Newfoundland’s amazing insectarium

I wrote recently about my June vacation up north. Here’s another entomological experience from that trip: The Newfoundland Insectarium and Butterfly Garden.

I promised myself and my family I would detach from work during this vacation—no email, no talk about manuscripts, keep collecting to a minimum, etc. I pretty much kept that promise, too … until I saw the word “insectarium” on the map while looking at my phone in Deer Lake, NL. I’d never heard of the Newfoundland Insectarium and Butterfly Garden. How had this establishment escaped my attention until now?!

exterior of the building, an old dairy barn, of the Newfoundland Insectarium; the sky is filled with rain clouds

Newfoundland Insectarium and Butterfly Garden. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

We closed the public portion of the Frost Entomological Museum a few years ago so that we could focus on renovating both the collection and research space and also so that we could build an entirely new set of exhibits. I initially (naively) thought it would take about a year before we could reopen. Alas … Although I feel a bit guilty about staying closed for so long, this hiatus has given me myriad opportunities to see what other, similar museums get right and what I think they could do better. It’s also given us time to learn about effective exhibit design and to think about what is realistic given our tiny budget. I have scads of photos from the Smithsonian, the National Zoo, the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Pasto Agricultural Museum, and even the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. I thought I knew every relevant museum and zoo in the world.

To put it succinctly, this museum is so very much worth a visit. It’s incredible. The Insectarium occupies an old dairy barn, and the size of the exhibit space is HUGE, especially given the diminutive size of its focus – insects:

large room with a loft and many glass cases of insects

The great room of insect exhibits. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

dead branch with pinned morpho butterflies on it in various poses. There is also a stuffed, taxidermied owl. The underside of the wing of this butterfly mimics an owl's face, which spooks predators

Diorama on Morpho butterflies and how they look like owls. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

Terrarium with Rubus plant and insects that have same shape as stick insects, but they are grasshoppers (Orthoptera) not Phasmatodea

Terrarium with live jumping sticks (Proscopiidae), a first for me! Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

boxes that once held crickets used for fighting; there are also some food and water dishes and a thin stick called a

Cricket culture objects from Asia. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

I was overwhelmed by the shear number of things to look at, and I spent most of my time taking pictures and not really admiring or studying the objects. A majority of the exhibits featured insect biology or the insects themselves, which probably is to be expected. A good lesson for me, though, was how much the cultural objects impacted me and made the visit so much more interesting. Cricket culture, bee keeping, and even the jewelry and other objects made from insect parts. I was overwhelmed in the best possible way.

5 necklaces made from beetle parts, especially the heads and elytra, from Peru

Necklaces made from beetle sclerites. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

If I dared wish for more it would be that the specimens and objects were accompanied by a bit more information and context. See, for example, these ladybird beetles of Newfoundland:

12 pinned ladybugs, arranged in 3 by 4 grid without any labels

Ladybird beetles of Newfoundland. Which one is which? How do they live? Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans

And small number of individual exhibits were outdated, like this one on insect evolution:

a small collection of fossils and extant

Exhibit on insect evolution that has some outdated or even incorrect information in it. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

These are very minor quibbles, though. The founders and their team clearly put a lot of time and effort into this museum and the accompanying butterfly garden. I’d argue it’s the largest and best-curated set of insect exhibits I’ve ever seen. Hopefully the Frost Museum will be even a tenth as interesting we when we open again!

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2019 sort session #22 – new moths for the collection

Six years ago I created an account on iNaturalist, a fairly sophisticated app at the time but without much content of interest – at least for me. I submitted a handful of observations and then got distracted by other responsibilities.

I re-engaged the application this spring, in the hopes that I could get good data regarding gall phenology and localities. We need galls for our newly-funded NSF project, in part because we are growing our phylogeny data set for Cynipidae but also because we need fresh (i.e., living) material for transcriptomes and histology. iNaturalist is now a lot more sophisticated and includes thousands of observations that are relevant to my interests. Wow! What a difference a few years makes. Check out this search for spiders or this one for Cynipidae. And it’s not just the content that impresses me, it’s the communities, the projects, and the ability of the system to suggest an ID (often scarily accurate!) based on what occurs locally and how your photo compares to others. I’m hooked now and try to add observations daily.

My new routine is to leave my porch lights on and document what’s there in the morning. I’m hoping that this small-scale effort can serve as yet one more way of monitoring the dramatic insect declines I wrote about yesterday. Check out this beautiful Io moth I saw today and submitted to iNaturalist (observation 28210007):

large moth on a piece of decking. its hind wings are exposed revealing two false eyes it uses to spook predators

Female Io moth, Automeris io (Fabricius, 1775) (Saturniidae). Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

I’ve also been collecting exemplar specimens for the Frost and practicing my Lepidoptera preparations. Man, am I out of practice. I prepared something like 20 medium-sized moths during  this sort session, and it took me FOREVER. They look pretty darn good, though, I must say, and I found the process of pinning and spreading to be meditative … cathartic, even. I managed to add a new family to the collection—Depressariidae—with this bird turd-looking moth, unless we have some already in there under Gelechiidae. I’m also learning my Geometridae, which seems to be the dominant moth family at my house! Here’s a dark-banded geometer, which I failed to collect:

A moth that's about the size of US quarter, standing under a porch light on ugly vinyl siding.

Dark-banded Geometer, Ecliptopera atricolorata (Grote & Robinson, 1867) (Geometridae). Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

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My experience with the windshield phenomenon

I’m back to work now, after an epic northern adventure that included caribou, arctic hares, moose, flat tires, recurring Pennsylvanians (shout out to my new friends from Reading!), black flies, mosquitoes, and, surprisingly, a remarkably intact Carboniferous swamp. I even got to see the fossils that mark the end of the Cambrian and beginning of the Ordovician and one of the few places where the Earth’s mantle is exposed. I’m still euphoric over these experiences and intend to share some of the entomologia here on our blog. Up first: My experience with the windshield phenomenon.

