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Dr. Linda Rayor of the Department of Entomology points at an enclosed spider habitat during Insectapalooza, the Cornell Department of Entomology's annual insect festival.

September 25, 2023

Insectapalooza Celebrates 20th Year, Provides Space for “Spider Kids and Bug Nerds”

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By 9 a.m. on Saturday, the incessant buzz of scorpions, millipedes, spiders and dozens of insects had engulfed the Cornell Dairy Bar. This was no infestation — rather, the 20th annual Insectapalooza, the Cornell Department of Entomology’s annual insect festival, was in full swing.  

Insectapalooza is a one-day educational event hosted by the Department of Entomology intended to display the department’s research and get the public excited about insects, said organizer Prof. Linda Rayor, entomology, in an interview with The Sun. 

When the event began 20 years ago, Insectapalooza was part of a larger celebration of 100 years of the College of Agriculture and Life Science. Rayor said she and her colleagues had hoped about 300 people would attend the event — instead, they got 1,000. In recent years Insectapalooza has drawn between 2,500 to 3,000 people of varying ages and backgrounds.

“We get a really bimodal distribution of the people who come,” Rayor said. “We get a lot of families and elementary and middle school-aged kids, but we also get an awful lot of interested adults. People come from all over the Eastern U.S. — from Boston, Michigan, Virginia.”

This year’s Insectapalooza hosted over 30 different exhibits, including an arthropod zoo, a darkroom that displayed fluorescent arthropods, an insect bioacoustics station and a display of bugs at nanoscale, allowing attendees to see details of insects as small as one billionth of a meter in size. 

The six-hour event is the only opportunity for the public to view the Cornell University Insect Collection, which contains over 7 million species. Species on display Saturday included huntsman spiders, Asian forest scorpions, striped love beetles and Rhetenor blue morpho butterflies.

Donna Pinnisi, an employee at the Einaudi Center, and her son, Michael Pinnisi ’22, came to Insectapalooza to encourage Michael’s two-year-old daughter, Freya Pinnisi, to explore insects. Despite her age, Freya is just as fascinated by bugs as she was by her Dairy Bar ice cream.

“This was the first year we came because, since she loves [looking at insects] at home, we thought this would be a great way to introduce her [to them],” Donna Pinnisi said.

Insectapalooza provides a unique opportunity to shape children’s curiosity about insects through outreach to both parents and children, according to organizer Annika Salzberg grad, a Ph.D. candidate in entomology.

“Some little kids are automatically grossed out by bugs, but a lot of them are just interested. Whether or not a child becomes a bug lover or a bug hater depends on what the adults around them are doing,” Salzberg said.

Beginning last year, the event has added half-hour workshops led by Cornell faculty on topics such as careers in entomology, tick-borne diseases and pollinator gardens, according to Salzberg.

Alejandro Calixto, director of Cornell University’s New York State Integrated Pest Management Program, presented on the biology, development and effects of the invasive spotted lanternfly, which feeds on grapes. The insect was first identified in 2014 and in recent years has spread throughout New York, raising concerns about threats to local vineyards.

“In Pennsylvania, we have vineyards that have been completely lost due to the spotted lanternfly, and this very well could happen in New York State,” Calixto said. “In the next two years, we’re going to start seeing the impact on grape production.”

As part of its IPM strategy, Calixto’s team works to reduce the risk of pests like the spotted lanternfly through chemical, cultural, mechanical and biological approaches. They then educate the community about strategies the public can take to combat pests beyond spraying pesticides.

“The idea with this program is to try to engage with the public before the pest gets into those vineyards, so at least the growers have tools to prevent significant economic damage,” Calixto said. 

Prof. Bryan Danforth, entomology, discussed the diversity of solitary bees. These bees are different because they are not social — meaning they do not create large nests — and will often pollinate a single type of plant year after year. As such, they are often overshadowed by the ubiquitous honeybee, Danforth said. 

“I want people to take away an appreciation for the diversity of [solitary bees’] nesting habits, their floral associations,” Danforth said. “[There is] a sheer weirdness [to] some of these species — some bees nest in snail shells and some nest in cow dung.”

In an interview with the Sun, Danforth also stressed the economic impact and numerical diversity of bees in general. He noted that there are five times more species of bees than there are species of mammals, including 20,000 bee species in the U.S. and over 400 in the state. Many of New York’s native pollinators also contribute significantly to fruit and vegetable pollination in the area. However, according to a 2022 study involving Danforth’s lab, a conservative estimate places 38 percent of New York’s native pollinators at risk of extinction, while the worst-case scenario sees that number rise to 60 percent.

Insectapalooza relies on the help of volunteers, some of whom are undergraduate students. Sarah Garcia ’25, president of Snodgrass and Wigglesworth, Cornell’s undergraduate entomology club, volunteered to spread curiosity and awareness about insects. Snodgrass and Wigglesworth led the isopods and arts and crafts tables.

“[Insectapalooza] puts a face and a love to the science of insects,” Garcia said, adding that they hope Insectapalooza’s outreach will tackle the fear of bugs “embedded in our culture.”

Similarly, Brian Gollands, an employee at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, volunteered to work at the fossil arthropod table. A former Cornell biological control employee, Gollands has come to Insectapalooza for over ten years to share his love for insects with children. 

“You find out kids are just like me. They like insects, and you’re hoping that maybe if you talk to a few of them … they’ll be inspired to go onto a career [in entomology],” Gollands said. 

According to Rayor, Insectapalooza is more than just the sum of its exhibits and presentations, but a way to bring like-minded people together.

“Very often, this is an opportunity for spider kids and bug nerds to come to this event and find their tribe,” Rayor said.

Angela Miller ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].
Evan Liberman ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].