COLUMBIA — When children tour the Enns Entomology Museum to see the insects on display, they often ask: “Do they really get this big?”
It’s easy to understand their amazement. Some of the insects at the museum are astonishingly huge and strange.
While eating insects, or entomophagy, is relegated to reality TV challenges in the U.S., insects are regularly eaten in China, Mexico, Thailand and Japan, to name a few countries.
“People here tend to think that people in other countries only eat insects when they’re starving. That’s not true. There are insects that are considered delicacies in other parts of the world,” said Kristin Simpson, collection manager at the Enns Entomology Museum at MU.
Although most might not realize it, bugs are already a part of the American diet. According to the "Food Defect Action Levels" on the FDA website, companies are not in violation of FDA standards if a batch of food product has:
- Less than an average of 100 insect fragments per 25 grams of curry powder
- Less than an average of 2,500 aphids (small sap-sucking insects) per 10 grams of hops
- Less than an average of 20 maggots per 100 grams of drained mushrooms
- Less than an average of 30 insect fragments per 100 grams of peanut butter
Less than an average of 10 fly eggs per 500 grams of canned tomatoes
The FDA website states that these levels “pose no inherent hazard to health” and that “it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”
Sometimes, insects are key ingredients in U.S. food products, not unavoidable externalities.
In April earlier this year, Starbucks was pressured by vegans and other concerned customers to stop using cochineal extract, a food dye extracted from cochineal beetles, in several of the company’s products.
It turns out that cochineal dye is used in a wide variety of food products, including meat, sausages, red marinades, jams, gelatin desserts, juice beverages, non-carbonated soft drinks, baked goods, icings and dairy products, according to the flavor-coloring company Wild Flavor’s website.
The elephant beetle from Central America is about the size of an iPhone, with a horn more than an inch long.
The tarantula could cover a human hand when its furry legs are extended. But compared to the harmless Goliath bird-eating spider next to it, the tarantula looks small — the Goliath spider can grow as big as a dinner plate.
These dead specimens are encased in glass cabinets at the Enns Entomology Museum on the second floor of the MU Agricultural Building. Founded in 1874, the museum holds more than 6 million insects, arachnids and fossils.
It is by far the largest collection of insects in Missouri, considered one of the largest collections at a university.
Full-time caretakers are the director, Robert Sites, and collection manager, Kristin Simpson, plus a roster of graduate students who feed and take care of the live insects.
These live species are displayed in the front of the room — Madagascar hissing cockroaches, giant cave cockroaches, walkingsticks and a Chinese mantis. The majority of the space in the museum, however, is occupied by rows of tall, aluminum cabinets in the back of the museum with millions of pinned and cataloged insects inside wooden cases.
"It’s likely that there are undiscovered species in these cabinets,” Simpson said. "There are more species of insects than any other animals — or plants — for that matter. We know of around 1 million different species of insects."
The museum is known as the primary source of insect and arachnid specimens representing the Ozark Plateau, which makes it a source for scientists around the world.
The collection represents the Ozark ecosystem
Most of the collection came from a donation of 4.5 million aquatic invertebrate specimens from Ozark streams by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The department donated the lot as "an importance resource that needed better access," Simpson said.
About 2,000 people visit the museum every year, she said, including curious MU students and busloads of elementary school children.
Some are fascinated by the size and variety of the insects at the museum. Others find them unsettling. Even insects native to Missouri can be big and frightful, including:
- Tarantulas — These hunting spiders are common in central and southern Missouri. They are not aggressive toward humans. Females can live up to 30 years while males typically don't live more than one.
- The imperial moth — It is large, hairy and bright yellow, sprinkled with symmetrical patterns of purple spots and stripes on either wing.
- The stag beetle — It is a reddish brown flying insect. Males have ferocious looking, pincer-like mandibles that they use to combat other males.
- Velvet ants — Despite the name, they are not ants but rather solitary wasps. They are furry, usually in shades of orange and red, and some are more than an inch long. Males have wings; females don't. They earned the name "cow killer" because of their extraordinarily long stinger which is reported to deliver an excruciating sting. It delivers the most painful sting in Missouri, Simpson said.
Insects may be big but not so bad
Simpson thinks people learn to dislike insects, as opposed to having a born aversion. She sees evidence of this in the children who tour the museum on field trips.
“When I have kids come in, especially preschoolers, I find that if one is willing to pet the cockroach, the others will pet the cockroach,” she said, referring to the live Madagascar hissing cockroaches the museum displays.
“As they get older, their willingness to touch the cockroach will go down.”
Bruce Barrett, an MU professor with a doctorate in entomology, thinks some insects are just hard to relate to.
"We tend to avoid things we really don't understand," Barrett said. "Insects and other arthropods are so different from us. I think most people can't relate to them in the same way they would to other animals."
The entomology museum, one of the early "tourist attractions" at MU, was housed for more than 50 years in Whitten Hall, now home to MU Extension. The museum moved to the Agricultural Building in 1958.
In 1980, it was renamed the Wilbur R. Enns Entomology Museum after an MU professor of entomology, director of the MU Entomology Museum and president of the north central branch of the Entomological Society of America.
Museum supplies critical tools for research
The museum holds a key place in scientific research as a place to identify insects and their place in the ecosystem. Although many people regard them as pests, insects assume that classification only when they interfere with human activity.
“We only consider termites pests because they eat our houses. And what do we make our houses out of? Termite food,” Simpson said.
Insects also allow us to have food, both through pollination and through the consumption of other insects.
"They pollinate most of our fruits, many of our vegetables such as beans, peas and tomatoes, and several field crops, such as cotton and clover. They are major decomposers in nature. They are food for many animals, including man," Simpson said.
Insects are useful in yet another, more unlikely way. Barrett explained that some forensic scientists, such as Robert Hall, a forensic entomologist and vice chancellor of research at MU, study insects found on or around dead bodies in crime scenes,
"Because insects, such as flies, that are attracted to a recently expired organism, like a human, arrive at such distinct successional waves, these types of data can help a forensic scientist determine time of death and perhaps if the victim died at a different location," he said.
Dead bugs keep for a long time
Insect bodies have surprising longevity if properly preserved and maintained, Simpson said.
“The specimens here will last longer than you or I will. We have specimens from the 1880s,” she said.
Ironically, the biggest threat to dead insects is hungry, living ones.
“That’s our biggest problem – keeping things out,” Simpson said, referring to the small “carpet beetles” that like to infiltrate the display cases to feed on the dead insects.
A project to photograph and digitize the insects will help the curators better manage the collection. Simpson said DNA analysis has made it easier to catalogue new species and differentiate species similar in appearance.
"We estimate at least 2 or 3 more million out there that we haven’t described as a species. That's compared to 44,000 vertebrates found worldwide."
Barrett referenced the entomologist Edward O. Wilson when he considered a world without insects.
"Within a very short time, a lot of things would shut down ecologically. Plants lacking key insect pollinators would soon disappear, and the animals that utilize the specialized foliage would also suffer," he said.
"In essence, the earth would collapse into chaos."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.