Live Bugs Tell of a Bug's Life at Insect Festival
UA students brought the hidden world of insects to the community at the annual event, which showcases the Southwest as a hotspot of arthropod diversity.
Ask any entomologist, and you might be told that bugs rule the world. Each year in September, they certainly rule the show during the Arizona Insect Festival. Now in its fourth year, the event has the University of Arizona Student Union Memorial Center crawling with an estimated 5,000 people, wanting to learn about insects, interact with them and marvel at their incredible diversity.
"Insects play very important roles — for example, as recyclers of biological matter and in pollination ecology — and they're a hugely important resource in the form of prey to larger animals, so they're key to many ecosystem processes that hold everything together," said Wendy Moore, an assistant professor in the UA Department of Entomology and one of the organizers of the festival along with Kathleen Walker, also an assistant professor in entomology.
Insects are among the most diverse groups of animals, accounting for more than half of all known living organisms. Southern Arizona is one of the most diverse areas for arthropods — insects, spiders and their kin — in the United States, according to Moore, who is the curator of the UA's insect collection and runs the "arthropod zoo" at the festival.
"The Southwest is extraordinarily rich in arthropod species," Moore said, "and that's partially due to the fact that we're in the sky island region with so many different elevations for arthropods to exist in. In addition, this region is a confluence for faunas from the North, the South and the deserts."
The UA Center for Insect Science brings together researchers and students from several departments, including entomology in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and ecology and evolutionary biology and neuroscience in the College of Science.
"Together we form this great, world-renowned collection of researchers of arthropods that makes the UA a leader in arthropod research," Moore said.
"The students are an essential part of the festival, because to put on a party like this, it really takes a village. And our students are some of the most enthusiastic participants that we have. They are integral in designing and running every single booth, and in doing the interactions. It's a great opportunity for them to engage with the public and talk about their research."
About 20 booths at the Sept. 21 event offered visitors a glimpse into various aspects of insects. There were plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal, from caterpillar- and roach-petting stations to the microscopes revealing the inner workings of bug brains, from live specimens of the world's most painful stinging insect (the tarantula wasp) to more environmentally friendly ways to fight insect pests.
Bruce Tabashnik, head of the entomology department and a world-renowned expert in studying insect resistance to genetically engineered crop plants, said: "This festival is a great opportunity to show people what integrated pest management is all about. We are well-known for linking with farmers and really anyone who is concerned about controlling insects, in environmentally friendly ways that are sustainable and don't poison people or other living things. We're interested in advancing any knowledge about insects, and to use that information to improve the lives of the people of Arizona and the world."
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