” says Sin Sopha, an undergraduate who took the course.

Beetle collecting in Cambodia

Students in the Cambodian Entomology Initiatives program learn to sift soil for leaf-litter beetles during a course taught by Tommy McElrath, Ph.D. of the Illinois Natural History Survey in 2018. (Photo credit: Tommy McElrath, Ph.D.)

As for the lectures and teaching after the collection portion, McElrath says, “It went well, and it didn’t go well.” McElrath taught students how to point-mount even the tiniest of beetles, successfully curating the collection in order to protect it for proper identification later. He ran into problems, though, trying to teach identification of highly diverse Cambodian beetle families to students, some of whom had very little or no entomological background to begin with. In addition, the beetle identification and curation clinic was taught during the semester, often at the same time as undergraduate courses, so the undergraduate students participating unavoidably had spotty attendance.

But that wasn’t the only challenge. “Just because you both speak the same language doesn’t mean you’re saying the same thing,” says McElrath. “Sometimes, they have different words for the same thing. For example, when I asked for paper towels, they didn’t know what I meant. It turns out they use ’tissue’ for everything I refer to as ‘paper towel.'” And, when McElrath was trying to describe complex trapping systems and beetle taxonomy used in identification, the issue would compound and make it difficult to communicate efficiently.

Students also remarked that the course could have been taught slower, in simpler English. An amused Sopha remarked, “Sometimes, when [McElrath] speaks, no one understands, so he drew and acted to explain, and he looked like a five-year-old kid.” Khmer is just as difficult to learn, though, as McElrath learned first-hand. “For example, [McElrath] sometimes wanted to learn how to speak an insect’s name in Khmer, and then he sounded funny in Khmer, too,” says Chhorn Soksan.

Beetle pinning

Students in the Cambodian Entomology Initiatives program learn pinning and point-mounting techniques from Tommy McElrath, Ph.D. of the Illinois Natural History Survey during a course on beetle collection and curation in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Cambodian Entomology Initiatives)

McElrath didn’t leave the group empty-handed, though. “I provided a lot of resources for the students to be able to follow up with beetle taxonomy, including teaching them how to use the interactive key Beetles of the World,” says McElrath. Many of the students that I conversed with found learning this interactive key to be one of the best parts of the course. “I think key identification of beetles helped me more to know about how to identify insects, but it’s easier to use the Beetles of the World app,” says student Khin Chandara. In addition, the collecting equipment was also left behind for students to continue building their collection.

As part of the grant, McElrath traveled to the Entomological Society of America Annual Meeting in Vancouver in 2018 to meet with collaborators and help find fellow beetle experts to identify beetles after McElrath finishes keying them out to the family level. As a method of documenting Cambodia’s biodiversity, McElrath notes, “This was not going to be an inventory of anything. This was going to be a small datapoint to show what is and isn’t known in Cambodia. Turns out most biodiversity is not known in Cambodia.” Once identified, beetles will return to CEI.

McElrath’s eager to return to Cambodia and work with CEI to provide a more complete inventory of the beetles of the region and continue this international collaboration. In the meantime, the students at CEI continue to use what they’ve learned. Fourth-year student Dourk Bros says, “Now, I have a plan to write my thesis about aquatic beetles to graduate my bachelor’s in two months. So, this was one of the most important experiences for me.” Language barriers may have slowed the group down, but McElrath’s course still left a lasting impression on the students of CEI.

Editor’s Note: Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CRDF Global or the National Science Foundation.

Laura Kraft is a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. When she isn’t traveling the world, she spends her time making science more accessible through science writing and outreach. Email:

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