October 22, 2007

Ithaca Plays Host To Insect Swarm

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“It’s a zoo in there!”
This past weekend, the entomology department held its fourth annual Insectapalooza, a festival devoted to the rich diversity of insects. The playful pun, elicited from an exiting attendee, speaks to the event’s large attendance, not only by the community but also by a host of various insects.
Organized by a committee of faculty and graduate and undergraduate students in the entomology department, the first Insectapalooza was held in 2004 to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Science.
“We hope that people will have learned the importance of insects and what they do for our lives,” said Ronda Hamm grad, one of three major contributors to the event’s planning. “We want [the community] to understand the diversity of bugs. Not all bugs are bad!”
Greeted at the door by a human-size bee in costume, attendees walked a few feet further to find a myriad of actual bugs, displayed in cases with informative captions surrounding them.
Spread throughout three floors of Comstock Hall, the event included both interactive stations as well as those intended purely for viewing purposes.
“The event is designed for everyone, spanning from the smallest of children to the grandparents in the community,” Hamm said.
One station invited children to place tootsie roll “bets” on which cockroach would prevail in a race, awarding a larger pot of candy to those who predicted correctly. Across from the betting area, the Pondering Insects station was comprised of an inflatable pool filled with live insects that participants could actually scoop out, place in a cup, identify and return. According to student-volunteer Jeffry Petracca ’11, the insects were collected from ponds located in Cornell and included dragonfly nymphs, water scorpions and whirligig beetles, among others.
Located on the same floor was the Arthropod Zoo, which, according to Hamm, is always a favorite. Rows of containers providing boundaries for each arthropod or group of arthropods filled a particular room in the building. Alongside each display was a colorful, easy-to-read informational piece, providing the name of the bug, its habitat, what it feeds on and an interesting tidbit.
Hungry visitors could also grab a cookie as they explored the insect world, but these cookies were comprised of more than the basic batter: On the center of each treat was a small, dead cricket.
“Last night we cooked up a bunch of crickets and put them on cookies,” said Michael Orr ’10, an entomology major who volunteered at the event. “They have a high source of protein, so they are good for you,” he explained.
Insectapalooza also included highly-technical exhibits, geared toward the older visitors.
“We have a demonstration of the cockroach nervous system, as well as an explanation of genetically-modified crops,” said Prof. Jeff Scott, chair of the department of entomology. Scott also mentioned, however, that certain displays of the genetics of insects were also intended for children.
And effectively so.
When asked to consider the event at large, nine-year-old Kevin Griswold chose an educational aspect to talk about.
“My favorite part of the event was learning about how bugs reproduce and how they might destroy other plants,” he said.
Scott further explained one exhibit in particular that paralleled a real challenge in the world of entomology. According to Scott, the native New York State nine-spotted ladybug has undergone a severe decline in numbers in the past couple of decades. The population decrease prompted Prof. John Losey, entomology, and other Cornell researchers to conduct an educational citizen science project, in which members of the project are instructed to report their findings of various lady beetles to the University. The incorporation of youth participation in the search for the insect helps keep an inventory of which species are still in existence, and in turn provides the opportunity to educate the youth on biodiversity and conservation. The nine-spotted ladybug station at Insectapalooza, therefore, entailed participation in a game to simulate the difficulty of spotting the creatures in nature, prompting visitors to find the specified ladybug within a certain environment.
This year’s Insectapalooza featured several new exhibits, including one detailing the exploration of various genetically-modified crops, as well as a focus on the study of Malaria in Africa. Pest Wars, a station that taught about insecticides, was also new to the event.
Publicity efforts to spread the word of Insectapalooza began as early as last May and successfully brought schools and organizations by the busload, spanning from regions including Philadelphia, Buffalo and some areas of New Jersey.
The far-reaching efforts of numerous volunteers, including both students and faculty, to offer explanations and answer questions, made the atmosphere a lively one. The smiling faces of inquisitive minds signaled a positive future for the annual celebration.