The Wisconsin Insect Research Collection

For August 8, 2018    

Hi WN@TL Fans,

In Fall 1977 I took Professor Harold Willis’s course in entomology at UW-Platteville.  It was a lecture/lab class, but Dr. Willis also required each of us to gather, pin, label and identify a collection of insects.  So off to the fields and ravines and rivers of Grant County my fellow etymologists trundled with a cloth net, a fine net, a notebook, and a kill jar, in search of the wiley neologism—because to us the family name of nearly every critter was a new word.  And under the stereoscope, some critters were a new world.

We also trekked into the conventions of entomologists:  how to pin your beetle or butterfly through its thorax (offset to the right, thank you, for the beetles), how to glue the gossamers such as gnats or mosquitoes to a triangular point of paper through which the pin was then inserted, how to write in tiny pica the underlying labels with date & location & collector.

After the killing frost (late September, if I remember; it was earlier back then…) the collecting became slim pickings, but the thick work of keying out the critters cranked up.  Ah, the intricacies of the antennae, of the mandibles, of the legs, of the veins of the wings.

Long about the first week of December we offered up our boxes of pinned or bottled specimens (larvae got the ethanol treatment), arrayed by family, to Professor Willis. He had the nimble fingers of a pianist, and displayed virtuoso skills in scanning & systematically correcting our taxonomic errors, delicately extracting a pinned specimen from here and skewering it over there, where it belonged.

I don’t remember what happened to my collection.  Maybe it’s lingering up in my attic,  maybe it’s languishing down in the basement—more likely it’s biding time deep in the landfill outside Dixon.  But I do remember that Professor Willis would ask if he could have certain corpus delicti to add to the departmental collection.  The impressive thing about following the conventions— the rules that people come together to agree upon—is that even our rookie contributions could fit right in with those of the pros.

This week (August 8) our speaker is Dan Young of Entomology. He’ll be describing for us the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection  which over the course of its nearly 170 years has grown to just shy of 3,000,000 specimens collected, cataloged & curated.   He’ll tune us in to how the work of the WIRC speeds entomology research at UW-Madison and raises our understanding of insects across Wisconsin and around the world.

Because Russell Labs, the main location of the WIRC, is undergoing a major renovation, Dan is unable to offer us tour in the gloaming after his talk.  But when the upgrades are done in a few months, you can check back with him to see about arranging a tour.

The insects await, courtesy of collectors & curators reaching back through the years.

About the Speaker

Dan Young is a professor of entomology at UW-Madison.

“My personal research is directed toward the systematics, taxonomy, phylogeny, biodiversity, and natural history of insects, with a focus primarily on Coleoptera.  I focus primarily on the beetle families Pyrochroidae (world level; larvae and adults) and Ischaliidae (world level).  I have also contributed significantly on the taxonomy of the anthicid genus Lemodes, having described 14 new species from New Guinea and biogeographically related Pacific island archipelagos.

“In 1997, I was invited to deliver a symposium paper entitled: “Wisconsin’s Species Diversity: The State of Scientific Knowledge.”  In doing so, I entered into a new direction for personal research and undergraduate-graduate training.  Although it might seem rather odd for an upper Midwestern state, most of Wisconsin’s terrestrial insect fauna is very poorly known compared to those of neighboring states and the region.  The absence of a Wisconsin insect inventory has contributed to a critical lack of consideration of insects from biodiversity or conservation biology standpoints and the equally perilous scenario of habitat management recommendations being imposed in these arenas based upon but a few insect species.  My presentation identified three research priorities: 1) basic taxonomically and habitat/site based sampling and inventory work, 2), training the future generation of taxonomic experts that will be increasingly called upon to form research partnerships with ecologists and conservation biologists, and 3) supporting the state’s natural history collections as the repositories of our natural heritage, to insure their necessary growth, and to support data management that is inherently a part of their use.

“As a nominal 5% of my research appointment, for the past 20 years, I have served as Director of the UW Insect Research Collection (WIRC), overseeing activities of the Academic Curator, student hourly employees, and volunteers, setting and administering WIRC policies and long range plans, developing and approving budget expenditures, and preparing proposals for outside funding.  I also serve as Chair of the UW Natural History Museums Council and oversee the distribution of the “Block Grants” program that helps serve the collections across the UW-Madison campus.”

Next week (August 15) slather on some DEET for the second in our back-to-back series on Wisconsinsects.  PJ Liesch of Entomology & Cooperative Extension and director of the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab will be here for a high-summer update on how the insects of Wisconsin, denizens and interlopers alike, are faring in this mild and verdant year.
Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!
Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Cooperative Extension