Life’s astounding diversity is rarely more apparent than on a warm summer night when the porch light glows and we are ensconced behind a protective mesh of screen, reading or dozing after dinner.
It is then that the din begins to rise in the gathering dusk.
From out there, beyond our domestic ramparts, the buzzing, fluttering horde is gathering. Soon the screen will billow and dance beneath their numbers—emissaries from a class that is as profligate and strange as any ever created by even the best of our science fiction masters.
June beetles. Katydids. Moths and crickets. Beetles. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Mayflies. Lacewings. The constant tick and ping of their assault on the screen is a reminder that we humans are but bit players in a world that really belongs to them—the insects.
Behind our screens we fight a nervous and mostly futile holding action.
Most of us have little idea what we’re really up against when we array our meager weapons against the insects—our sprays and our treated jackets and head nets and our zappers and swatters.
But there is a place on the UW–Madison CALS campus that might give you a pretty good idea of why we are largely at the mercy of this winged, barbed, needle-nosed, multilegged, goggle-eyed empire.
Welcome to the University of Wisconsin Insect Research Collection, one of those wonderful hidden gems of curated knowledge. Open the door and you drop down Alice’s rabbit hole into a world of carefully preserved dung beetles, walking sticks and enough mounted lice to give even the most stoic grade-school mom nightmares.
Stashed in a warren of rooms on the third floor of Russell Labs—and in an annex on the third floor of the Stock Pavilion—are more than 3 million curated insect specimens, along with 5 million more unsorted bulk samplespreserved in jars and tiny vials of ethyl alcohol.
You will find hundreds of thousands of every kind of insect you can imagine, meticulously arrayed in glass-topped wooden drawers in rank upon rank of cabinets. Here are specimens from around the world collected over the last 170 years by a cast of brilliant characters ranging from an entomologist who was known internationally for studying and espousing insects as food to a curious young naturalist who tragically died in a car crash at age 33 and left behind as pets two parrots, a boa constrictor, and two large spiders.
In Russell Labs, the collection is approached down a hallway guarded by glass cases of mounted moths, butterflies and one giant walking stick large enough to hang laundry from. Inside are walls and aisles lined by so many cabinets and drawers that they challenge the extravagance of Kim Kardashian’s walk-in clothes closet. But here, instead of the scent of perfume, you will be greeted by the distinctive but not altogether unpleasant lingering odor of naphthalene, once used to keep live bugs from eating the mounted dead bugs.
You will also likely be met by entomology professor Daniel Young, the collection’s enthusiastic director. Chances are he will be wearing a T-shirt that depicts an insect of some sort. At our first meeting, he sports a shirt fromthe 2006 meeting of the Entomological Society of America. Once you get to know him, his wardrobe seems the least unusual thing about him. In fact, Young, like just about everyone who has anything at all to do with this remarkable collection of insects, seems as pleasingly eccentric as any of the myriad species in the giant insect mausoleum he tends. On one visit, Craig Brabant, one of Young’s graduate students, is busy in the lab and hardly looks up at an inquiry about his professor’s whereabouts.
“Oh, he’s back there with his beetles somewhere,” Brabant said with the nonchalance of a dedicated and somewhat distracted bug person.
When Brabant refers to “Young’s beetles,’’ you have to understand what this truly means. Young has traveled the world in search of beetles—specimens of the order Coleoptera. This has been his passion since boyhood, when he fished for trout with his father in Michigan and paid close attention to the flies the fish slurped from the surface of such rivers as the Au Sable and the Pere Marquette.
Young’s course as a prolific collector of beetles was set when he was an undergraduate at Michigan State University and a fellow student who collected beetles suddenly became more enamored with bees that pollinate cucumbers. He turned his beetle collection over to Young—and ever since, Young has never met a beetle he didn’t want to name and classify.
Just how big a task does Young face in his chosen field of study? There are more than 300,000 species of beetles, he says, compared with 4,000 species of mammals. In his book The Variety of Life, Colin Tudge writes that about a fifth of all known animals are beetles. Yet Young keeps tilting at his own private windmill. For more than 40 years he has collected more than 200,000 specimens—and that collection now resides in the cabinets in Russell Labs.
Now Young is faced with an undertaking that seems almost as daunting as putting the world’s beetles in order. He is overseeing the Department of Entomology’s
ambitious effort to digitize the entire insect research collection, taking digital photos of all the insects and putting them online as part of a web-based project called InvertNet, which stands for Invertebrate Collections Network.
Lest you fear for Young’s sanity, he will not be spending the rest of his career snapping photos of millions of insects. The project, a collaborative effort involving 22 Midwestern insect collections housing more than 50 million specimens, has been made possible by the development of a robotic digital camera that can image an entire drawer of mounted insects in seconds.
