It’s no invasion

Beetle exhibit shows off diversity of insect group

Photo by Michael Callahan

Ed Sullivan isn’t around to introduce them, and you’re not gonna want to slug your partner every time you spot one. Yet for those who aren’t bugged by the sight of crawling creatures, a local exhibit showcasing an interesting and diverse culture will finally bring these denizens back into public consciousness. Ladies and gentlemen, the beetles!

A new traveling exhibit at the University Of Colorado Museum Of Natural History, Beetles opened recently in the BioLounge area. On the lower level of the museum, the BioLounge is a combination of quiet workspace and changing exhibits. The area has seen foot traffic increase nearly tenfold in the past 18 months, museum officials say. With “Beetles,” population of the hall rises even further for the next year or so.

“We have really great collections here at CU, nearly 5 million objects between all the different departments,” says Andrea Robbins, public programs specialist at the CUMNH. “What we’re trying to do at the end of the day is take these wonderful objects and get them in front of people to help educate them and give them a better appreciation.”

With 600-plus specimens adorning one wall of the exhibit, from tiny beetles the size of a pinhead to the gnarly jousting horns of the large Staghorn, Beetles gives insight into a world that goes mostly unnoticed, unless you have a fear of insects or spot a cockroach scurrying across the kitchen floor when you flip the light switch. It also showcases the research and artifacts gathered by the team at the museum with fact-filled panels and visual clues, and opens up these seldom-seen artifacts to a wider audience.

“Normally you have to call and make a reservation to see the collection. This is opening the collection up to everybody,” Robbins says.

The exhibit highlights similarities among the insects, and some of it relates to the roles humans have placed on these amazing creatures over the years. There is the story of how the ladybug (which is a beetle) got its name. And how Zuni and Cherokee Native Americans both note beetles in their history. One panel of particular local interest pertains to the continuing mountain pine beetle epidemic in Colorado that has decimated tree stands across the state.

A few of the questions answered by the exhibit include: Are beetles tasty? Would you have a beetle as a pet? What makes a beetle a beetle? The answers come in easily digestible, bite-sized nuggets displayed on colorful panels near the exhibits.

“The panels talk about the different roles beetles play, their ecosystems and so forth,” says Patrick Kociolek, director of museum and field studies. “There are a couple of panels just about how people can take that knowledge and apply it to things like crime scenes and other things.”

Researchers have used information from the collections to chart things like climate change and for forensic analysis of human corpses.

In general, all beetles have chewing mouthparts, but some of them are plant feeders, some of them are carrion feeders or predators, and some are woodborers. Scarab beetles may have long protuberances to help fight for the right to mate with a female. Dung beetles tend to have longer front or hind legs to help roll their balls of processed waste. Evolutionary camouflage presents itself in an array of different colors and patinas through the exhibit.

Ancient Egypt revered the dung beetle as a god for its perceived beauty and its mimicry of the sun god Ra, who Egyptians believed rolled the sun across the sky every day.

On the other hand, dour early Christians associated beetles with foulness and wickedness, and thought stag beetles carried embers in their mouths that could set a thatched roof afire.

“This is why we have collections,” says Dr. Deane Bowers, curator of entomology at CUMNH. “It’s not just cool-looking insects, it’s because of the information that goes with those collections.”

Beetles are the most common type of insect in the world, based on species number. Only 400,000 different types are catalogued out of an estimated 4 million to 8 million species.

“It’s hard to imagine this is just one group of organisms,” Bowers says. “You look at these guys, and it’s the same basic body plan, and yet the diversity of them is incredible.”

Beetles runs through October 2013 at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Visit or call 303-492-6892.