Pesticides highlighted at annual Insect Fear Film Festival

Meg Telthorst, student in DGS, and Connor Mix, student in FAA take turns holding tarantulas at this year’s annual Insect Fear Film Festival this past Saturday night, at Foellinger Auditorium.

By Chris Radecki

Saturday marked the entomology department’s 31st annual Insect Fear Film Festival at Foellinger Auditorium. This year’s festival headlined pesticides, and how the public view of pesticides has changed over the years.

May Berenbaum, head of the entomology department and founder of the event, chose to focus this year’s event on pesticides, namely DDT, a USDA-banned chemical compound known specifically for its insecticidal properties. 

“I stumbled across a movie about pesticides, and DDT actually played a central plot role in the movie,” Berenbaum said. “Views of pesticides back then were so different, I thought it would be interesting to show how pesticides have changed over the years.”

DDT was used consistently in the 1930s and ‘40s in an effort to curb insect populations, said Tom Schmeelk, entomology graduate student. However, scientists started to notice concentrations of the substance in other animals and realized traces of the substance were moving through the food chain in a process called biomagnification. 

Biomagnification is when an organism has a high concentration of a substance in its diet. When insects are sprayed with DDT, for example, they ingest the chemical. If a bird then eats the insect, the bird also ingests the chemical. Scientists began to notice this trend with DDT and started to test the toxicity of the substance. 

Some of the initial empirical evidence was found by Roy Barker, who received a doctorate degree in entomology at the University in 1953, which is another reason the entomology department chose DDT as the focus of this year’s festival. 

“DDT was banned because of the way it worked its way through the food chain,” Berenbaum said. 

Berenbaum originally attempted to start an insect festival at Cornell University while she was in graduate school, but the idea failed to gain momentum among her peers. Her professors found the idea undignified.

“Ours is actually the longest running insect festival in the U.S. — every other college has one, but we actually started it here (at the University),” Berenbaum said.  

The festival featured displays of live insects, one full feature-length film on DDT and two short Disney clips displaying pesticide chemicals used during the 1930s and 1940s. For children, entomology graduate students offered face painting as well as insect balloon animals. The festival also holds a contest for local elementary schools in which students draw pictures of insects.

“Since we live in the area, we are a part of the U of I emails, we became aware of (the festival), this is our fourth year coming. It’s awesome, we love it,” said Kristen Pritts, Champaign resident and mother. “It’s an opportunity for the kids to come see all the live bugs and different things on display, and the face painting. The girls love the face painting.”

Despite this year’s festival not focusing completely on insects, Berenbaum saw the connection between pesticides and insects a bit differently.

“The festival is called the Insect Fear Film Festival,” Berenbaum said. “In this case, people fear insects, and insects fear pesticides.”

Chris can be reached at [email protected]