Insects are by far the most diverse group of animals on the planet, with over a million estimated known species and several million more that have yet to be named. A study 2018 estimates that there could be up to 14 million species of insects in total.
An exhibition at Paleontological research institution‘s (PRI) Earth Museum at Ithaca – created in collaboration with Cornell entomologists and featuring around 1,000 world-renowned specimens Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC) – offers a fascinating education on the diversity of insects and their importance to life on Earth.
A visit to the exhibit, “Six-Legged Science: Unlocking the Secrets of the Insect World,” which opened on March 28 and will run through the end of the year, offers visitors a small slice of the CUIC research collection of 7 million specimens and 200,000 species.
The screens offer examples of biomimicry, an evolutionary trick to disguise the true identity of an insect, including flies, beetles and moths which, to the untrained eye, seem indistinguishable from bees, or butterflies that look exactly like leaves, or beetles that look like droppings.
There are giant insects such as the white moth, with a wingspan of up to 12 inches, and the Goliath beetle, which is over 4 inches long.
A panel reveals a wide range of moths and butterflies in New York State, which has 3,000 confirmed species, though there are probably another 1,000 yet to be identified.
“I think [some] people tend to think of the five most commonly encountered insects and think that’s everything, and that’s so far from the truth,” said Corrie Moreau, Director of CUIC and Martha N. and John C. Moser Professor of Arthropod Biosystematics and Biodiversity. Moreau designed the exhibit with Jason Dombroskie, director of CUIC and coordinator of the insect diagnostics laboratory, and Helaina Blume, director of exhibits at PRI.
Despite all this diversity, insects are declining at an astonishing rate, with entomologists warning of an insect apocalypse.
As one panel noted, some entomologists have estimated that we lose around 10-20% of all insects every decade, due to habitat loss, pesticides, invasive species, urbanization, pollution and climate change. “The insect decline is due to one death by a thousand cuts,” Moreau said.
The exhibit highlights the importance of insects to people and life on earth, both positively and negatively. While some insects spread disease and damage crops and infrastructure, others provide invaluable ecological and agricultural services, including pollination and food sources for animals (and humans in many parts of the world).
“I would like this exhibit to reduce the number of people who walk past an insect and say, ‘It’s just an insect,'” Dombroskie said. “I wish they could attach a story to this, to see how important this insect is.”
On the go, the exhibit features ways individuals can help, including learning about insects; cut back their lawns, which provide poor habitat; use more native plants when landscaping; limit the use of pesticides; turn off unnecessary outdoor lights that harm nocturnal insects; and the fight against climate change. “We hope visitors leave knowing there is something they can do in their own backyards to help the dying insects,” Blume said.
The wide range of panels and exhibits include: the history of evolution; fossils; descriptions of CUIC, its importance to research, and information about the insect diagnostic laboratory where the specimens are identified; an overview of insect research; anatomy and life cycles; a section on the relationship between insects and society; and insects and climate change.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, other features include 14 interactive videos and terrariums of live ants, cockroaches and beetles. The exhibition is also visible in line.