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Crawlies on Display 

A look inside the UA's bug museum

Nestled deep on the fourth floor of the Forbes Building, near venerable Old Main on the UA campus, is a museum you may know nothing about. It's a research collection focusing on insects. Entomologist Carl Olson, known by many as "the bug man," is the associate curator of the entomology collection.

It's a big collection of bug samples--but even Olson isn't exactly sure how big.

"I have come up with saying between a million or a million-and-a-half species of insects," he says. "As far as specimens, it's astronomical."

Insects fall into many classifications, but only Hemiptera are true bugs. Spiders technically aren't insects, either, but we won't go into that here. For simplicity, we'll refer to all creepy crawlies as bugs.

Olson says most of the species in the collection are strictly from Arizona, letting other museums across the country handle the samples beyond our borders.

Even though limited in scope, the collection has a worth that should not be underestimated, says Olson. "Regionally, we're the best collection in the Southwest. Nationally, we're small potatoes. There are places like the Smithsonian, the Cal Academy, Cornell, Ohio State and some of the other big universities that have a lot more specimens, but from around the world."

Call it what you want; there's no official name for the facility, which has samples dating back to the late 1800s. However, a name may be in the works.

"We've been talking about that, because it would be nice to honor my former colleague Floyd Werner, who really built this up," says Olson. "Maybe, we'll call it the Floyd G. Werner Arthropod Research Museum. We haven't put a tag on it yet, but maybe someday we will and have a big party."

There is also no estimated square footage of the collection, which is a series of offices, cabinets and display cases. Aside from the usual thermostat, there is no special climate-controlled area for the specimens.

Additions are constantly expanding the museum, as many people donate items from their private collections. "We're always learning," says Olson. He admits nobody has any idea how many bug species there actually are in the world, even though so many have been identified.

Another part of the museum allows residents to bring in a bug they want Olson to identify. "People can come in and bring specimens and even take a look at the collection." He says much of what people bring in is simply what's out in force that season. An example: sun spiders, also known as wind scorpions. "They run real fast and are great predators, but people see glimpses, because they run quickly across their floor, or out the door."

Many people panic when they see bugs, but Olson says that's usually unwarranted. "Sun spiders, like 99.9 percent of all bugs in Arizona, are harmless," says Olson. "They don't do anything to people, and they make our habitat better, if that's something people could just understand."

The categorized insect samples in the collection are secured, intact, attached through the hard exoskeleton. "We mount them with real fine pins, so we don't destroy parts of the body that we may need to identify them in keys. Then, we put labels under them so we know when, where and how we caught them."

The collection is not only for the locals. Many times, a researcher will ask Olson for a sample to study, and he generally honors that request, giving the museum some national notoriety. "Individual scientists study little groups of insects, so if we collect some of that group ... we'll happily share what's in our collection."

Olson uses special boxes and mounting to send off the bugs through the regular mail. He says he's never had bugs damaged in the mail.

While people generally hear about the negative side of bugs, Olson is quick to counter the panic. Last year, the sometimes-deadly West Nile virus hit Arizona hard. The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 16 human deaths from West Nile in the state, mostly in Maricopa County, and warnings have been issued for this year. "I think the West Nile thing probably is blown out of proportion, but that sells a lot of job security," he says. "Certainly, it's out there, and if somebody gets West Nile, they're not going to be happy, but as far as it wiping out the country, it's not going to happen."

Although he thinks the West Nile scare is a bit overblown, Olson does echo the same warnings put out by state health officials, such as making sure there is no standing water near your home, which provides a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

The Mediterranean fruit fly scare last year in Tijuana put Arizona and California officials on alert and stirred up quite a fear that crops would be destroyed if the pests moved north of the border. "It was a great news story, but in reality, it wasn't (a scare)," says Olson. The medfly can indeed cause problems to crops, but Olson says that won't happen in Arizona anytime soon, since Mexico contained the pests last year. You can get a glimpse of the dead fly in one of the museum's collection trays.

Olson says eradication of certain pests is also a myth. "It's impossible to eradicate an insect species, in the way that humans set about to do it with poison." He says the pesticides could be more devastating to humans and wildlife than the pests they are trying to eliminate.

There's no way to tell how all of the insect samples in the bug collection met their ultimate fate, but you can get a glimpse of them at the entomology collection in Forbes, Room 403, at the UA. The collection is open most business days from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., but Olson suggests you call first to make sure he'll be there. You can reach him at 621-5925, or by e-mail at bugman@ag.arizona.edu.

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