Introducing the Beetles ... and Their Manager
The Arizona Insect Festival is set for Sunday, Sept. 18, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Student Union Memorial Center's Grand Ballroom. As always, staff from the UA Insect Collection will be taking part. This year's featured insect is the western Hercules beetle, Dynastes granti, a type of rhinoceros beetle that's native to Arizona. It's a brawny little character that sports a gray outer cuticle and can be seen around these parts feeding benignly on tree sap.
Gene Hall knows these beetles well. Hall is the collection manager of the UA Insect Collection, and a font of information about insects of all types. Lo Que Pasa talked with him about the collection, its history and its more than 2 million members, which include ants, katydids, grasshoppers, termites, moths, flies, wasps, scorpions, bees and, of course, beetles.
What makes the UA Insect Collection unique and so important to researchers and the community?
We use the collection for research in evolutionary biology, systematics, phylogenetics and biodiversity. It's the largest collection of Arizona and northern Sonoran Desert insects in the world. It's an invaluable resource for the University, for Arizona and for the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences because it's irreplaceable.
The goal of the collection is to preserve the specimens in perpetuity. We have some specimens that go back to the 1880s, and all of our specimens need to be available now and 200 years from now for research purposes. Each specimen that's collected represents a unique event in space and time that can't be duplicated. For example, you can't go back to the top of Mount Lemmon in 1942 and collect a particular specimen if it gets lost or destroyed. We're like an art museum or archaeological collection; the contents are unique and cannot be replaced.
The UA also uses the collection to help fulfill its mission as a land-grant university. What does that entail?
There are many different aspects of extension work. For us, it's identifying insects for growers, nurseries, medical and veterinary entomologists, forensic scientists, and for people in town who find something unknown in their house or in their garden. We answer calls that range from people thinking they might have a kissing bug in their house to a grower who says something is eating his corn to medical veterinarians sending something over here that came out of a cat. We get calls from poison control about people who were stung by scorpions or from medical personnel who suspect a patient has mites. So, you need to have the proper identification to treat something or to understand what you're dealing with. In 2015, we had over 600 inquiries for extension services alone.
The collection has had quite a long history. How did it get started?
Since agriculture was a founding part of the University, there has always been an insect collection on the UA campus due to crop and livestock pests, but it was developed into more of a research and reference collection by Floyd Werner in the mid-1950s. Floyd was the first curator of the collection. He and Bill Nutting, two Harvard University graduate students, came out here in the 1940s to do field research on insects in northern Mexico and Arizona. They drove out here from back East in a converted bread truck that they turned into a field vehicle. After World War II, they finished their Ph.D.s at Harvard, and four years later Floyd was hired in 1954 after the UA Department of Entomology was officially formed. Floyd is the person initially responsible for building up this collection to what it is today, and it continues to grow. Nearly every drawer in this collection probably has some specimens that Floyd collected. Besides being a great entomologist and evolutionary biologist, he was a great naturalist. Bill was hired a year after Floyd, and he came out here to work on the Khapra beetle problem in the 1950s. Later he developed a program on termite research, and we became one of the main places for that research. In fact, we have Bill's entire termite collection here and Floyd’s beetle research collection and archive.
You study beetles known as feather wings. Would you talk a little about that?
Featherwing beetles belong to the family Ptiliidae and are understudied because of their extremely small size. I study their evolutionary history and am currently writing a chapter on them for a reference book on Australian beetles. There are various groups of featherwing beetles worldwide. One group is associated with ants and is blind and flightless. It lives in the ant colony and walks around with the ants, or sometimes rides around on the ants. They feed by scraping off whatever they can from the integument of the ants, but they're not killing them. Featherwing beetles range from .5 millimeter to a millimeter in body length. In fact, one new species I described is the smallest, free-living, nonparasitic insect known to science, but there's a limit to how small they can get. In 1984, while conducting research in the UA Insect Collection, I opened a drawer of featherwing beetles, but couldn't see the specimens. So, I put them under a microscope and thought, 'Wow, they're beautiful, but they're so small.' I've been studying them now for 32 years.
The UA Insect Collection is located on the fourth floor of the Forbes Building and is open to the public Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Those interested in visiting are asked to call ahead to 520-621-6446.