Fixing the ‘bugs’ at the U.A.’s insect museum

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How do you keep track of more than two million bugs?

“Very carefully,” said Dr. Wendy Moore, curator of the University of Arizona Insect Collection, which used a $468,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for a yearlong facelift. The museum reopened to the public at the start of the 2013 fall semester and is located on the fourth floor of the Forbes Building at the University of Arizona.

“The museum needed the upgrade and renovations,” said Moore. “The cabinets and drawers were too old and didn’t close tightly, enabling beetles to feed on these dead insects, and there wasn’t enough space to house all the specimens in the collection, making us unable to accept new donations for a while.”

At the museum’s entrance, posters depicting everything from ferocious spiders to colorful butterflies advise visitors that they are about to enter the realm of the largest collection of Southwestern bugs in the United States, where more than 2 million specimens of insects claim the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Entomology Department as their home.

Carl Olson, known to many in Tucson as the “Bug Man” for promoting safe pest-management throughout the community, is a retired University of Arizona professor and former associate curator of the insect collection. Having spent 39 years classifying and organizing this assortment of bugs, Olson has seen the insect collection metamorphose like a caterpillar pupating into a butterfly.

He said renovations “consisted of first knocking down the walls of the adjoining room. Then all the old cabinets and drawers were taken out and replaced with a compactor system and half-cabinets. This added much-needed expansion space for up-to-date unit trays and storage drawers.”

Gene Hall, manager of the insect collection and self-declared beetle fanatic, said the renovations allow more room for the collection to expand.

“The remodeling of the structure that houses our specimens has enabled the collection to be open to future growth and study as we were able to gain about 65 percent more space,” Hall said.“At the present, the insects in the museum are organized into three subcategories with the Research Collection being the most observed and consisting of over 30,000 insects, each with information pertaining to the specific specimen.”

The insect collection managers received another $333,559 grant from the National Science Foundation to  produce digital images with information on each specimen in the collection. In cooperation with 16 other universities and museums throughout the Southwest, the insect collection, along with others like it, will make up the Southwest Collections of Arthropods Network. This digital network will allow for information on each cataloged specimen to be readily accessible to researchers, students and the general public.

The plan, in collaboration with Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and other museums, is “to combine distribution data in order to create a virtual insect Smithsonian in the Southwest,” according to Moore. “We first started adding the ground-dwelling arthropods of the collection and then we will eventually begin adding our flying insects, such as moths, butterflies and the like.”

In its efforts to reach out, the insect collection has gained interest among the young and old. While other teenage boys might occupy their time outside of school with part-time jobs at the mall, William George, a high school senior and volunteer with the collection, chooses to interact with insects.

“I love the feeling of being able to work in an actual museum and I admire those who dedicate their whole lives to studying something so small,” said George. “Although I find the tarantula wasps most fascinating, I have found the mite collection to be quite impressive.”

As a public service, the insect museum managers offer insect identification of local species to those concerned or curious about the insects they may find in Tucson, southern Arizona and throughout the state.

“We use the collection to identify the various insect species people encounter, whether that be in their home, in their garden and in their crops and fields,” Hall said. “Locally, we mainly get inquiries about cockroaches that people find in their homes, cockroaches that fly, bed bug infestations that take over people’s rooms and ants that may have a nasty sting with them.”

Although these millions of bugs may seem frightening and repulsive, the insect collection is geared toward further understanding these small creatures and their place on Earth.

“Insects have significant roles that pertain to our daily survival, such as pollination and decomposition of waste,” Moore said. “Insects are the most diverse multicellular organisms on Earth and make up a majority of species on this planet.”

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