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For the Love of Bugs

May 6, 2015

by Courtney Johnson

If you have visited the Naturalist Center in the Museum, you’ve likely seen a large collection of insects…or maybe you avoided that part of the room? Most people find insects to be less than appealing. For me, there aren’t many things in this world I would rather study. My love of bugs began when I was a little girl, but it wasn’t until I took Forest Entomology at NCSU that I was seized with an intense interest to learn more about them.

Courtney holding recently  emerged Red-Spotted purple butterfly. Photo by Nick Mclamb.

Courtney holding recently emerged Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax).
Photo by Nick Mclamb.

Insects are in the class Insecta. This class is a taxonomic rank below the phylum Arthropoda, which includes everything from crabs, shrimp and lobsters to millipedes, centipedes and spiders. Insects make up the largest class of Arthropods, and potentially account for 90% of the diversity of life on Earth. That is approximately 900,000 different species of insect, and there are more being discovered and classified all the time. Scientists estimate as many as 30 million (30,000,000) species could actually exist!

There are countless benefits insects provide to humans and the environment every day. Many plants have evolved along with insects and rely on them for pollination, including many of the fruits and vegetables we eat. Insects also serve as an important part of the food web, as many animals prey on them, but insects and arthropods are decomposers and detritivores too, which return nutrients into the soil from dead and decaying materials. And where would your honey be without honey bees?

Some people collect insects for science, education or just for a personal hobby. In the Naturalist Center, we have a diverse collection of both insects and other arthropods on display for YOU to come and learn about these wonderful creatures that cover the earth. During my time at the museum, I had the opportunity to help identify and pin beetles that were obtained from the Arthropod Zoo (another great exhibit on the 4th floor of the Nature Exploration Center).

Courtney pinning beetles in the Naturalist Center. Photo by Cindy Lincoln.

Courtney pinning beetles in the Naturalist Center.
Photo by Cindy Lincoln.

Pinning is the primary method for preserving insects. Smaller or more delicate insects or those prone to rotting are better kept in vials or jars of alcohol. When pinning insects, you have to take care not to damage the specimen, especially while trying to get a pin through the hard elytra (hardened forewing) of a beetle. My favorite insects to pin are butterflies and moths. The wings of these insects must be carefully pinned in position to dry, but the results are always worth the extra work.  Want to learn how to pin insects?  We have an Insect Pinning for Beginners class on May 21st.

Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus)  during the pinning process.  Photo by Courtney Johnson.

Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) during the pinning process.
Photo by Courtney Johnson.

Collecting insects is a rewarding practice. It is easier to appreciate the diversity and beauty of each individual insect when they are not on the move. Having them in the Naturalist Center allows the public to see them the way I see them; not dead, but awe-inspiring. Appreciation for these small creatures goes a long way when you no longer see insects as pests, but as an abundant and wonderful part of nature.


Courtney Johnson recently completed her internship in The Naturalist Center. She is a graduate from the Forest Management program at North Carolina State University. She is an amateur insect collector, and is looking for a career related to entomology, conservation or public education and outreach.

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