Our journey resulted in >6,000 km of driving, which equates to about 60 hours behind the wheel. That’s a lot of thinking time. My mind wandered extensively, often dwelling on a graduate seminar I’ve been co-developing on insect declines for spring 2020. You’ve probably read about this disturbing trend in the New York Times, Washington Post, or in any of the myriad research articles published recently on the topic. (This one by Forister et al. (2019) came out while I was gone, and they cite an upcoming review by Wagner (2020) that I am anxious to read.)

Related to this emerging and quite urgent problem is the “windshield phenomenon”, whereby people recall how car windshields used to be coated in the guts and sclerites of pterygotes struck accidentally during their journey. I remember picking whole butterflies, wasps, dragonflies, and hundreds of bibionids and other flies off the grill of my friend’s truck in the early 1980s, including one intact but dead darner that was wrapped around the antenna. (See also Berenbaum 2002.) I do not recall finding similar treasures on my own vehicles in the last 10–20 years. Maybe I stopped looking? Maybe cars have become more aerodynamically streamlined and less prone to insect strikes? Maybe people drive faster now on these roads and the air displacement pushed insects out of the way (see McKenna et al. 2001)? Or maybe it’s a symptom of this large-scale decline in insect diversity and biomass?

The windshield phenomenon has come up many times in conversations with colleagues. “Used to be so bad you’d have to pull over every hour and clean the windshield!” “Seems like it all stopped when <some hypothesis involving insecticides, herbicides, global warming, etc.>” The reality is that we don’t have any hard data about windshield strikes through time, at least that I’m aware of, so on this trip I started paying closer attention to my Subaru’s growing collection of dead insects. Sadly, I didn’t photograph the results until two days before I arrived home, but here’s my anecdotal report … an n of one.

Windshield with a few spattered remains of insects. The vehicle is driving down a Canadian highway in New Brunswick

My windshield. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

Grill of a 2010 Subaru Forester, with many dead insects stuck to it but not an unusual amount probably

My grill. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

the front bumper of a car, covered in a diverse array of splattered and dried insects

My bumper. Photo (CC BY 2.0). Click for source

I don’t have any scientifically rigorous conclusions from these casual observations, but I can say that my windshield had to be cleaned repeatedly every day. The photos above do not do it justice. I hit a lot of insects. My bumper and grill had quite a diversity of pterygotes—mostly flies but also at least two dragonflies and a few butterflies. The photos above are probably from two hours of highway driving, post heavy rain storm (which removed the previous layer of insect carcasses almost completely).

I don’t usually find solace in needless carnage, but these casual observations gave me hope that we still have time to do something about biodiversity loss. The insects are still out there. I also wonder if it’s time to study this phenomenon more rigorously. I drove very natural-looking regions of North America. What would my windshield look like driving through the corn belt? What about through Pennsylvania? Also, the diversity of carcasses seems high on my car, but is it really? What if I DNA-barcoded all those dead insects? There could be as many as two billion cars on the road by next year. Maybe there’s an opportunity here for citizen scientists to help us understand the windshield phenomenon and insect declines.

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Sort session hiatus

We’re taking a break from our weekly sort sessions, at least for the next three weeks. Our gall project is taking off quickly, and we need to get organized about workflows, for one. We are especially interested in finding this character:

a sprig of weedy mint with ball-shaped galls on some leaves

Glechoma hederacea (creeping charlie) (Lamiaceae), with Liposthenes glechomae (Cynipidae) galls all over it. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

iNaturalist shows some local Glechoma gall wasps. We’d love to get a regular source of these for a project we have going. Let us know if you have some!

I also have an epic field trip coming up, which I hope to document here. It’s a mix of vacation and collecting. We’ll hit the sort sessions hard core in July.

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2019 sort session #21 – gall city

This is gonna sound dumb, but my kids (ages 7 and 9) love to tease me about a magical place called “Kid City”, where children rule the land, every meal is dessert, and no grown-ups are allowed. This week I started referring to my yard, and really State College more generally, as “Gall City”, as I am finding numerous species for our newly-funded cynipid project. In Gall City, cecidologists rule the land, everything is botanically derived, and kids are encouraged to learn about plant-insect interactions. (Sadly, this has been my best counter so far to their taunts.)

This really is the right time of year to go gall hunting. The woolly catkin galls I collected a couple weeks ago are now yielding adults. I’ve also added dozens of galls of at least 6 or 7 other cynipid species to the rearing queue in our newly-christened Gall Room. More on that later, but it’s well past time to grow our tiny collection!

4 glass vials in a row, each about 3 or 4 inches tall and plugged with cotton at the opening. Each vial has fuzzy galls and dozens of tiny wasps walking around inside it

Glass vials with woolly catkin galls inside them. These galls yielded more than 100 individuals of the cynipid species Callirhytis quercusoperator. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

This week’s sort session focused on accessioning unprocessed galls and their causative insects. Many of the wasps above were prepared and accessioned as the first representatives of this species in the Frost Museum collection:

cardboard tray with plastozote bottom, filled with insect specimens and 4 galls

Finished specimens of Callirhytis quercusoperator ready to be accessioned. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

We also added galls collected a long time ago, like these Amphibolips acuminata galls I collected in New Jersey many months ago:

cardboard tray with plastozote bottom, filled with about 6 oak leaves, 3 twigs, and 4 galls that are shaped almost like American footballs

Spindle galls collected in New Jersey. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Andy Deans. Click for source

Stay tuned for so much more on gall wasps! In the meantime I will very much enjoy my new life in Gall City.

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