Humans may be the most advanced life form on the planet, but when it comes to ruling the world through sheer numbers, insects win hands down. Consider that there are close to one million known species of insects, with new ones discovered every day. In fact, almost 25 percent of all known life forms are beetles. As a comparison, there are 81,000 species of mollusks, the next most numerous life form in the animal kingdom, and a paltry 5,416 species of mammals.
With that many insects in the world, studying them is not only logical, it’s extremely important and exciting, say undergraduate entomology majors Erin A. Krichilsky ’17 and Brandon M. Woo ’19. “I’m blown away by these little creatures and the amazing things they do,” says Krichilsky. “And I love being surrounded by people who feel the same way.”
Cornell’s Insect Collection, Prized for Research and Teaching
Krichilsky and Woo are undergraduates, working at the Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC). Although they are not ‘curators,’ which is an academic title, they do curate portions of the CUIC’s collection. When they started work at the collection, they chose the insect order that interested them most as their job focus. For Krichilsky that was Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps) and for Woo it was Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets and katydids). Krichilsky has narrowed her passion even further to the Pompilidae, a family of wasps with more than 5,000 species, known as spider wasps because they prey on spiders.
[Erin A. Krichilsky ’17] was hooked when her professor wrote the word “super organism” on the board. “I thought of insects like most people do, little things crawling on the ground, a nuisance to my day. And then the word ‘super’ was applied to them. …It blew my mind.”
The CUIC is a research and training collection with over seven million insect specimens representing about 200,000 species. Researchers come from all over the world to access the collection. It is also a resource for the Cornell Insect Diagnostic Lab, which is housed inside the collection but is separate from it. The Diagnostic Lab exists to help farmers, horticulturists, gardeners, and the general public identify insects. Anyone can bring in an insect, and for a small fee the lab will identify it. Often lab workers will turn to the specimens in the CUIC to help make that identification.
For the Love of Insects
Krichilsky and Woo spend their work time at the CUIC sorting through trays full of specimens, some of them dating back to the nineteenth century. Often those trays are in disarray. The older specimens are affixed to hard boards with pins. The students tidy the specimens—switching out old trays for modern ones lined with foam, repositioning the insects so their appendages do not touch, and gluing together broken wings or other appendages. Then, there is the research: making sure each insect is identified correctly and creating new labels identifying the family, genus, and species.
“We have to make sure the taxonomic name has not been synonymized or changed since the specimen was first added to the collection,” says Krichilsky. “Often they have been changed. People used to describe new species based on morphological traits. Now with genetic tools, we’re learning that many of those taxonomic decisions were inaccurate.”
For example, Woo says, the Gryllus genus of crickets all look nearly identical. “For years people thought that all the crickets in the United States that were large and black were a single species, Gryllus assimilis,” he explains. “Over time, they realized that what they thought was one species was actually 20 or more. It all gets really complicated.”
In his capacity as the student, curating the Orthoptera, Woo has to ensure the collection’s Gryllus are accurately organized and labeled. He also has to sort through drawers of grasshoppers that were never identified or labeled. “When I started there were six drawers of ‘African grasshoppers undetermined,’” he says. “The drawers were full of grasshoppers from all over Africa, all different groups, all different places.”
Insects Waiting for Experts
The need for greater organization is a result of the sheer number of shipments the collection receives and the huge variety of species entomologists must choose from when deciding their research expertise. It can be years between the availability of experts willing to work on a particular order within the collection. “If there’s no one with the proper expertise to determine what the specimens in a shipment are, the specimens are labeled with their order, like Orthoptera, and then they wait for someone to come along who can work on them,” Woo explains.
Krichilsky and Woo both say they’ve found their life work in entomology, “This is it,” says Woo. “I became interested in insects in third grade. I haven’t strayed off the path since. I was always the nutty bug kid. I kept scores of critters in my basement and my garage and crazy things like that.”
Krichilsky, who transferred to Cornell in the fall of 2015 from the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNCA), found her love of insects more recently. As a freshman at UNCA, she took a class on honeybees and was hooked when her professor wrote the word “super organism” on the board. “You only think of things as ‘super’ when they’re big and powerful,” she says. “But these honey bees, these tiny creatures, work together to benefit the whole community. I thought of insects like most people do, little things crawling on the ground, a nuisance to my day. And then the word ‘super’ was applied to them, and my whole framework was redefined. It blew my mind.”
The Amazing Field of Entomology
With only 18 undergraduate entomology programs in the United States, Woo and Krichilsky say they are grateful to be students in Cornell’s program. Both plan to go on to graduate school in the field.
“People think it’s a narrow field,” Krichilsky says. “They ask me if I’m going to branch out. There are something like 10 quintillion insects alive on the planet at any given time, and 200 million insects per human being on the face of the earth. So ‘narrow’ is hardly the word I would use.”
There are so many angles from which to study insects, says Woo. That diversity reflects the impact this class has on the earth’s biosphere. From evolution to agriculture and to the spread of diseases such as Zika through insect vectors, studying insects opens a world of research possibilities. “Just look at how a particular insect interacts with other organisms,” says Woo. “Is it food for birds or reptiles or host for pathogenic fungus or bacteria? Do people eat it? You can look at it from all kinds of perspectives. You’re never going to be bored studying insects. There’s always something new to be discovered.”