The department took delivery of the unique $6,800 camera in November and, like kids with a present on Christmas day, Young and his students began playing with it immediately. Installed in a place of honor on a desk in one of the research rooms next to its controlling computer, the camera is a marvel of robotic engineering. Ensconced in a steel frame and suspended from three arms that are outfitted with multiple springs and gears, the camera is designed to move precisely and rapidly above a brightly lit drawer of mounted specimens. Its movement, programmed by the computer, is mesmerizing. With a soft hum, it crawls back and forth and up and down, as insectlike in its movements as the creatures it photographs.
With the camera, the job of digitizing the Wisconsin collection, along withmore than 20 other such collections throughout the Midwest, becomes not only manageable but also affordable, according to Young. Until now, such an effort was slow and costly, about $1 per specimen as opposed to 10 cents per specimen with the new camera. It also minimizes the risk of damaging delicate specimens. And the camera does not take just a single image of a specimen; researcher will be able to manipulate the photograph to see different parts of each insect, almost as if it were in 3-D.
Even with the advanced camera, Young estimates that getting the entire collection photographed and onto the web could take as long as two years. But the benefits, he adds, are many. Fewer than 5 percent of invertebrate collections in the U.S. are available online. And making collections available at the click of a computer key will make the knowledge that they preserve much more broadly available, not only for researchers but also for a lay public that is endlessly fascinated by bugs—but frequently poorly informed about their value in the web of life.
“Many of the advantages are for the taxonomic community,” Young says. “I can’t just up and visit all the collections in the world. But if I can remotely see them, I can point out a drawer to a local curator. I can even point to a particular part of a drawer, specific specimens, and ask the curator to loan them to me.”
“There is also a tremendous potential benefit for education and outreach,” Young continues. “This adds a new K–12 students so they can remotely visit the collection. They can pull outthe drawers and look at that specimen that was collected in 1890. The bottom line is that we have to make this relevant beyond the taxonomic community.”
Understanding the value of having the insect collection available online requires appreciating the value and intrigue of such collections to begin with. Such an appreciation comes not only from recognizing the wealth of scientific data they harbor, but also from hearing the stories of how a particular collection came to be. The Wisconsin lab is fairly haunted by all of those, professional and amateur, who at one time or another wielded their insect nets in a pasture or woodlot to add specimen after specimen, drawer after drawer, cabinet after cabinet—lately to the tune of about 21,000 specimens a year.
Their names are all there in the drawers, forever connected to their insects by the information on the tiny white tags attached to each pinned specimen. The slips of paper contain in black type the collectors’ names and very concise descriptions of the insects and the details of their capture (“Found dead in the middle of a dirt road,” reads the short story of one tiny, nondescript beetle). Now the names of insect and collector alike will be forever preserved in the digital ether of the World Wide Web.
Consider, for example, the 16,050 syrphid, or flower flies, collected by Charles L. Fluke, the first director of the research collection. His collection is considered among the best in the nation, according to Young, and Fluke’s accomplishment is recognized by a room named in his honor.
Or there are the approximate 14,000 mounts and 6,000 slides of mosquitoes collected from around the world by Robert J. Dicke. And 175,000 aquatic insects, almost all of them from Wisconsin waters, collected by William Hilsenhoff. “There was hardly a lake, river or stream he didn’t sample,” says Young.
Of all the individuals who have contributed to the Wisconsin collection, few have a story that can match that of the late Gene DeFoliart, a long-time CALS professor of entomology who studied how insects spread viral diseases. In the early 1970s, however, DeFoliart became fascinated with insects as an important food source throughout the world. He developed an international reputation for his expertise on the subject. His work even got a comedic nod from Johnny Carson, who joked about DeFoliart and “roast of roach.”
Young and others recall DeFoliart serving up various insect concoctions in the department. His daughter, Linda DeFoliart BS’81, who now lives in Alaska, remembers her father bringing home leftovers.
“I remember he brought us mealworm and sour cream potato chip dip,” says Linda. “And deep-fried crickets. We reheated those in the microwave. They had the consistency of popcorn and they kind of stuck in your teeth.”
But Linda also recalls her father’s obsession with collecting and stories about him as a boy growing up in rural Arkansas, riding around on his bike with his butterfly net and a glass jar of cyanide—his “kill” jar. His passion and his insects are forever preserved in the Wisconsin collection—hundreds of mosquitoes, 1,500 slide-mounted lice, and 5,000 butterflies and skippers that Linda and her siblings donated after Gene DeFoliart’s death in 2013.
“We decided to donate the collection to the university because we thought that was where Dad would have liked for it to reside,” says Linda.
The collecting and naming and classifying continue today. In Mequon, a dermatologist named Peter Messer is a wellknown amateur taxonomist who has become a recognized expert on ground beetles, one of the most species-rich families in the entire beetle group. He is regularly published by entomological journals, and in a 2009 published survey he identified 87 species of Wisconsin ground beetles not previously recorded from the state, some of which he collected in his backyard. His beetles are well represented in the Russell Lab collection.
