Bees, grasshoppers, moths, flies. Many of us take what seem to be common insect pests for granted and never stop to think about their role in sustaining our life — or wreaking havoc on the foods we need to survive.
The Academy’s Entomology Collection of more than 4 million specimens — including the world’s largest collection of Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, katydids) — provides a valuable resource to science and society in protecting the nation’s food supply.
Take, for instance, the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), recently added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s list of endangered species. B. affinis and other bumblebee species— there are over 200 — are among the most important pollinators of crops such as blueberries, cranberries and clover, and almost the only insect pollinators of tomatoes.
Bumblebees are more effective pollinators than honey bees for some crops, and the economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the U.S.
Today most of the grasslands and tallgrass prairies of the Upper Midwest and Northeast where the rusty patched bumblebees once lived have been lost, degraded or fragmented by conversion to other uses. In Pennsylvania where the species was once common, it has not been seen and documented since 2006.
In the years leading up to the endangered species designation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture carefully assessed the Academy’s 278 rusty patched bumblebees and accompanying research data to help them assess the decline of the species. The Academy’s specimens date from the mid-19th century to the early 2000s and represent populations from New England to North Carolina and west to the Dakotas, according to Entomology Collection Manager Jason Weintraub.
This is just one example of the value of the collection.
“By using this collection to study insect phylogeny, we are reconstructing the tree of life on Earth,” said Weintraub. “This is important because mapping the evolutionary relationships among the most diverse group of species on our planet provides the foundation biologists need to be able to test scientific hypotheses. Basic research and knowledge translates into researchers’ ability to help others.
“The preserved insects are crucial for the definitive identification of insects that may be of great medical or economic importance to humans, including disease vectors, agricultural pests, and pollinators of food crops,” Weintraub said. “This library of life records the extraordinary diversity of life on Earth and preserves a long-term record of environmental change.”
The Entomology Collection dates back to the Academy’s founding in 1812. Besides serving as a vital resource to the agriculture sector, the collection has made innumerable contributions to other areas including homeland security, public health, monitoring environmental change, and basic scientific research in the fields of evolution, systematics and ecology.
A few weeks ago in the collection on the fourth floor of the Academy, Weintraub carefully swung open the white metal door protecting the climate-controlled set of drawers and zoned in on the type specimen Stereomitra andropogonis. He knew just where to look. He gingerly lifted the tiny silvery-white moth mounted on a microscopic steel pin and transferred it to a small box to be mailed to the USDA Systematic Entomology Lab in Washington, D.C.
A type specimen is a specimen on which the description and name of a new species is based. The federal researchers are borrowing the moth, which doesn’t have a colloquial name, to compare it to other samples and confirm identification of potential agricultural pests.
For more than 200 years Academy scientists have explored the remarkable diversity of the natural world and amassed one of the world’s top natural history collections. Our collections contain more than 18 million specimens and rate among the world’s most significant in terms of geographic, biological and historical depth and breadth.
These collections save governments and taxpayers many millions of dollars each year by effectively guiding government spending, preventing catastrophic events in public health and safety, eliminating redundancy, and securing natural and agricultural resources.
For more information about all of the collections, click here.
By Carolyn Belardo
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In the Academy’s “Spotlight on the Collections” series, we tell stories about specimens chosen by our scientists and also how researchers and others around the world depend on our collections for issues involving climate change, water quality, evolution, and biodiversity and extinction.
To read previous installments in the “Spotlight on the Collections” series, visit: