Research Collection

The Entomology Collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology is among the richest and historically most significant in North America, containing more than 7,500,000 specimens and the primary types of more than 33,000 species.  The ant collection, alone comprising nearly a million specimens, is the largest and most important in the world. The fossil insect collection is the second most important one in the world.

The MCZ entomology collection is second only to the Smithsonian Institution in North America for primary type holdings (the Smithsonian has about 99,000 types). Our type records list more than 33,000 holotypes, lectotypes, neotypes, and syntype series. The collections richest in type material are the Coleoptera (comprising about 50% of the types), Diptera, Neuroptera (s. l.), and Hymenoptera (especially ants).  

MCZbase can be searched for label data of more than 395,000 insect specimens and more than 83,500 images representing over 16,701 species, including Coleoptera, Diptera, Hymenoptera, Lepidoptera, and other orders of insects. The collection is also searchable through iDigBio and GBIF.

Several historically important collections are housed at Harvard, including the type-rich beetle collections of Horn, LeConte, Melsheimer, Bowditch, Fall and Darlington. The collections in many smaller orders are also among the most important in North America, i.e., Trichoptera, Odonata, Psocoptera, Neuroptera and Collembola. 

The collection is taxonomically distributed as follows:

  • Coleoptera (48%)
  • Hymenoptera (33%)
  • Lepidoptera (7%)
  • Diptera (6%)
  • Other orders (5%)
  • Fossils (1%)

Beetles are the best represented order of the MCZ insect collection, comprising nearly half of all specimens and types. Although it is not the largest beetle collection, it is regarded by many coleopterists as the most important North American collection because of the extensive type holdings. The following components of the Coleoptera collection are of special importance.

LeConte & Horn Collections

In the nineteenth century, J. L. LeConte and G. H. Horn together described about a fourth of all presently known North American beetle species. Syntypic series of either author were usually shared with the other. The separation of the two collections, (LeConte at the MCZ, Horn at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia) for nearly a century had hindered study of LeConte and Horn species and made designation of lectotypes difficult. The acquisition (by exchange) of the Horn Collection by the MCZ and its integration with the LeConte Collection here have greatly facilitated taxonomic studies on North American beetles.

Fall Collection

H. C. Fall assembled one of the largest and best identified North American beetle collections of the early part of the twentieth century, and also described about 1,400 new species. His collection, kept in separate color-coded unit trays adjacent to material in the general collection, is of particular value for identification purposes.

Bowditch Collection of Chrysomelidae

This important worldwide chrysomelid collection, second largest in the western hemisphere, includes about 125,000 specimens and over 3,200 types. The Bowditch collection has representatives of about 80% of the known genera and 50% of the species described by 1905. It is composed of most of the Martin Jacoby collection, including much of the material from the Biologia Centrali-Americana, Fauna of British India, Chevrolat, Tring Museum, as well as Bowditch's own material. The latter includes specimens from the collections of Baly, Fairmaire, Duvivier and Chevrolat, and many specimens compared with types from older authors and presumably in the British Museum. The special strengths of this collection lie in the material for both Paleotropical and Neotropical groups.


Over many years, P. J. Darlington, Jr., of the MCZ built up one of the best worldwide carabid collections in existence by his own collecting efforts as well as by purchase and exchange. Included are the Knirsch Palearctic Collection, Andrews and Lindroth material, and rich Neotropical and Australia-New Guinea holdings.

The Hymenoptera are a prominent component of the Entomology Collection, comprising perhaps 1/3 of the total holdings. The following groups are of special importance:


Arguably the finest in the world, the MCZ ant collection is an indispensable resource for the study of ant biodiversity and systematics. The collection contains about 1,000,000 pinned and labeled ants and is extremely rich in type material. In addition, there are several thousand vials of alcohol specimens and 704 vials containing the G.C. and J. Wheeler larvae collection, the largest existing collection of immature ants.

The collection was founded in 1908, when William Morton Wheeler came to Harvard from the American Museum of Natural History. It grew rapidly in size and importance, thanks to Wheeler and his students, until Wheeler's death in 1937. Wheeler described many new genera and species, and obtained many types from important European researchers, chiefly Forel, Emery, and Santschi. Thus, this collection holds an extraordinary number of type material that is of vital importance to modern generic revisions.

Beginning in 1948, Willian L. Brown Jr. and Edward O. Wilson added an enormous quantity of valuable material, resulting from their global collecting efforts and research in ant systematics. Ed Wilson has also assembled a large collection of ants from Miocene Dominican amber.

In 1987, an NSF collection improvement grant obtained by Ed Wilson funded a badly needed expansion of the collection space, provided room for future growth, and funds for curation. It was the beginning of a new era for the Formicidae collection. Since then, Stefan Cover has added almost 10,000 series of New World ants, and Gary Alpert has contributed 50,000 specimens collected in Madagascar, one of the least known ant faunas in the world. Major contributions have also been made by Barry Bolton and P.S. Ward. Additional noteworthy donations have been provided by Mark Deyrup, Lloyd Davis Jr., Robert Johnson, Mark Moffett, John Tobin, and William Mackay.

Current projects include Ed Wilson's ongoing revisions of the New World Pheidole, a group of 600+ species (and counting!). The ants of North America project is Stefan Cover's effort to revise and expand W.S. Creighton's classic Ants of North America (1950). Finally, Gary Alpert is engaged in a study of the ant fauna of Madagascar, and has assembled an enormous collection information database to support ongoing revisionary work.