“There is great satisfaction in knowing almost everything about something that hardly anyone else knows about, and then conveying that knowledge to others,” says Messer.
Young emphasizes that the digital images and online availability do not diminish the need for the actual physical collections gathered over the years by all of these dedicated souls. Today, for example, much of the research on insects involves studying their DNA for clues to mysteries ranging from identification and evolutionary change to the insect’s potential role in understanding the spread and treatment of disease.
“Now that we have the image, we still need the specimen. The image isn’t a substitute. Specimens can give you DNA ,” Young says. “Here’s the thing—we don’t even know what these collections can give us. We weren’t even talking DNA 40 or 50 years ago.”
According to Young, the collection has also become an important resource for scientists studying climate change, another phenomenon that could not have been foreseen in the early years of the collection. Each specimen, Young explains, represents not only the body of an insect but a preserved point in time. Knowing what insects existed inwhat places and at what periods allows researchers to trace changes on the landscape.
“Some see a dead beetle on a pin; we see a collection event, a rich story that continues to unfold with potential ‘plot twists’ we are not yet even aware of,” says Young.
But just for purposes of identifying and classifying insects, collections are invaluable. Collecting involves the wonderfully strange discipline of taxonomy, the scientific process of placing organisms into established categories and the use of hierarchical groupings with names that we all struggled to memorize in high school biology—domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Though it might seem an arcane art to some, taxonomy is a fundamental and essential step toward understanding the natural world and how it works.
“People are intimidated by it,” Young says. “It looks like a tedious, potentially boring mystery. But we are all taxonomists. Let’s say you want a box of butterscotch Jell-O pudding when you go to the store. Do you know what aisle to look in? Or is it just randomly placed in the store?”
“The first question everyone asks when they contact us about an insect is, ‘What is it?’ The second question is, ‘What does it do?’” Young continues. “The first question is taxonomy. The second is about ecology and natural history— and without the taxonomy, you can’t tell anything about the ecology and the natural history.”
A close colleague of Young’s— Darren Pollock, professor and head curator of collections in the Biology Department at Eastern New Mexico University—tells how he was able to use the Wisconsin collection to identify a previously undescribed species. Like Young, he specializes in beetles, specifically (among others) of the genus Mycterus. This particular taxonomic adventure started when Young sent Metallic wood-boring beetles (Euchroma gigantea)Pollock some Mycterus specimens from the Wisconsin collection.
“Specimens can ‘languish’ in collections for years, decades or even centuries,” says Pollock. “More than a few of these specimens were collected decades ago, in the late 1940s. And then they sat. And sat. Until I looked at them.”
“It was obvious to me that these old Wisconsin specimens represented a totally new species, the closest relative of which is a species from southern Florida,” says Pollock. “Now they are all labeled as type specimens of the recently described species Mycterus youngi Pollock!” (The “youngi” is for Daniel Young.)
This enthusiasm, so typical of those drawn to taxonomy and exemplified in collectors such as Pollock and Messer, seems to come not only from a preoccupation with order, but also from a deeper desire to acknowledge and name insect life even as we hasten its passing from the planet. Young says the most rational estimates place the number of insects with us right nowat between 3 and 5 million. And, he says, only about 20 percent of them have been identified. It helps explain the almost manic drive of taxonomists to discover and describe and label.
“When there are 30 species in a genus and you’ve collected 29 of them,” Young says, “guess what you’re going to be doing next summer?”
Pollock praises the Wisconsin collection for its size and diversity. And, like Young, he sees such collections as arks that affirm our connections to the natural world and solidify those ties by giving even the tiniest speck of buzzing, darting life a name and a nod for just being.
And then there is the ticking clock.
Collections are also repositories for what we’ve lost. Though they seem ubiquitous, insect species are going extinct at an alarming rate, according to a study by entomologist Robert Dunn of North Carolina State University. He estimates that hundreds of thousands of insect species could be lost over the next 50 years. The reasons are many, but habitat loss is a major culprit. Monarch butterfly populations, for example, are suffering because of the destruction of the Mexican forests where they winter.
And Young says he knows many areas where he used to collect, especially in southeastern Wisconsin, that are now paved and developed, the insects he once found no longer in evidence.
Young doesn’t know for sure how many extinct or extirpated species are represented in the Wisconsin collection. But he knows there are many resting in the drawers, their stilled, pinned forms a rebuke to a world that took little or no notice of their existence or their passing.
If you wish to support the collection, please make your check payable to UW Foundation and send it to UW Foundation, US Bank Lockbox 78807, Milwaukee WI 53278-0807. On the memo line, write Entomology–WIRC.