Surveying an insect collection from a 17th-century Northeastern agrarian settlement to determine changes in beneficial insects, pests, and climate

Progress report for GNE22-292

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,859.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Rutgers University, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
Region: Northeast
State: New Jersey
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
George Hamilton
Rutgers University
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Project Information


In 1992 an excavation at the site of a seventeenth-century brick chapel at Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland led to the discovery of three lead coffins interred within the structure. From the 1990s to the early 2000s a recovery and examination of the arthropod (insects and related animals) remains was completed. This project focuses on the historical insect material found within the coffin of the landowner, Philip Culver. The high abundance of primary predators of fly larvae, specifically rove beetles (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae), but also ants (Hymenoptera, Formicidae) and spiders (Araneae) is consistent with the low number of flies and associated remains found. The number of thrips (Thysanoptera) and true insects (Hemiptera) found within coffin is notably high and suggests the agricultural operation may have been under considerable pest pressure. The goal of this project is to integrate DNA identification of 17th century rove beetles with interdisciplinary data from the modern site to draw conclusions on how historical insect diversity impacted a small-scale agrarian settlement in the Northeastern USA. This responds to the need for quantifiable indication of the potential changes in the diversity of pest and beneficial insect species. Our team completed a year-long survey of the site’s modern insect fauna using pitfall traps and a model of the coffin to collect carrion insects. A vacated puparium Megaselia scalaris was identified morphologically within the coffin material and may be used to model conditions of colonization. through Currently our team is focusing on DNA identification of historic insect material and statistical analyses of site data. Continued pitfall trapping at the site can be used to build an emergence model for rove beetle species that have existed at the site since the 1600s. Completing this action has the potential to push this research into producing practical strategies to aid sustainable agriculture.

Project Objectives:
  1. Complete a DNA identification of a group of rove beetle remains entombed in a 1680s plantation owner’s grave to draw conclusions about pest pressure at the site.
    1. Advance the study of a specific group of beneficial insects by using DNA to study their role in controlling pest pressure at a historical agricultural settlement
    2. Produce and report a repeatable protocol for identifying similar historic insect material which will be available open-access to other researchers
  2. Complete a three-year survey of the site’s modern insect biodiversity which started in 2021
    1. Trapping modern insects at the site in Maryland was used to provide site-specific references to compare historical specimens to.
    2. Report detailed methods on survey the site's insect biodiversity for repeatability in other archaeoentomology investigations 
  3. Finalize morphological identifications noting specific identifiable characters using updated morphological keys
    1. Complete a thirty-year research endeavor first started in 1992 
    2. Use advanced imaging techniques to discern morphologically identifiable characters
  4. Analyze data
    1. Complete descriptive and inferential statistics with the R Studio open-source coding language.
    2. Compile statistics on both rove beetle and wider insect biodiversity for both modern and historical groups
    3. Incorporate modeling approaches such as BugsCEP and/or MaxEnt 

The purpose of this project is to address the need to use novel cross-disciplinary approaches to strengthen sustainable agriculture in the Northeastern USA. We are doing this by quantifying historical beneficial insect diversity and pest pressure of an agrarian settlement in 1640 Maryland. The results of an in-depth analysis of this unique collection of insect specimens can be used in creative and diverse ways to promote sustainable agriculture. Pursuing this question is important because understanding the historical diversity of beneficial insects is likely to reveal insect-related information important to sustainable food security. For example, documenting and analyzing the species of beneficial rove beetles (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae) which were historically associated with the site and are still extant today can allow us to target these species for conservation efforts to foster native predators of agricultural pests.

This study will address future issues in agriculture by expanding the scope of Integrated Pest Management to document changes in beneficial insect biodiversity in agricultural systems over time. This specifically addresses the need to study pest management from an evolutionary perspective by using time-calibrated historical specimens (Madison, 2016). An excavation at the site of a seventeenth-century brick chapel at Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland in 1992 led to the discovery of three lead coffins interred within the structure. From the 1990s to the early 2000s a recovery and examination of the arthropod (insects and related animals) remains was completed. Over 41,000 arthropod fragments were recovered from within the coffins of the two adults. Consistent with insect remains from archaeological deposits, specimens consist mainly of fragments of arthropod exoskeleton and snail shells. The original analyses asserted the lack of fly (Diptera) indicated the insects assembled in winter. However, the presence of large quantities of primary predators of fly larvae, mainly rove beetles and ants (Hymenoptera, Formicidae) and apex predators (Araneae) suggests the coffins were stored for a period of time long enough to allow a complex microhabitat to form. The number of true insects (Hemiptera) and thrips found within the plantation owner’s coffin is unusual and suggests the agricultural operation may have been under considerable pest pressure. 


