Small department celebrates 100 years … of bugs

By Colleen Vest

Imagine suiting up and studying some of the smallest and most dangerous living creatures as part of a University class.

Professors and students in the entomology department have been working with honey bees, fire ants and other insects found throughout the world for years.

“Insects are found everywhere and are used and studied in veterinary science, medicine and really almost every aspect of human life,” said May Berenbaum, entomology professor and department head. “It’s essentially biology with six legs.”

This is the 100th year that entomology has been its own department within integrative biology in LAS, Berenbaum said. Entomology was first taught in 1872 but became a separate department in 1909, she said.

“We have about 10 faculty members, 35 grad students and two undergraduates officially enrolled in the individual plan of study,” Berenbaum said of the current program. “We are hoping to build it up and have more undergrads because this University’s entomology department is quite prominent worldwide.”

Insects are ideal for research because the information can be applied to many different biological fields, Berenbaum said.

Andy Suarez, assistant professor of entomology, researches the ecology of different types of ants and their effects on the environment.

“We research fire ants from Argentina that have been introduced to the U.S., so they’re called a biological invasion,” he said. “We are looking at why these ants that cause a lot of economic and ecological problems are so successful here.”

Professors and students in the entomology department research honey bees, parasitic wasp genomes, body louse, mosquitoes and other biological and social aspects of insects, Berenbaum said.

“We have a lab that studies the social behavior of honey bees,” said Gene Robinson, entomology professor. “Over the years, we have probably had over 100 undergrads in the bee research facility.”

The entomology department is trying to get more undergraduates involved in research because working with insects is a new experience for most students, Suarez said.

“The entomology department and research we do has made the University an international center for genomic and social biology,” Berenbaum said. “We have consistently been ranked in the top three entomology departments in the nation since at least 1980.”

The department is trying to get the public involved and increase knowledge about insects and effects some insects have on the environment, Bernebaum said.

“We’re opening a science center in the next month because people don’t really know much about some insects,” Berenbaum said.