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Swarm of discoveries: Wisconsin insect collection one of the best

February 11, 2014

One of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s greatest research treasures is hidden from sight. 

The Wisconsin Insect Research Collection (WIRC) is tucked away on the third floor of Russell Labs, a nondescript brick building that sits between Steenbock Library and the Babcock Dairy Store. More than three million dead insects reside in drawers, in a series of file cabinets in a plain brick room that resembles the stacks of Memorial Library. 

Each drawer contains a world of diversity – from parasites the size of a pinhead to bright green goliath beetles proportioned like fat mice. These insects bring students and researchers from all around the world to Russell Labs – the primary location of the WIRC – and to the WIRC Annex on the third floor of the Stock Pavilion, where a sizeable chunk of the collection is found.    

Insects out in the real world are not easy to study. They’re scattered among watery, grassy and woodsy habitats; they hide in logs, leaves or underground; they can bite, sting or fly away. Furthermore, there’s likely to be five to ten million species of insects worldwide. So research collections like this one are essential to students’ learning, to scientists who need to sort and classify insects systematically, or to anyone who wants to take a quick look into the Earth’s astounding biological diversity. 

“To some extent we do
the Indiana Jones stuff,
but by and large we also
make use of the fact that
we have a couple hundred
years of our forebears who
have already done that.”

Dan Young has directed the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection for more than 20 years. He is a professor of insect science, or entomology, at UW-Madison, and a faculty affiliate of the Nelson Institute.

“When you keep in mind that we are, after all, a land-grant university, our mission always involves three things: research, teaching and outreach. The collection is a perfect embodiment of that mission,” Young said.

Research collections are essential for teaching the public about the vast numbers and variability of insects. Grade school classes, interested organizations and even families visit the WIRC; around 600 people stop by in a given year.

However, the main function of the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection is just as the name implies: research. Field work is an important component in the entomologist’s toolkit, but studying insects would be impossibly inefficient without well-stocked research collections.  

“To some extent we do the Indiana Jones stuff, but by and large we also make use of the fact that we have a couple hundred years of our forebears who have already done that,” Young explained. “A lot of times when I work on my group of insects, I’m not going to Borneo; I’m going to London, I’m going to Paris, I’m going to Berlin, and I’m going to the Netherlands. I’m looking at collections.”

Young is the world’s leading expert on two families of beetles: Pyrochoidae, or fire-colored beetles, and Ischalidae – broad-hipped flower beetles. Among other things, he is a beetle taxonomist: somebody who names, describes and classifies new beetles. 

The bug caught him during an undergraduate course on the taxonomy of insect larvae. While larvae of fire-colored beetles were abundant, little at the time was known about or seen of the adult beetles.

Dan Young professor of entomology
Dan Young

“It was instantly a burning question for me,” he recalls. “Why is it that the larvae of this particular group are everywhere, yet nobody knows anything about the adults? That was a springboard for me. When I started I was a junior, and it’s been going ever since.”

Young relies on collections from around the world to supply him with new fire-colored beetles. He doesn’t do his sorting in the field; that happens in the lab, under a microscope. 

An insect taxonomist classifies species based on minute anatomical differences – things like the shape of the antennae and legs, anatomy of the wings, and structure of both sexes’ genitalia. It can be very tedious work, but Young finds a high sense of purpose.

“It takes a lifetime to develop the expertise. Unfortunately, when I turn to dust, somebody else has to take up those reins. And more unfortunately, the people who are willing and able to do that are getting fewer and farther in between,” he said. 

Before Young, the last taxonomist to develop expertise in fire-colored beetles studied them in the early 1900s. If Young doesn’t describe and classify a particular fire-colored beetle, that insect may go unknown to science for tens or maybe hundreds of years. It may even go extinct before earning the recognition of humankind.  So taxonomists are an inspired group, and they also have an adventurous side.

“If there’s an explorer in you, if it’s in your genome to get really excited about making new discoveries and exploring new things, then developing that expertise and becoming the world’s expert is a fulfillment of those desires.” Young said. “We are always discovering new species.”

And just as Young relies on collections from around the world, taxonomists from around the world rely on the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection and its several strongly represented insect groups.

For example, the campus collection of a particular family of flies – Syrphidae, or flower flies – is one of the best in the country, Young says. “Flower fly taxonomists pretty much anywhere would know that Madison is a stop they have to make.”    

Low-cost adventures build a world-class collection

Building and maintaining the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection is a daunting task. Hundreds of years of field collection has supplied the three million specimens in residence today, along with another five million yet to be curated. But the job is far from over. When a new group of insects needs to be studied, it’s up to the researchers to go out and get them.

“We’re taxonomists… we don’t get a lot of money.  So you’re camping, you’re driving and you’re going on a lot of day trips,” said Dan Young, director of the research collection. “We turn over a lot of territory on a relatively small amount of money.”

Taxonomists travel the state, the country and the world, living out of cars, tents and research stations. They trap the insects that are attracted to stimuli such as light and must devise a method of hand collection for those that aren’t. 

Misadventures often happen along the way – for example, when Young traveled to California to collect fire-colored beetles:

Steven Krauth at the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection
Steven Krauth proudly displays
drawer after drawer at the collection,
as he has done for 38 years. 
“The first night I was in Nebraska. We set up the tent, we set up camp, and we went in to get something to eat. About that time a tornado hit. Trashed the tent, filled it with water; all the sleeping bags were soaked. We spent the night in the car, with it still raining, with 100 percent relative humidity, 90 degrees, two people in a car and 9,000 mosquitoes.

“Next day we drove to Wyoming; it snowed on us. One of the tent posts broke from the snow, so we had to carve a new one out of lodgepole pine. 

“The third day we were in California where it was about 108 degrees. Then we were back up in the mountains, in the Sierras. And what we went all the way to look for wasn’t out when it was supposed to be, because the winter before had a phenomenally high snowpack and the flowers where the beetles were supposed to be found weren’t even flowering.”

Curating the insects – preparing them for display – is another matter. Some are very difficult to work with; microscopic wasps are a good example. Each wasp must be properly killed, placed on a small glass microscope slide and mounted onto a tiny card. Each body part needs to be perfectly positioned so future researchers can see all the bits. Next it is pinned to a label that gives as much information as possible – where and when the wasp was collected, who collected it, and the wasp’s type, to the best knowledge of the researcher and of science.

Millions of insects at the collection are waiting to be curated. It’s a time consuming process and it requires an expert.

“People often say, ‘Why don’t you just hire some undergrads?,’ but you really need to have a fair amount of expertise in the anatomy of those little beasties,” Young explains. “I mean, sure you can train people, but you can’t just say, ‘Here’s a jar of bugs, go fix them.’ Once they’re positioned and everything dries, they’ll stay that way forever.”

Steven Krauth is the collection’s academic curator and he’s been at it for 38 years – nearly four decades spent with dead insects in a drab brick room. He proudly displays drawer after drawer of beetles collected by an “amateur” from the Green Bay area.

The beetles range in size from big to gigantic. Their jaws come in arrays of wondrous shapes and sizes. Most of the beetles are black, but many flaunt iridescent hues of red, blue and green. They came from places like Sumatra, New Guinea and Malaysia. 

Volunteer collectors make important contributions to the collection. One man in his retirement traveled worldwide, collecting thousands of tropical beetles that he brought back to the Wisconsin collection. He paid for his expeditions out of pocket. 

This is just one of the millions of stories that fill the drawers of the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection.

Donald Radcliffe is a forest science and life sciences communication double major who is also pursuing the environmental studies certificate.