Bugs in the System

The next time you have maple syrup with your pancakes, thank the Bishop Museum's world-class entomology collection. Here's why.


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Shepherd Myers, the museum's entomology collections manager, says that while many bugs are so small "they look like crud on your windowsill that you would sweep away," when magnified, they are as distinct from each other as lion's, tigers and bears.

Photo: Olvier Koning

Entering the collection, on the first floor of Bishop Museum’s Pauahi Hall, feels a little like breaching a bank vault; we pass through two pairs of battleship-gray doors that create an airlock, controlling atmospheric conditions. There are no windows in this vast, subterranean-feeling chamber, lit only by fluorescent lights and the pools of illumination created by researchers’ microscopes. The room is filled, floor to ceiling, stretching into the distance, with aisles of pine boxes that slide out for closer inspection. Each glass-fronted box, containing meticulously mounted creatures great and small, has a label, and each label has a color: pink for “found in Hawaii,” white for the rest of the world.

Lastly there are the green labels, which Myers calls “the oh-mys and gee-whizzes.” Although the collection isn’t open to the public, part of his job is to show it to groups and people with specialized interests. Some of the green labels read “Huge Beetles,” “Large Spiders,” “What Bit Me?” and “Underneath It All, This Thing Can Fly?”

“The most fun is to get people who don’t want to be here,” says Myers. “People are inherently averse to insects. They come in like this”—he demonstrates crossed arms and a stiff body—“but when they lean in”—he mimes peering closer—“you know you have them.”


The little blue weevil seen via automontage.

Photo: Courtesy BIshop Museum

His visitors come from all walks of life: In addition to a steady stream of researchers, he’s hosted a Thai princess with her entourage, autistic kids, prison parolees and various dignitaries, foreign and domestic. Newt Gingrich once came through, looking for the bats upstairs. And there has been a suggestion that Johnny Depp, rumored to be a butterfly enthusiast, might like a peek at the collection—since part of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film will be shooting at the museum this summer.


Photo: Olivier Koning

The real work of the Gressit Center collection is to serve as a giant database, only not the kind that fits on a hard drive.

“Identification is the cornerstone of science. This is the place to come for that,” says Paul Krushelnycky, a UH researcher who is working with ants, earwigs and katydids in the collection. “You can’t answer questions”—or even formulate questions—“if you don’t know what you have.”

Research scientists are far from the only people who use the collection. A significant portion of those seeking answers at the Gressit Center are state, federal and international officials who work in a world where invasive species, in an increasingly globalized trade environment, are estimated to cause about $1.5 trillion in damage each year—about 5 percent of global annual gross domestic product.
 

Black Market Butterflies

Scientists aren’t the only ones contributing to the Gressit Center’s collection. Criminals do their share, too. In some circles, insect collecting—particularly butterfly collecting—remains a gentleman’s pastime, and uncommon (and, unfortunately, sometimes endangered) specimens can command uncommon prices. In fact, as illegal traffic goes, the dollar value of exotic animals is thought to be surpassed only by that of drugs and arms; a splendid Queen Alexandra Birdwing butterfly specimen can fetch thousands. A good deal of this insect contraband passes through Honolulu International Airport, where some of it is detected, confiscated—and sent to Bishop Museum.
 
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