The Vespid collection, originally the creation of Joseph Bequaert, is among the most complete in North America, especially in social wasps. Current holdings are estimated at 100,000 specimens. Important recent additions have been made by James Carpenter (now at the American Museum of Natural History) and John Wenzel (now at Ohio State University).

Sphecidae & Pompilidae

The Sphecid collection (about 85,000 wasps) was started by Nathan Banks and features abundant material added by Howard Ensign Evans. The Pompilid collections is probably the largest worldwide, after the Natural History Museum in London.


The collections of Ichneumonid and Braconid wasps contain an estimated 130,000 specimens. They are world-wide in scope, but have especially strong representation of New World forms. Both collections have been much improved and made more accessible to the researchers via the curation efforts of Scott Shaw (now at the University of Wyoming).

Bethylidae & Cynipidae

The Bethylidas feature an abundance of New World specimens contributed by H.E. Evans. The Cynipids feature type material and galls collected by Alfred Kinsey before he turned to the study of human sexual behavior.

The MCZ Lepidoptera collection consists of several hundred thousand specimens almost equally divided between butterflies and moths. The butterfly collection is valuable for its broad sampling of the world fauna. The moth collection, in contrast, provides coverage in a more narrow but greater depth of North American fauna.

The butterfly collection is founded on a number of historical collections acquired by the MCZ over many years. These include the collections of A.G. Weeks, Marston Bates, Jacob Boll, Frederic Allen Eddy (incorporating G. R. Pilate), Graham Bell Fairchild, H. C. Fall, Charles J. Paine, Charles Kimball, and the Thayer (Brazilian) expedition. More recent acquisitions include the collections of Charles P. Kimball, W. D. Winter, R. H. T. Mattoni, and Rod Eastwood/Ray Manskie. The collection is also noted for specimens collected by the novelist and cult-figure Vladmir Nabokov during his stay at the MCZ from 1941 to 1948. Because of this, Nabokov scholars and devotees frequent the Lepidoptera collections.

Notable lepidopterists who have used the MCZ collection (or material now deposited therein) for much of their work have included Samuel H. Scudder, A. S. Packard, Jr., W.T.M. Forbes, and Vladimir Nabokov. The collections themselves have been curated largely by S. H. Scudder, H. A. Hagen, M. Bates, G. B. Fairchild, W.T.M. Forbes, V. Nabokov, J. M. Burns, and R. Eastwood. Numerous visiting lepidopterists have also contributed to its organization.

The moth collection incorporates the historical collections of B. P. Clark, L. Y. Swett, V. T. chambers, and S. A. Hessel. In addition, it has been the focus of work by Samuel Scudder, W. T. M. Forbes, and G. B. Fairchild. Groups that are particularly well-represented include Sphingidae and nearctic Geometridae, Tineidae, and Catocala (underwing moths) of the Noctuidae.

Recent important contributions to the curation and expansion of the Lepidoptera have been made by R.S Silberglied (Pieridae), D. Schweitzer (Noctuidae), P.Z. Goldstein (New England moths), Edward Armstrong (Hesperidae and other groups), and Rod Eastwood (Australian Lycaenidae). An important recent acquisition has been the David Winter collection of New England Lepidoptera, which improves the collection's already strong holdings from the region.

Rod Eastwood organized and oversaw the barcoding and imaging of butterfly specimens. All butterfly specimens with data have been photographed and are in the process of being databased, allowing for easier access to the wealth of historical and biological data contained in the Lepidoptera collection via MCZbase. The butterfly types are in the process of being specially catalogued and researched.

The Diptera collection holds great importance to the study of North American flies because of its rich type material. Of special significance are the collections of H. Loew and Baron C.R. Osten-Sacken. These early Dipterists were the first to describe large numbers of North American flies. Additional valuable material is present from Europe, Panama, Australia, and the West Indies. Representation of world-wide fauna is found in the Tabanidae, Nemestrinidae, and the Hippoboscidae families. Other holdings with sampling from several geographic regions are the Asilidae, Syrphidae, Conopidae, and Tephritidae families. Curation by N.E. Woodley (now at the US National Museum) has improved the collection and made its specimens more accessible to researchers.
The insect fossil collection is one of the premier fossil collections in the world, second in size only to the holdings of the Paleontologica Museum in Moscow. The collection began in 1870 with Baltic Amber types described and brought over from Germany by Hogen. An important block was the 1910 acquisition of the numerous types resulting from the studies of Samuel Scudder, then the world's leading authority on fossil insects. Several collections of European insect fossils were also purchased by MCZ director Alexander Agassiz in the early 1890's.

The collection as we know it today, however, is the work of Frank Morton Carpenter. His work on the collection began in 1927, when , as a graduate student, he was given a job as an assistant to begin the enormous job of making the insect fossil collection accessible to researchers. In 1936 he was appointed Assistant Professor and Curator of Fossil Insects. Improving and adding to the collection be came a major focus of his labors throughout his long and distinguished career. Professor Carpenter transformed the collection in important ways:

  • By curating and labeling the Hagen and Scudder material, he prevented confusion and loss of specimens.
  • He collected actively at several important North American formations for over 25 years. Much of this quantity of material remains to be studied. The fruits of Professor Carpenter's descriptive efforts are deposited in the collection.
  • He added numerous types and other important specimens via his collaboration and correspondence with scholars around the world.
  • Lastly, Professor Carpenter acquired Samuel Scudder's personal library in 1945. Added to his own impressive collection, the MCZ now boasts the finest compilation of fossil insect literature in the world.