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Utah State University welcomes 1.2 million bugs

Published June 19, 2014 9:46 am

Researchers hope the arriving collection will lead to new forms of pest control.
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More than a million insects are headed for Utah and they might bring the future of non-chemical pest control with them.

The American Entomological Institute, now located in Florida, will join Utah State University's biology department in the spring of 2016.

Scientists are looking for "natural controls on crop pests and among those natural controls are these insects," said department head Alan Savitzky. "It's a very important area of research and [an] important prospect for reducing reliance on artificial and chemical means."

Certain wasps in the collection "regulate all the herbivorous insects," said researcher David Wahl, who began working with the insects in the late 1970s. "If it wasn't for these parasitic wasps there wouldn't be a touch of green out there. They're important for understanding ecosystems."

The wasps use their stingers to temporarily paralyze and lay eggs in a host, usually caterpillars, and the developing larvae eat the host from the inside out. The gruesome process helps keep common garden pests, such as caterpillars, spiders and beetles, under control.

Institute founders Henry and Marjorie Townes began collecting the 1.2 million specimens in 1934. The couple traveled to all the continents except Antarctica and Australia to gather insects, and the institute has also received donated samples from around the world.

The collection moved with the Towneses, and was sometimes affiliated with universities or companies. The nonprofit institute that owns the insects has been storing them in a small building in Gainesville, Fla., since 1985. The institute had been looking for a new home for a while before signing a contract with USU.

"As an independent, free-standing nonprofit organization, it was simply difficult to maintain their level of activities and operations without the benefit of a larger institution," Savitzky said.

The collection will be accompanied by a $1.8 million endowment fund and Wahl, its current curator. The endowment will fund Wahl's position at Utah State until he retires and will support the costs of caring for the collection.

The preserved insects are also crucial for understanding current biodiversity and the history of the earth, the original goals of the institute, Wahl said.

"It's a good thing to know the history of life on earth," Wahl said. "In a way, an analogy would be keeping the Library of Congress."

Savitzky agrees. "We are used to thinking of specimens and collections tucked away in cold storage and moth-balled, if you will," he said. "But in fact they are like libraries. They are the raw materials for studies of biodiversity."

He said the way the bugs are preserved, either dried or with alcohol, allows scientists to extract DNA and use the genetic code to study evolutionary patterns.

Many of the insects still haven't been classified and some of them could now be extinct species.

"Many of them represent populations or regions of the world where habitat has changed and where perhaps those specimens can no longer be acquired, perhaps where these specimens no longer exist," Savitzky said.

One of the reasons so many insects are still unnamed is because "species are being lost at a faster rate than they are being described by scientists," he said.

James Pitts, curator of USU's insect collection, said most people don't realize how many varieties exist. There are approximately 900 species of bees in Cache Valley and more than 150,000 species of hymenoptera described worldwide, with thousands of others still undiscovered, Pitts said.






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