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Lauren Weidner (Researcher)
  • Dr. Philip Buckland (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Nicole Fahrenfeld (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Krystal Hans (Educator and Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Year-long site survey of modern insect fauna:

At the end of August 2023, we completed the year-long site survey of modern insect fauna through a pitfall trapping program comparing 2 sites (agricultural land, native meadow) and collecting carrion insects from deceased piglets placed in a model of the 1680s coffin twice per season. Samples were mailed to the Forensic Entomology and Wildlife Laboratory (FEWL) at Arizona State University where they are currently being analyzed.


Identification of historic insect specimens:

We have identified the phorid fly Megaselia scalaris through a vacated puparium; indicating at least 1 individual of this species completed its life cycle within the Philip Culver coffin. We are comparing this find to the currently available developmental literature on M. scalaris. The goal of this action is to contextualize this finding from a forensic perspective. This may indicate likely seasonality of when this individual’s egg was laid. Our molecular DNA identification protocol is ready for the extraction of DNA from historical Philip Culver coffin rove beetle specimens. The unexpected findings of dipteran remains in the form of an adult head capsule, the M. scalaris puparium, and several larval skins present an opportunity to potentially gain further ecological data through the application of our molecular identification protocol. If repeatedly successful we intend to format a version the protocol suitable for publication, to be reported after we submit our final results for peer review publication.  


Analysis plan:

We are currently working with the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) Office of Research Analytics to finalize our statistics plan. This plan includes different ANOVA tests to compare data collected in pitfall trapping survey including species occurrence, abundance, time, location and soil chemistry analyses. Currently we are collating the pitfall trap data by site and insect family to begin biodiversity indices and elucidating patterns across seasons and occurrence of the target taxa, rove beetles (Staphylinidae, Coleoptera). The methods for comparing the 1680s coffin insect material to the survey of modern forensically important insects using carrion trapping via the model coffins and ground dwelling insects via pitfall trapping are under team review. Modeling of relationships between species assemblages in modern and historical insect fauna is expected to be analyzed through Canonical correspondence analysis (CCA), the R open-source programing language package CRACLE (Climate Reconstruction Analysis using Coexistence Likelihood Estimation), and BugsCEP (Bugs Coleoptera Ecology Package).

Research results and discussion:

Through Spring 2024 1) molecular identification of historic insect specimens will be completed, 2) specimens from the year-long survey will be identified and analyzed and 3) our statistical analysis plan will be finalized and applied. One promising direction we are currently planning for is to continue pitfall trapping at the site for the purpose of developing an emergence model for a current TBD target rove beetle species found in both the historical assemblage and modern survey of the site’s insect fauna. If there is a species that exists in both the historical assemblage and modern survey, then that species has likely existed at the site from the 1600s through today. The emergence model can then be a starting point from which to develop strategies to foster these populations of beneficial insects.

We are excited to share our project and findings at our community outreach event in May. This event is being planned as a collaboration between this project and NOFA-NJ. Collaborating with a farmer-centered organization will ensure that programming is meaningful to attendees. 

Research conclusions:

Identifying the native rove beetle species at the site and developing an associated emergence model will be a first tangible step for transforming this research into actionable strategies for sustainable agriculture. A proof of concept study to produce this model is being planned to be conducted at Purdue University so that a tested method can be applied to the archaeological site in the future. Further, Stable Isotope Analysis (SIA) may be another promising analysis method to study the historical rove beetle specimens. Applying SIA to a subset of the large quantity of rove beetles within the historical assemblage can yield quantifiable climate indicators reflective of the conditions experienced by the colony in the late 17thcentury.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

4 Consultations
6 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

1 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Our project’s flagship outreach event is scheduled for May 1, 2024, and will be hosted by the New Jersey Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association (NOFA-NJ). The audience for the event is the NOFA-NJ membership, local farmers, agriculture students and the general public. This event will feature short presentations from the project team, experiential learning that includes simulating the field surveying and laboratory analysis conducted through the project and will end with an open dialogue on the attendees’ general impressions of the project, and what future directions research incorporating archaeology and sustainable agriculture can take.

