BLACKSBURG, Va. — The insect infestation in the basement of Virginia Tech’s Seitz Hall is Paul Marek’s fault.
The entomologist has used the space to create a home for many of the more than 400,000 insect specimens that have been preserved on campus since the 19th century. The insects come from across the globe, though many were collected in and around the New River Valley.
In 2013, finding a new home for the collection was one of the professor’s top priorities as its the newly minted curator. Founded in 1888, Virginia Tech’s insect collection is the oldest and largest in the state .
The collection had been stored in a building off of Price’s Fork Road, rarely seen by the public and rarely given any attention. Many of the bugs were covered with mothballs to help preserve them.
Marek said he wanted to change that.
With a nearly $470,000 National Science Foundation grant, Marek and a group of Tech students have transformed the collection by updating the infrastructure.
Gone are the mothballs. About 200,000 of the dried and pinned insects are now housed in state-of-the-art drawers that block out moisture in cabinets that were purchased for the collection’s new home in the Seitz Hall basement.
The rest of the 200,000 specimens are spread out around campus. A collection of insect DNA is stored in Latham Hall along with jars of millipedes. A large collection of aquatic insects is still being maintained at the Price’s Fork research station, and numerous specimens that aren’t cataloged yet are stored there as well.
Marek and his students have also started the long and arduous process of digitizing the collection and improving accessibility for the public.
“We’re cleaning up so-called ‘dark data,’” or information about the insects that exists but is basically inaccessible, Marek said.
Grant Schiermeyer, a student curator, said he’s often digitizing specimens and giving tours to folks who are interested in learning more about insects.
“It’s great to be in here and show it to people,” Schiermeyer said.
In the last few years, Marek estimates, about 5,000 pollinator specimens have been digitized. A crop of millipede specimens, the main insect Marek and his lab studies, have been digitized as well.
Marek and his team of graduate students continue collecting insect specimens. He estimates they’re adding about 5,000 specimens of mostly millipedes to the collection each year.
But why is it important to preserve hundreds of thousands of dead bugs?
Studying the past is important to understanding the future, Marek said.
“This is critical baseline data we need to know what happens next,” Marek said.
That baseline data can be used to look at how insect populations have shifted over time. Some of the oldest residents of the Appalachians live in leaf litter and are flitting around hollows across the region.
Understanding them, and what is reducing their populations or even driving them to extinction, will benefit humanity, Marek said. The collection contains many species that either no longer live in Virginia or are extinct.
Natural collections data is incredibly important for understanding what happens when habitat is destroyed and biodiversity is reduced. Biodiversity, especially in plant life, is responsible for many of the drugs that people use to fight disease.
Marek said scientists estimate about 75 percent of pharmaceuticals are the result of biodiversity, mainly in the tropics.
“When we’re destroying habitats for animals we’re really shooting ourselves in the foot,” Marek said.
Besides that scientific value, understanding the collection, maintaining it and sharing it with the public is important to Tech as an institution.
“It’s the physical manifestation of our own land grant obligation to the state,” said Derek Hennen, an entomology graduate student who works with Marek.
Beyond preserving scientific history, the collection is also a piece of university history.
The two most prominent figures who created it and greatly expanded it were William Alwood, one of Tech’s first pest researchers in the late 1800s, and Ellison Smyth, a biologist who would later become a dean and was also Virginia Tech’s first football coach in 1891.
Smyth, who coached the school’s football squad for only two years at what was then Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, later became dean and added more than 50,000 specimens to the collection.
Entomology professors at the school later added more, especially during the middle of the 20th century, steadily building toward the large number of specimens in the collection today.
But some of the specimens collected were never added to the collection. Those “backlog” specimens, Marek said, are sitting in his office folded up into old newspaper clippings .
When he has spare time, Marek said, he takes them out and gets them ready to be pinned in drawers in a process similar to that which has preserved insects since the 19th century.
Sometimes, Marek said, he has to take a breath in awe of the years of collection hours put into the drawers and drawers of insects.
“It’s amazing the amount of time that’s encapsulated in this collection,” Marek said.