Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC)
For a fee of $25, anyone can send Jason J. Dombroskie, manager of the Insect Diagnostic Lab (IDL), an insect sample and the staff will identify it and tell the client how to deal with the insect. “In many cases it isn’t dealing with the insect but with what is causing the insect problem,” says Dombroskie.
The IDL receives an average of 500-600 samples per year. The bulk of samples come from growers, producers, and the general public. Large organic producers send customer complaints to the lab, as well as lawyers involved in lawsuits. The lab also has a contract with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, helping to monitor invasive species across the state.
The lab has microscopes, fine forceps, microscissors, insect pins, and other instruments used for the delicate art of dissection. Tiny moths look so similar that dissecting the genitalia is the only way to identify the species. This is done by removing the abdomen and boiling it in potassium hydroxide. Once boiled, it is stained and viewed under a microscope.
Dombroskie invites high-end amateurs to come to the IDL and learn dissection techniques. One amateur from Pennsylvania came to the lab in 2014 to improve his skills and is now one of the North American experts.
Acquired in the fall of 2015, the Macropod Imaging System gives the collection a new way to present its holdings to the public. The system acts like a microscope, but it has a camera instead of a magnification lens. The lens points down at the specimen. Photographs of three-dimensional specimens are taken using auto-stacking, a technique in which pictures are snapped at intervals as the lens inches closer to the specimen. Once completed, the computer stacks and combines them to create a detailed photograph with a greater depth of field.
One undergraduate who works in the CUIC will be graduating in May 2016 with five publications. He used the Macropod Imaging System to illustrate specimens in all of his papers. The imaging system is also used to take photographs of slide collections. This allows researchers around the world to view the CUIC and collaborate with the university.
Small insects and other arthropods or their individual parts are preserved on glass slides in Canada balsam, a turpentine resin. The CUIC has one of the largest slide collections in the United States. Its strongholds are in mites, aphids, and moth genitalia. The room houses the collection of former Cornell professor John G. Franclemont, with over 400,000 moths (Lepidoptera), including pinned adults, genitalia slides, preserved larvae, and larval photographs. Students digitally scanned the last group and made them available to the public on the CUIC website. A recent grant made it possible for the aphid collection to be curated, including assigning each slide a bar code.
CUIC’s type room is priceless to Entomologists. The temperature is slightly cooler than other rooms in the facility and smells strongly of naphthalene. It houses nearly 8,000 holotypes (the single physical specimen used in describing a new species) and paratypes (each specimen of a type series other than the holotype). These invaluable preserved species are documented in cards, books, and digitally in an online database. Researchers from around the globe visit the type collection at Cornell.
The main insect collection has 16,500 drawers held in a stable, climate-controlled room on compactor system shelves. Globally, Entomologists know of a million species of insects, and the CUIC houses one-fifth of them. The collection includes species from almost every country, except a few holes in the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. The collection best represents New York State, the United States, Canada, Central and South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Nile, South Pacific, Eastern Asia, and Western Europe. Hard-bodied insects are pinned, while spiders and other soft-bodied specimens are preserved in individual vials stoppered in cotton and then placed in a larger jar filled with ethanol.
Student curators add a header to each tray with the species name and author of the species. The header is color- coded to show where specimens originated. Insects from North America are red while those from South America are yellow. South East Asia is represented in green and Sub-Saharan Africa in brown.
The collections’ strongholds are treehoppers, moths, certain fly families, such as horseflies, snail-killing flies, ground beetles, and bees. About one-third of the collection are beetles, with species ranging from the Goliath beetle of South East Asia to the minute feather-winged beetle that can be smaller than the biggest bacteria.
The butterfly collection is so large that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently used the collection to build study aides in order to monitor the smuggling of illegal butterflies into the country.
Every new specimen or donation to the insect collection is kept in a minus 20 degree-Fahrenheit freezer for three days to ensure that everything is completely clean. The walk-in freezer is a new addition to the collection and helps process new specimens faster. It also allows diminished use of chemical fumigants, enhancing air quality in the collection.
Because the freezer is kept at such a cold temperature, it is dangerous to bring drawers in and out of the room. Students and staff using the room must always be accompanied by another person and are required to wear special freezer gloves.
The entomology library recently moved, making it possible for the CUIC to expand its collection to a new space. Unlike the main collection, this room is fumigant-free, and extra care is taken to keep it clean as well as rodent and insect free. The space houses the collection’s ants, bees, and wasps. Three cabinets contain several tropical wasp nests. The large collection of bees dates back to the 1870s.
This room is also used for outreach. Every October, Insectapalooza—an interactive hands-on experience that features hundreds of insects, spiders, and other fascinating arthropods—is held here.
Student employees at the CUIC are instrumental in collection maintenance, curation, and databasing. A big strength of the collection is desk-space. On any given day in the semester, several students could be working on the collection. Erin Krichilsky `17 is curating the collection of spider wasps while Brandon Woo `19 is organizing the grasshopper and cricket collection. Their work includes reviewing the specimens, updating their taxonomy, identifying materials, and creating headers for each drawer. Speaking about the students, Dombroskie says, “The students have been really important here. Basically, I give them a mess, and they clean it up. Without them, we wouldn’t be nearly as organized as we are.”
The Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC) is a world-class research, education, and training collection, serving the university, New York State, and the global community. The collection, housed in Comstock Hall, includes more than seven million insect specimens, representing about 200,000 species—20 percent of the world’s described insect fauna. It is constantly growing at an average rate of 6.9 percent each year.
An integral part of the CUIC is the Insect Diagnostic Lab (IDL), which specializes in identifying insects and related arthropods. The Insect Diagnostic Lab helps farmers, pest control companies, and the general public by identifying insects and providing management suggestions.
"The Cornell University Insect Collection has the most diverse mission of any university insect collection I know of. Our 145-year history, with many expeditions, means we have an abundance of study specimens from around the world,” says James K. Liebherr, Entomology, and curator of the CUIC. “Our strong student population, both graduate and undergraduate, ensures that our collection is curated to the highest level of quality. Our Insect Diagnostic Lab, a program of the Cooperative Extension Service, informs and educates the people of New York State about insects they encounter. We are truly the most comprehensive insect collection at a land-grant university.”