The museum holds over 90,000 insect specimens, most of which have been collected in and around Plymouth and the counties of Devon and Cornwall by local collectors J.H. Keys and G.C. Bignell.

James Higman Keys collection

J.H. Keys lived in Plymouth and had a keen interest in natural history and in particular entomology, which is the scientific study of insects. During his life, he donated several specimens to Plymouth Museum, including a lizard from Costa Rica, a moth, a spider, land shells, numerous beetles and his father’s (IWN Keys) herbarium collection.

About James Higman Keys [PDF]

Coleoptera collection

Close up photograph showing beetles of various colours and sizes on individual cards pinned in a drawerThe Keys Coleoptera (beetle) collection, donated as a bequest in 1941, is the most researched natural history collection in the museum. The collection contains over 26,000 British specimens and over 4,000 foreign specimens. There are numerous type specimens in the collection. A type specimen is the most important specimen a museum can hold; designated as the archetype to describe a new species, it always defines that species. Plymouth Museum also holds Keys own catalogue and field notebooks, which contain detailed information about all the specimens and localities where he collected.

Keys only donated one of his many specimens to another museum. The specimen, Spathorrhamphus corsicus, was donated during his life, in 1936, to the Natural History Museum, London (which was at that time the British Museum, Natural history). The specimen was collected in Corsica and donated with his collection field notes.

Darren Mann, Collections Manager from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, has been researching the collection for over five years. Darren said: “The Keys collection of Coleoptera is probably the most comprehensive collection of beetles from South West Britain, containing many of the rarest beetles of the region.”

Keys Microscope slides and Glass plate negatives

Microscope slide of a termiteA lesser-known collection made by Keys is a collection of approximately 500 microscope slides. This includes cross sections of plants, mites, psudoscorpions and beetle genitalia! We also hold 41 glass plate negatives of maritime beetles. They were prepared by Keys and most probably used for his publications.

You can browse the Keys Microscope Slide Collection online.



George Carter Bignell collection

Glass slide showing the detail of an insect wingBignell, the ‘great entomologist’, lived in Saltash and Stonehouse. During his life he donated several specimens to the museum, including some millipedes, reptiles preserved in spirit from West Africa, land and freshwater shells and a ‘few foreign insects’.

Bignell sold a large part of his collection in 1908, which includes Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants), Ichneumonidae (parasitic wasps) and pressed sea weeds.

About George Carter Bignell [PDF]


Bignell’s Lepidoptera collection contains over 9,500 specimens. Included in the collection are complete larval stages of specimens, producing a detailed life cycle of many species. The Lepidoptera collection also contains specimens of parasitic wasps which parasitized the associated moth or butterfly specimens.


Bignell’s Hymenoptera collection holds over 3,000 specimens, representing the majority of British species of wasps, bees and ants.


Bignell’s parasitic wasp collection holds over 3,000 specimens. This important collection contains several type specimens. A type specimen is the most important specimen a museum can hold; designated as the archetype to describe a new species, it always defines that species. A large amount of type specimens from this collection were transferred to the Natural History Museum, London on long term loan in the 1970s.

Microscope slides

Plymouth Museum also holds over 300 microscope slides collected and prepared by G C Bignell. The majority of these are the wings of Tipulids (crane-flies), which show small structures in the wing veins used to identify different species. The collection also includes associated glass plate negatives, produced by Bignell.