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Insects for all: Daniel Young presides over a prodigious collection of bugs that will soon be available online

Life’s astounding diversity is rarely more apparent than on a warm summer night when the porch light glows and we are ensconced behind a protective mesh of screen, reading or dozing after dinner.

It is then that the din begins to rise in the gathering dusk.

From out there, beyond our domestic ramparts, the buzzing, fluttering horde is gathering. Soon the screen will billow and dance beneath their numbers—emissaries from a class that is as profligate and strange as any ever created by even the best of our science fiction masters.

wood-boring beetles
Metallic wood-boring beetles (Euchroma gigantea)

June beetles. Katydids. Moths and crickets. Beetles. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Mayflies. Lacewings. The constant tick and ping of their assault on the screen is a reminder that we humans are but bit players in a world that really belongs to them—the insects.

Behind our screens we fight a nervous and mostly futile holding action.

Most of us have little idea what we’re really up against when we array our meager weapons against the insects—our sprays and our treated jackets and head nets and our zappers and swatters.

But there is a place on the UW–Madison CALS campus that might give you a pretty good idea of why we are largely at the mercy of this winged, barbed, needle-nosed, multilegged, goggle-eyed empire.

Welcome to the University of Wisconsin Insect Research Collection, one of those wonderful hidden gems of curated knowledge. Open the door and you drop down Alice’s rabbit hole into a world of carefully preserved dung beetles, walking sticks and enough mounted lice to give even the most stoic grade-school mom nightmares.

Stashed in a warren of rooms on the third floor of Russell Labs—and in an annex on the third floor of the Stock Pavilion—are more than 3 million curated insect specimens, along with 5 million more unsorted bulk samplespreserved in jars and tiny vials of ethyl alcohol.

You will find hundreds of thousands of every kind of insect you can imagine, meticulously arrayed in glass-topped wooden drawers in rank upon rank of cabinets. Here are specimens from around the world collected over the last 170 years by a cast of brilliant characters ranging from an entomologist who was known internationally for studying and espousing insects as food to a curious young naturalist who tragically died in a car crash at age 33 and left behind as pets two parrots, a boa constrictor, and two large spiders.

In Russell Labs, the collection is approached down a hallway guarded by glass cases of mounted moths, butterflies and one giant walking stick large enough to hang laundry from. Inside are walls and aisles lined by so many cabinets and drawers that they challenge the extravagance of Kim Kardashian’s walk-in clothes closet. But here, instead of the scent of perfume, you will be greeted by the distinctive but not altogether unpleasant lingering odor of naphthalene, once used to keep live bugs from eating the mounted dead bugs.

Daniel Young
Out of the drawers, into the cloud: Entomologist Daniel Young is directing an effort to put the University of Wisconsin Insect Research Collection online.

You will also likely be met by entomology professor Daniel Young, the collection’s enthusiastic director. Chances are he will be wearing a T-shirt that depicts an insect of some sort. At our first meeting, he sports a shirt fromthe 2006 meeting of the Entomological Society of America. Once you get to know him, his wardrobe seems the least unusual thing about him. In fact, Young, like just about everyone who has anything at all to do with this remarkable collection of insects, seems as pleasingly eccentric as any of the myriad species in the giant insect mausoleum he tends. On one visit, Craig Brabant, one of Young’s graduate students, is busy in the lab and hardly looks up at an inquiry about his professor’s whereabouts.

“Oh, he’s back there with his beetles somewhere,” Brabant said with the nonchalance of a dedicated and somewhat distracted bug person.

When Brabant refers to “Young’s beetles,’’ you have to understand what this truly means. Young has traveled the world in search of beetles—specimens of the order Coleoptera. This has been his passion since boyhood, when he fished for trout with his father in Michigan and paid close attention to the flies the fish slurped from the surface of such rivers as the Au Sable and the Pere Marquette.

Young’s course as a prolific collector of beetles was set when he was an undergraduate at Michigan State University and a fellow student who collected beetles suddenly became more enamored with bees that pollinate cucumbers. He turned his beetle collection over to Young—and ever since, Young has never met a beetle he didn’t want to name and classify.

Just how big a task does Young face in his chosen field of study? There are more than 300,000 species of beetles, he says, compared with 4,000 species of mammals. In his book The Variety of Life, Colin Tudge writes that about a fifth of all known animals are beetles. Yet Young keeps tilting at his own private windmill. For more than 40 years he has collected more than 200,000 specimens—and that collection now resides in the cabinets in Russell Labs.

Continue reading this story in the Spring 2015 issue of Grow magazine.