I have seen plenty of classics professors’ offices, which are always very messy if not curiously well-carpeted, but never before one of an entomological authority. Dr. Robin Thomson kept a bottle of honey on her window sill, presumably to look at while contemplating bees. (It is the ultimate slap in the face to beekind, that we’ve shaped their honey’s bottles like an animal which aggrieves them so.) She had a microscope, books with titles which did not identify them as light reading, and a couple of butterfly nets. She had a poster depicting tropical hummingbirds on the wall behind where she sat as well. I was not aware that hummingbirds are insects, but that is why I visited Dr. Thomson — to learn. First I wanted to learn what was tattooed on her arm.
“It’s a caddis fly,” said Dr. Thomson, “but the real one’s only three millimeters long. Its species was part of my doctoral dissertation.” A good segue into my next question: Why should we care about bugs, which are so small? She explained that the impressiveness of an animal has nothing to do with its importance to science, and that every insect plays a role in its environment — not necessarily an important one, but it’s impossible to tell just how pivotal any animal is until it has gone away.
What bugs do in our homes and to our foods are naturally of dear concern to us, but they’re more important to medical and legal practices than you might think as well. An entomologist with the right expertise can provide insight that will help a forensic investigation along quite a lot. Think something along the line of Silence of the Lambs, where Jodie Foster took the throat cocoon to a scientist for analysis, and then declined to go out for cheeseburgers and beer with his creepy coworker afterward.
After discussing a few other important matters, such as what’s involved in naming a new species (etiquette holds that it’s tacky to name one after yourself), I learned why a university might need to collect over 52,000 different species of insects, with many, many duplicates. Each specimen represents one point of data — with every definitive instance of Bombus affinis that Dr. Thomson’s department has at their disposal, for example, the more things they can theorize about the past, present, and future state of bumblebees in general. Good science demands such concrete evidence.
Dr. Thomson led me through a room where graduate students were wincing at minute things through microscopes, and then to another stuffed to its gills with steel cabinets. This is where the University of Minnesota’s insect collection is kept. She opened a cabinet and pulled out a tray of stick insects, some as long as her forearm, which in death resembled sticks as well as they ever could have hoped to achieve in life. She produced cicadas, the mere sight of which reminded me of those fat bellied blue sky days and their endless high pitched humming. A tray of butterflies, some with wings clear as crystal, one with the number “89” impeccably scrawled on its wings by nature (I suggested there must be at least 88 others out there), and a blue morpho whose wings were every bit as electric cerulean as they’d been before it had been pinned.
I looked at things that are not insects: an orb weaver spider which must have scuttled out of the ninth circle of hell, a tailless whip scorpion which doesn’t have a tail because it’s repulsive enough without one, and a pseudoscorpion which had been made mercifully tiny by evolution. Dr. Thomson’s beetles were a welcome relief from such horrors. One had the same colors as those strawberry candies that manifest themselves like fungi in old ladies’ purses, and another looked as if made of pure gold. Hundreds of tiger beetles, each mottled in its own distinctive way, like we have different thumbprints, were lined up for analysis to permit predictions about the state of tiger beetles everywhere in general. I saw a monarch butterfly, and the unrelated viceroy which looks similar in order to cash in on the other’s inedibility. There were bee after bee after bee, insects so small they had to be suspended in hardened plastic, and other things I’d hate to find in my breakfast cereal.
I thanked Dr. Thomson profusely for her time, and went back out into the cold January gray where there were no bugs at all. If you have one, then you ought to take your class or club for a tour of the University of Minnesota’s Insect Collection. They are very interesting insects. Go to insectcollection.umn.edu to find out more about how you can schedule a visit.
By David Scheller