It would bug you, however College of Manitoba’s insect assortment is vital to understanding the world

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It would bug you, however College of Manitoba’s insect assortment is vital to understanding the world

Some are smaller than a fingernail, others wider than a spread hand. Some catch the light in an iridescent glow, while others have long antennae or furry legs.

Most impressive: There are almost three million of them.

The University of Manitoba houses one of Canada’s largest collections of insects, with the oldest specimen dating back 128 years — just over a decade after the university was first established in western Canada.

The approximate number of specimens normally cited by the U of M is 2.5 million, “but I think that number has been given for years and the collection is growing,” said Jason Gibbs, associate professor in the Department of University entomology.

Entomology is the study of insects and their relationship to humans, the environment and other organisms, and the U of M has the only such department in the country, according to its website, which also claims the collection is the third-largest in the country.

The “wow drawer” displaying a variety of insects from around the world, at the JB Wallis-Roughley Museum of Entomology at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted by Jason Gibbs)

An estimated 500,000 copies are stored in flat drawers under glass and stapled to a foam board. The rest is preserved in alcohol.

Most of the collection is housed in the department’s JB Wallis/RE Roughley Museum, of which Gibbs is curator.

“We have these types of cabinets with individual drawers in them and you have to step on a stool to reach the top ones and they fill two spaces,” he said.

“We are beyond our capacity in many ways because we have received some large donations over the years that are currently in storage. So I guess we don’t know exactly how many copies we have.”

Small bow tie on a pin with a label attached.A hoverfly collected in 1894 is one of the oldest specimens in the Wallis-Roughley Museum of Entomology at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted by Jason Gibbs)

About 200,000 specimens are recorded in the department’s database, but that accounts for only 10-15 percent of the needle collection, while the specimens in alcohol are harder to count.

The oldest specimen Gibbs is aware of is a hoverfly collected in 1894.

“We’re trying to maintain the type of historical record of the insects primarily in Manitoba, but we’re constantly expanding the collection,” he said.

“It’s extensive. It’s a wonderful collection.”

time Machine

Aside from being impressive — with a crawly undercurrent — the collection is critical to understanding our world and climate change, said Jeremy Kerr, chair of the University of Ottawa’s Department of Biology.

“These biodiversity collections are like a time machine. They let us go back in time and understand what the world was like 30 years ago, 50 years ago or 100 years ago,” he said.

“They must have these historical collections. It’s a quiet little corner of the university and museum universe, these collections, but the insights you get from them are just unattainable any other way.”

Portrait of a man.The lessons we learn from how biodiversity responds to climate change and extreme weather events can help us understand how we will sustain ourselves, says Professor Jeremy Kerr. (Submitted by Jeremy Kerr)

Information from the U of M and other institutions like the Canadian Museum of Nature has enabled scientists to uncover ways in which climate change is threatening biodiversity, said Kerr, who also holds the research chair in macroecology and conservation at the U of Ottawa .

“The lessons we learn from how biodiversity responds to these types of extreme weather events can also help us understand how we will sustain ourselves if these types of changes continue,” he said.

Generations ago someone decided to keep insects they found, “and now we have 3,000,000 observations in this single university collection, that’s an amazing thing,” Kerr said.

“But it’s so much more important than just some cool anachronism from some old era of biological exploration. It’s just so much more powerful than that.”

A smiling man holds a pattern drawer with bumblebees.Jason Gibbs holds a drawer with bumblebees in his hand. The U of M Entomology Museum houses over 100,000 bee specimens. (Submitted by Jason Gibbs)

But the collection’s prominence is still a draw that may be a way to get future generations interested in entomology.

Although the Wallis-Roughley Museum at U of M is not a regular museum in the sense that it is not open to visitors, there is a youth advancement committee led by graduate students from the Entomological Society of Manitoba. They bring displays to schools and sometimes bring kids to see the collection, Gibbs said.

One of the things he likes to show off is the “wow drawer” with some spectacular specimens from around the world.

“They’re just really beautiful — big, flashy, metallic bugs and dragonflies and butterflies and things like that that we like to show people to show them how beautiful insects can be,” Gibbs said.

“Another cicada that I often show people is a cicada that was collected in Malaysia. If you take your thumb to the pinky and spread them out somehow, that’s about the wingspan of this thing — maybe an eight-inch wingspan, it’s enormous.”

An average cicada you might see in Manitoba is probably an inch long.

Close up of a bee.The bee Epeolus gibbsi looks a bit like a wasp and has a white grin on its back. (Thomas M Onuferko/ZooKeys)

Gibbs’ interest in insects stems from being a child whose father was a commercial beekeeper. His own specialty is bees, but he is primarily a taxonomist involved in the discovery, description, and classification of all insects.

Gibbs understands that some people have phobias related to insects and has experienced the creepiness himself.

“One time early in my position here I was looking through the collection just to see what we had and I sort of reached for a drawer that was over my head so I couldn’t see what was in it. It was full of tarantulas, so that surprised me a bit. I wasn’t expecting that,” he said.

His best advice, which he admits he has to remember at times: “Most insects are more afraid of you than you are of them.”

Despite insect extinction rates, there are still new ones to be discovered as long as you’re curious and keep your eyes peeled, said Gibbs, who named a bee species after him: the Epeolus gibbsi.

Discovered in 2017 while Gibbs and his wife were in Manitoba’s Spruce Woods Provincial Park, he couldn’t identify it, so he sent it to a colleague. Turns out it was still unknown, so Gibbs got the honor.

“There is a lot of interest in bees…yet someone can walk into a popular provincial park and find something that no one has ever really seen before.” I mean, that’s part of the fun,” he said.

“People probably wouldn’t be happy with the number of insects that find their way into my home freezer over the course of the summer. But fortunately I have a wife who is very accommodating with such things.”