An Amazing Close-Up Look at Insects

Canadian Museum of Nature exhibits 'Bugs: Outside the Box'
By Pam McLennan
Pam McLennan
Pam McLennan
October 28, 2015 Updated: November 3, 2015

The Canadian Museum of Nature’s current exhibit “Bugs: Outside the Box” evokes childhood memories of collecting grasshoppers in a jar and punching holes in the lid so they can breathe.

Upon entering, there are 16 giant sculptures of various insects that reveal details about their bodies that are not easy to see in real life. For instance, one shows a butterfly’s curled-up tongue resting outside its mouth, ready to strike out and catch dinner.

There are six terrariums containing some of the world’s largest and most interesting species of insects, such as the Malaysian jungle nymph. Clinging to the side of the glass, it is at least 20 cm long. Her male counterpart is next door in a separate terrarium. He is brown, stick-like, and half the size of the female.

You can watch an elephant beetle chomping on an orange section, and see monarch butterflies flitting around their larger terrarium or eating a piece of orange.

Then there are the many trays of preserved insects that are part of the museum’s collection. About 2,000 were brought out for the exhibition. Here, the bugs are divided into species, with a large array of different colours and sizes to each.

Bob Anderson, an entomologist and research scientist at the museum, talks about why we are so interested in the insects we share the planet with.

“I just think that they’re the commonest little tiny animals that are on earth and we’re just fascinated with them because they’re around, they seem to be doing all sorts of things, yet they’re so small and they have complicated behaviours,” Anderson said in an interview.

“They’re everywhere, they do just about everything collectively, they feed on just about anything you can imagine, and probably at some point everything feeds on them. So they’re a critical part of the food chain.”

They’re such important components of food chains and nutrient recycling chains.
— Bob Anderson, Canadian Museum of Nature

But insects are not simply food for birds and other animals—it seems they are a vital part of the ecosystem.

“They’re such important components of food chains and nutrient recycling chains,” explains Anderson.

“They’re the ones that start to break down leaves and organic material when it falls from the trees. They’re involved in the decomposition of dung and carrion. When things die, they’re the ones that get in there and start cleaning up. So they’re nature’s sanitary engineers in a way.”

So just how many kinds of insects are there in Canada?

“The last count that I could find information for said just under 20,000 in Canada and they’re estimating that there may be another 10,000 that are here that have not been recorded,” he says.

As part of his job, Anderson identifies insect species and also travels to find new ones.

“When I go and do my fieldwork, which is mostly in Central America and South America, probably 75 percent of what I would collect is new species—things that have never been recorded before. Myself, I’ve described about 125 new species but there’s many scientists across Canada and the United States that have described thousands of new species,” he says.

Anderson adds that of the museum’s 1 million specimens, up to 5,000 are loaned out each year for scientific study.

During the exhibition, the museum is doing a type of survey on eating insects, as some insects are being touted as a food source of the future. However, there wasn’t a lineup at the gumball machine dispensing edible, cooked, and seasoned crickets and mealworms.

“We have a counter where we want people to hit the button to say you would eat insects on a regular basis or you wouldn’t, just to get some idea of how acceptable it is for people to eat insects,” said Anderson.

To accompany the exhibit, which until March 27, 2016, the museum is showing a complementary movie, “Amazing Mighty Micro Monsters 3D.” It shows bugs in their natural habitat, catching prey and going about their daily routine. It also has a fascinating sequence of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly.

Pam McLennan