It might bug you, but University of Manitoba's insect collection is key to understanding the world

The University of Manitoba is home to one of largest insect collections in Canada, with the oldest specimen dating back 128 years — just over a decade after the university was founded as the first in western Canada.

'These biodiversity collections are effectively a time machine,' Jeremy Kerr says

A man in a medical mask hold a large winged insect.
Jason Gibbs holding a large cicada from Malaysia, part of the collection in the Wallis-Roughley Museum of Entomology at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted byJason Gibbs)

Some are smaller than a fingernail, others wider than a splayed hand. Some catch the light in an iridescent shimmer while others have long antennae or furry legs.

Most impressive of all: there are close to three million of them.

The University of Manitoba is home to one of largest insect collections in Canada, with the oldest specimen dating back 128 years — just over a decade after the university was founded as the first in western Canada.

The ballpark number of specimens usually cited by the U of M is 2.5 million "but that I think that number has been quoted for years and the collection just keeps growing," said Jason Gibbs, associate professor in the university's department of entomology.

Entomology is the study of insects and their relationship to humans, the environment and other organisms, and U of M has the only such department in the country, according to its website, which also claims the collection is the third largest in the country.

Drawer containing insects of varying shapes and sizes.
The 'wow drawer,' displaying a variety of insects from around the world, at the J.B. Wallis-Roughley Museum of Entomology at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted by Jason Gibbs)

An estimated 500,000 specimens are stored in shallow drawers, below glass and pinned to a foam board. The remainder are preserved in alcohol.

Most of the collection is held in the department's J.B. Wallis/R.E. Roughley Museum, of which Gibbs is curator.

"We have these sort of cabinets with individual drawers in them and you have to get up on a step stool to reach the top ones, and they fill two rooms," he said.

"We're in many ways beyond capacity because we've received some large donations over the years that are currently in storage. So I think we don't really know exactly how many specimens we have."

Small fly on a pin with a label attached to it.
A hover fly, collected in 1894, is one of the oldest specimens in the Wallis-Roughley Museum of Entomology at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted by Jason Gibbs)

About 200,000 specimens are recorded in the department's database, but that accounts for only 10-15 per cent of the pin collection, while the specimens in alcohol are harder to count.

The oldest specimen Gibbs is aware of is a hover fly collected in 1894.

"We try to maintain the sort of historical kind of record of the insects primarily in Manitoba, but we're constantly growing the collection" he said. 

"It's extensive. It's a marvelous collection."

Time machine

Aside from being impressive — with a creepy-crawly undercurrent — the collection is critical to understanding our world and climate change, said Jeremy Kerr, chair of the University of Ottawa's department of biology.

"These biodiversity collections are effectively a time machine. They let us go back in time and understand what the world looked like 30 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 100 years ago," he said.

"You need to have these historical collections. It's a quiet little corner of the university and museum universe, these collections, but the insights you get from them are just unreachable any other way."

Portrait of a man.
The lessons we draw from how biodiversity responds to climate change and extreme weather events can help us understand how we are going to sustain ourselves, says Professor Jeremy Kerr. (Submitted by Jeremy Kerr)

Information from the U of M and other institutions like the Canadian Museum of Nature have allowed scientists to discover ways in which climate change is threatening biological diversity, said Kerr, who is also the U of Ottawa's research chair in macroecology and conservation.

"The lessons we draw from how biodiversity responds to these kinds of extreme weather events can also help us understand how we are going to sustain ourselves as these sorts of changes continue," he said.

Generations ago, somebody decided to hold onto insects they were finding "and now we've got 3,000,000 observations in this single university collection, that's an amazing thing," Kerr said.

"But it's so much more important than just a cool anachronism from some old era of biological exploration. It's just so much more powerful than that."

A smiling man holds a specimen drawer of bumble bees.
Jason Gibbs holding a drawer of bumble bees. The U of M's entomology museum has over 100,000 bee specimens. (Submitted by Jason Gibbs)

But the flashiness of the collection is still a draw, which can be a way to get future generations interested in entomology.

Although the Wallis-Roughley Museum at the U of M isn't a normal museum in the sense that it isn't open for visitors, there is a youth encouragement committee run by graduate students through the Entomological Society of Manitoba. They take displays to schools and sometimes bring kids in to see the collection, Gibbs said.

One of the things he likes to show off is the "wow drawer" featuring some spectacular specimens from around the world.

"They're just really beautiful — big, flashy, metallic beetles and dragonflies and butterflies and things like that, which we like to show to people to give them an appreciation for how beautiful insects can be," said Gibbs.

"Another one that I often show to people is a cicada that was collected in Malaysia. If you took your thumb to pinky finger and kind of spread them out, that's about the wingspan of this thing — maybe an eight-inch wingspan, it's enormous."

An average cicada you might see in Manitoba is probably 2.5 centimetres long.

Closeup of a bee.
The Epeolus gibbsi bee looks a wee bit like a wasp and boasts a white grin on its back. (Thomas M. Onuferko/ZooKeys)

Gibbs' interest in insects comes from being a child whose dad was a commercial beekeeper. His own specialty is bees but he is primarily a taxonomist, involved in the discovery, description and classification of all insects.

Gibbs understands some people have phobias around bugs and has experienced the creepiness himself.

"One time early in my position here I was looking through the collection just to see what we had and I kind of reached up to a drawer that was above my head, so I couldn't see what was in it. It was filled with tarantulas so that kind of surprised me a little bit. I wasn't expecting that," he said.

His best advice, which he admits he has to remind himself sometimes: "Most insects are going to be more afraid of you than you are of them."

Despite the extinction rates insects are experiencing, there are still new ones to be discovered, as long as you are curious and keep your eyes open, said Gibbs, who has a species of bee named after him: the Epeolus gibbsi.

Discovered in 2017 as Gibbs and his wife were in Manitoba's Spruce Woods Provincial Park, he couldn't identify it so he sent it to a colleague. It turned out it was as-yet unknown, so Gibbs was given the credit.

"There's a lot of interest in bees … and yet somebody can go out to a commonly-visited provincial park and find something that no one has ever really seen before. I mean that's part of the fun," he said.

"People probably wouldn't be happy with the number of insects that sort of find their way into my home freezer over the course of the summer. But luckily I have a wife who is very accommodating of such things."

Millions of preserved bugs could help us better understand climate change

2 months ago
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The University of Manitoba is home to a multi-million specimen collection of bugs dating back to the late 1800's. This insect museum could hold the key to understanding how climate change will impact these tiny invertebrates.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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