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University of Arizona experts say insects are important, beneficial and often tasty

University of Arizona experts say insects are important, beneficial and often tasty

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UA entomologists are spreading the word about the role bugs play in pollinating plants and enriching soil at the Arizona Insect Festival this Sunday.

In addition to eating bugs, you can play the Arthropod Zoo game, build a bug, pet a roach and learn the pluses and minuses of controlling pests with transgenic crops.

The kid-friendly event attracted 5,000 visitors last year and has been expanded to accommodate more.

The Department of Entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences hosts the event, and its faculty and students will explain all things insect.

In addition to the third annual insect festival, the department is celebrating the renovation of the Arizona Insect Collection, the largest collection of insects in the state and one of the largest in the Southwest.

The collection is now an entomologist’s dream — new drawers holding millions of meticulously catalogued critters. For years, the collection was crammed into a maze of wooden cabinets in tiny rooms in the venerable Forbes Building.

Sliding “compactor” cabinets with standardized collection trays now hold the 1.5 million pinned specimens, representing 22,280 species of insect, all catalogued by date and location of their collection.

It is a natural history of the area, said Gene Hall, the collections manager.

Show up with a bug and chances are Hall or venerable bug man Carl Olson will be able to identify it.

Entomologist Wendy Moore, who headed the pursuit of federal and philanthropic grants to modernize the collection, says the best is yet to come.

The collection is bing digitized and photographed to provide easy identification for scholars and the general public. It will become part of a regional network for entomological research, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Not everyone is totally thrilled with the improvements.

Olson, for years known as the “Bug Man” of Southern Arizona, is now retired and working part-time with the collection.

He liked the old wooden cabinets. “I grew up with the thing. I could open a drawer and say, ‘Here it is.’”

Olson concedes the compactors have greatly increased the space available for new specimens.

He is also pleased with the expanding outreach of the department, exemplified by the insect festival.

For years, the college served mainly the state’s growers and the collection catalogued mostly agricultural pests.

Arizona is now an urban state, and the need to educate city slickers about the beneficial roles served by insects is great, Olson said.

“We’re trying to educate the public into seeing that bugs aren’t out to get them. Sure, a scorpion can sting you, but (not) if you’re paying attention.”

Olson laments the modern impulse to spray pesticides . “We’re taking away all this great life out there that are doing jobs in our ecosystems, like the termites and ants. They’re the soil builders,” he said.

Olson said he’s always done outreach talks, but said the insect festival is reaching out to larger numbers. “I can’t believe the success it’s had in the last couple of years.”

It involves all the students and faculty in the land-grant mission of the university, he said.

“Our job at this place is sharing the knowledge we’re gaining with the public. We’re more of an urban society and those people need this kind of information as much as the growers and maybe more so, because there are more mistakes being made.”

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158. Follow him on Twitter @bealagram and on Facebook.

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