The University of Arizona Insect Collection – which features 2 million irreplaceable specimens – is undergoing a massive renovation to expand the available space, better protect the collection and add a computerized database.
"This collection is highly valuable at numerous levels," says Gene Hall, the collection manager.
"It has always been a big draw for researchers because southeastern Arizona is one of the best places in America you can visit for insect biodiversity," Hall said. "The specimens are valuable for research and irreplaceable, just like any museum collection, and we're trying to make our holdings more accessible."
And, this month, some of those specimens will be on display.
The UA is hosting the Arizona Insect Festival Sept. 15 at the Student Union Memorial Center. Sponsored by the Department of Entomology, the festival is a big draw for children as well as adults. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., thousands of people are expected to check out the more than 20 booths filled with both knowledge and insects.
As for the collection, the much-needed renovation project is made possible through funds from two National Science Foundation grants awarded to department of entomology assistant professor Wendy Moore, as well as the UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
In addition, a new endowment from the Schlinger Foundation has established a Visiting Systematist Program that will support annual visits from entomology specialists in select insect groups to help upgrade the collection.
The collection – essentially a chronicle of biodiversity in the region over time – acquired additional space in the Forbes Building, purchased new cabinets, standard-sized drawers and specimen unit trays to provide better protection and allow for future expansion. A concurrent second phase of the renovation adds technological improvements: computerized workstations equipped with microscopes, and a database with integrated images to make the collection accessible online.
"As years progress we can add specimens to the collection. Before the renovation project, we were bursting at the seams and we couldn’t take on much more material from researchers," Hall says. "Many people think about museum collections as being these dark areas where nobody ever gets to see them."
But that is not the case at the UA, where the collection receives a continuous stream of students and both on-campus and visiting researchers, Hall said.
"You can look at the collection like a library in a sense. You can think of the different groups of insects as books, the different species as pages, and the different localities as words on the page," Hall says. "There is a great deal to be learned from what we have here, and the collection has been built up over the past 70 years to give us a very good idea of the biodiversity of the region."
Hall noted that each specimen was collected at a particular place and time, and that such information is carefully recorded on labels associated with each specimen.
"That's part of the reason that with collection is irreplaceable – you can't go back in time and recollect a specimen from 1945, for example," Hall says. "They're a unique record to use for research in all levels of evolutionary and ecological biology."
Much of the collection's value comes in the diligent work put in over many decades by UA researchers, collecting and cataloging data about insects in the region.
Moore, also the collection's curator, says that this year marks the beginning of a new era for the UA Insect Collection, and it provides a moment in history to remember those scientists who played key roles in building the collection. At the UA Insect Collection re-opening party in late August, Moore and Hall dedicated a renovated room in the collection as the UAIC Founders' room, which will be used for visiting scientists.
The renovation is creating new excitement about the collection as the third annual Arizona Insect Festival approaches.
At the festival, Moore's lab and the UA Insect Collection sponsor the Arthropod Zoo Hall of Biodiversity.
"In the past, the Arthropod Zoo has been a gee-whiz exhibit and an opportunity for people to hold insects and look at them up close," Moore says. "But this year, we're also going to wrap more scientific content around it and highlight some of the main factors that make arthropods so diverse, revealing some of their secrets for success."