This project has been presented in 6 talks, which have acknowledged the Northeast SARE for funding this project. The titles, events and dates of the presentations are listed below in Appendix I. The interdisciplinary nature of the project allowed it to be a natural fit for a wide range of audiences which included the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of Sweden, Association of Environmental Authorities (AEA) of New Jersey and the Várdduo Centre for Sámi Research. There are currently 2 planned presentations to communicate this project later in 2024. This includes at the Royal Entomological Society (RES) Student Forum in March 2024.

A manuscript that grew from this project is currently in preparation which argues for greater collaboration between archaeoentomology researchers and IPM entomologists to develop novel management strategies. An “Ideas at Work” manuscript is planned for summer 2024 detailing the marketing and engagement strategy used to organize and execute our flagship outreach event. The focus of the article will be reporting a plan for interdisciplinary entomology outreach education from an Extension perspective that is impactful and repeatable. Finally, a manuscript reporting our full findings and contextualizing our analysis through the lens of agriculture in a changing climate is planned for submission to a peer-reviewed journal in autumn 2024.


Appendix I: List of talks delivered
* denotes an invited seminar or lecture 

  • Surveying an insect collection from a 17th-century Northeastern agrarian settlement to determine changes in beneficial insects, pests, and climate”, Northeast IPM Research Update Conference. November 16, 2023 
  • * “Western Monmouth Utilities Authority (WMUA) Research Partnership Advances Understanding of Pathogens”, Annual Meeting & Conference of the Association of Environmental Authorities (AEA) of New Jersey, Atlantic City, New Jersey
  • * “Using Insect Science to Address Research Needs of Indigenous Communities”, Várdduo - Centre for Sámi Research, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden
  • * “Using insect functional biodiversity of past decomposition environments to aid sustainable agriculture and disease ecology", Department of Ecology and Environmental Science (EMG), Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden
  • * “Using insect biodiversity to investigate challenges of the past and formulate strategies for our future”, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of Sweden, Stockholm, Sweden
  • * “Applying the Principles of Forensic Entomology to Archaeological and Quaternary Investigations”, Seminar Series, Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Umeå University

Project Outcomes

2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$9,612.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Completing a well-documented and extensive year-long study of the site’s modern insect fauna is not a routine component of archaeoentomology investigations, though past archaeoentomology researchers have called for this practice to be more widely adopted. We hope that conducting this survey and reporting our methods in enough detail for reproducibility can provide a resource for this practice to be more accessible. Through morphological analysis of the archaeological material we recovered an additional 5 distinct species of rove beetles from unsorted project specimens. Along with the unsorted specimens were Coleopterans from the weevil family Curculionidae and Scolytidae, both of which have the potential for significant pest pressure depending on species, determination of which is ongoing. Our preliminary determinations that the species of Curculionidae and Scolytidae we found were present in 1680s indicates to us that the original colony was likely under considerable pest pressure on several fronts where plant production, stored products, and human health were all vulnerable. Rare finds we recovered from the unsorted sample were several Dipteran puparia and larval skins/body. The vacated puparia has been morphologically identified as Megaselia scalaris. Currently we are reviewing the literature for temperature development experiments of this species in an attempt to establish a potential season of colonization. The unexpected presence of weevils and the flies have led us to consider using some of the DNA testing resources to molecularly identify these specimens, using the protocol developed through this project.


Knowledge Gained:

Managing a large multi-state long term project, the development of a novel protocol, and conducting outreach to stakeholders were the three areas where knowledge gain was most significant so far throughout this project. We believe that pairing extensive modern site insect biodiversity surveying through trapping of live insects has greatly benefitted our project and that this design should be more regularly incorporated into investigations of archaeoentomology. This is because modern site specimens are providing vital reference material from which comparisons to archaeological insect remains can be compared. Conducting the morphological analysis at the laboratory of the Environmental Archaeology Lab (MAL) at Umeå University under its Director, who is one of the few archaeoentomology experts in the world, enabled an international knowledge transfer experience. The ability to bring these skills back to the United States represents an opportunity to address this knowledge gap in American researchers.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Continuing the project beyond the direct archaeoentomology investigation to include developing an emergence model for the site's native beneficial rove beetles is a future direction of great interest to the project team. Further, we will continue to explore including SIA of the archaeological material to elucidate direct climate information about the site.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.