Why NC State has more than one million bugs on file

North Carolina State University's bug museum houses 1.5 million specimens, attracting researchers from around the world.

A Treasure Trove of Bug Specimens

RALEIGH, N.C. —If you have a real fear of bugs or if insects make you uncomfortable, this particular room in Gardner Hall at N.C. State is not for you. Located at the top floor of the building, the standard classroom looks secure, even rather sterile. Rows and rows of huge eight-foot-tall, steel grey cabinets take up almost all of the space. There are panels of windows and a basic tile floor. But twist the handle to open one of the cabinets holding several wooden trays of specimens, and that fear of insects will kick right in.

“These are from a family of bugs known as frog hoppers,” explains Bob Blinn, a Ph.D. and Collections Manager of the North Carolina State University Insect Museum. “They are related to leaf hoppers and cicadas and as you can see from the label, these are tropical because they are from Columbia.”

The cabinets are airtight and designed for museums to be able to store specimens. Inside the cabinets are dozens of large wooden trays with glass covers. And inside the trays are shallow cardboard boxes with foam bottoms. Pins stick out of the foam, mounting each bug to its display—of which there are rows and rows within each box. The pins also carry a small strip of paper, identifying where and when the insect was collected.

“It’s a storehouse of biodiversity," says Blinn, opening another cabinet door and showing more drawers of specimens. “This is the only place in North Carolina where we have a record of the insect biodiversity in the state. There are 1.2 million specimens in the museum collection." 

Because every specimen bears a label that tells you where and when it was collected, you can figure out the geographic and seasonal distribution of that species of insect.

More than a collection—this museum is a research facility

You might not think insect distribution is important. After all, it seems that insects are everywhere—especially in the summertime. But the reality is that not all insects are everywhere. There is definitely a distribution of insects and that’s important for researchers to know about because it says a lot about the health of that insect population and the world it inhabits. While the word “museum” is in the official title of the collection, this is not a museum in the usual sense of the word. It’s a research facility.

Scientists come from all over the nation and the world to study the collection. In fact, the museum is similar to a library. Most of the books sit on the shelf in a library until someone needs the book. In the same way, the cabinet doors are closed most of the time until a researcher needs to see a specimen. And there are insects of every shape, size and color imaginable.

Look through dozens of drawers and you are left in awe of Mother Nature’s handiwork.

“We function as a kind of storage facility for insects that are collected in North Carolina and across the world,” says Bonnie Blaimer, Ph.D., and the museum director. Her special area of study focuses on ants. “It’s important to have these kinds of historical collections that have been amassed over the years; to keep track of distribution records, to keep track of where a particular species might occur." 

That helps us to understand the effects of climate change, or ecosystem change, or anything else that might be happening in that area.

Bugs Tell the Story of an Ecosystem

Bugs are a great indicator of what is happening in an ecosystem. And because bugs often form the base of the food chain, insects can be an indicator of the future health of an area. Blaimer cites a temperature increase of two degrees as an example. That may not seem like much to a larger animal but to a little insect that might make a big difference. It would change the distribution pattern of the insect over time.

The museum receives its bugs from individuals who donate their private collections. The more bugs there are in the museum, the better the collection and more complete research that can be conducted.

“If you would look at these insects under a microscope and measure them, you would see these are not all exactly the same,” explains Blinn. He’s showing me trays of bees. It’s clear some are larger and smaller, but they all look pretty much the same. “You have to really look closely, but even within a particular species, there is variation,” Blinn adds, which is why it is important to have a large collection of the same insect.

“So by getting many specimens, you can start to see the variation within a species, including the pattern, the color and the size. They are not all exactly alike.” He pulls a pin with a bee on it. The label says “WT, 1882.”

“Can you guess?" Blinn asks, with a huge smile on his face. “It’s our oldest specimen, a bee from Washington Territory, collected in 1882. There were bug collectors back then and Washington wasn’t even a state at that time!”

 

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