A bug's life

BugFest 2005 brings insect science to mainstream

BugFest 2005 brings insect science to mainstream

September 09, 2005|By KRISTIN WILSON


It's the scream heard when a cockroach scurries across the kitchen floor or when antennaed beetles bombard the family picnic.

But that's not quite what you'd hear among the Smithsonian Institution's team of entomologists at the National Museum of Natural History. If they had anything to say about such specimens, it might be: Oooh! Ahh!

Bugs and insects can be fascinating subjects. On Saturday, Sept. 17, the top insect scientists at the Smithsonian will be sharing their expertise with visitors to the museum.

Called BugFest 2005, staff and scientists are pulling out all the stops to show how interesting and important insects can be to human and mammal existence.


In ecosystems, "it's really the plants and insects that run the show," says Nathan Erwin, entomologist and manager of the O. Orkin Insect Zoo at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. "The insects pollinate plants that are important for other animals. Insects also provide food for a lot of animals. Insects do provide so many ecological services. That's why they are so important and understanding how they live, where they live, their relationships to one another."

Kids especially seem to have a fascination with small, creepy crawly or airborne insects that find a niche in every habitable environment.

"Children are naturally drawn to insects because they are just everywhere," Erwin says. "They are very accessible to both children and adults."

From an entomologist's perspective, learning about these creatures, often considered pests, is critical to understanding the role humans can play in conservation. BugFest visitors are encouraged to bring with them insect specimens they would like to know more about.

Wild honeybee colonies have virtually disappeared from North American ecosystems. Erwin points out that the honeybees commonly known today were never native to this continent. They are actually European honeybees that were introduced as Europeans colonized America. In recent years, two varieties of mites have killed off European bee colonies that became wild.

One of the subjects that will be covered during BugFest is pollinator conservation. With the disappearance of wild honeybees, people are encouraged to promote native bees that can thrive in backyards.

"That will help pollinate flowers in the garden, trees in the backyard," Erwin says.

Scientists also will educate BugFest visitors about starting their own insect collections. Behind-the-scenes tours, not available during regular museum operation, will be offered to show guests the Smithsonian insect collection, one of the largest in the world.

Such collections have become increasingly important as scientists have studied how environments change around the world.

"Collections help us understand not only what is going on in the moment but what has happened in the past," Erwin says.

For example, because of the fossil record, entomologists know that insects are some of Earth's oldest creatures.

"Insects have been around for almost 400 million years," Erwin explains. Cockroaches are at least 300 million to 350 million years old. While insect adaptations and the different ways they move and eat may sometimes seem strange, insects "have been very, very successful in geologic time," he says.

And certainly, creatures that have become so important to nature's balance are worth a closer look.

BugFest 2005 is a one-day event that features dozens of exhibits showing every aspect of arthropod life. Smithsonian scientists will talk with visitors about insect habitats, behavior and communication. Some scientists will be dressed up as their favorite insect and a dancing troupe will perform at the festival on stilts in beetle, grasshopper and butterfly costumes. Audiences can lose aversions to cockroaches by watching them race.

Scientists will show families how to safely catch bugs for observation. When trying to get a closer look, Erwin recommends scooping up insects with a plastic container, since some insects and spiders found in the backyard can bite or be poisonous.

Special tours to look at the Smithsonian's electron microscopes and insect collections will be available throughout the day and an IMAX film called Bugs! 3D will be available.

If you go ...

WHAT: The National Museum of Natural History's BugFest 2005

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17

WHERE: National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue, Washington D.C.

COST: Free

MORE: For more information about the event, go to For directions, go to or call 1-202-633-1000. For public transportation information, go to

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