Preserving Vast Insect Collection

Invaluable in identifying threats to agriculture, human health and biodiversity.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Several years ago, when a mysterious insect began destroying native Michigan ash trees, state officials desperately needed to identify it, so they could try to stop it. They turned to a very special place for help. 

The A.J. Cook Arthropod Research Collection at Michigan State University, created in 1867, houses nearly 1.5 million insect specimens mounted on pins, slides or stored in alcohol, as well as a live “bug room” containing tarantulas, scorpions and giant walking sticks—a relative of the praying mantis—targeted to elementary and high school students. 

These specimens are used for research, education, extension services and outreach, and, in the case of the emerald ash borer, they were used to zero in on a serious threat to the state’s agriculture, which is a major component of the Michigan economy. 

“Our collection is like a library,” said Anthony Cognato, associate professor of entomology and director of the collection. “Each insect specimen is like a book. It contains information about the insect’s identity, where it’s found, what it eats and what time of year it is active.”

Thus, it was the logical place for state officials to go when the ash trees began dying.  Experts from the collection, in consultation with other entomologists overseas,  quickly helped establish that the pest was the emerald ash borer, a beetle mistakenly ‘imported’ into the Detroit area from Asia late last century, probably within wooden packing crates, and which has since spread through the Midwest and Northeast. 

“The beetle killed millions of native Ash trees and was starting to drastically change the urban and natural landscape of Michigan,” Cognato said.

Insects are economically vital organisms that affect the human food supply, both as consumers of our food, and as pollinators of crops.  The information contained in the Cook insect library has proved invaluable in identifying specific agents that could threaten agriculture, human health and biodiversity, and has become an important repository for students, scientists, agriculturists and medical diagnosticians.  Its resources will soon be available to the public through an electronic database, which already contains information on 35,000 species.

Moreover, the collection contains specimens discovered in former natural settings that have since become urban centers. These items thus provide a lens into a time and place that existed before developers turned these areas into cities.  “We can go to these specimens and understand what the habitat was like back in the 1800s,” Cognato said.  “They represent a piece of American history.’’

In recent years, however, the facilities that store the collection have deteriorated, putting the specimens themselves in danger. Cabinets did not close properly. Drawer joints were loose.  To make matters worse, the specimens themselves were becoming food for other insects, namely carpet beetles.

“Carpet beetles will eat dried animal product, including other insects,” Cognato said. “They lay their eggs in the loose drawer joints, then the larvae squirm inside and bore into the specimens. They start breeding, and if you don’t check up on them, you’ll open it up the drawer and see piles of dust—the carpet beetles will have eaten them all. So it was important to buy better storage to protect them.”

The National Science Foundation provided $187,632 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to strengthen the insect library’s infrastructure. The goal is to preserve the reference collection, thus providing continued employment and training for graduate and undergraduate students, and  “keeping the United States competitive in the control and use of these organisms for the benefit and security of humans worldwide,” Cognato said.

The grant allowed for the purchase of new steel cabinets and wooden glass-topped drawers, as well as foam-lined cardboard trays to store the pinned insects.  “All of this equipment was purchased from American companies that specialize in entomological equipment,” Cognato said. “We put $137,000 back into the economy by dealing with these companies.”