In the basement, insects by the thousands

Photos by Vanessa Parraga / WWU Communications and Marketing intern

Vanessa Parraga
Communications and Marketing intern

Tens of thousands of insects lie in the basement of Western Washington University’s Biology building, unnoticed by most who traverse Western’s campus daily.

Not to worry; these insects belong to Merrill Peterson, a professor of biology and the curator of Western’s little-known insect collection, which he hopes to share with more people. The collection, which has more than 50,000 specimens, was recently moved into a new space, making it possible for Peterson to give guided tours by arrangement.

“To my knowledge, Western's insect collection is the second largest publicly-held insect collection in the state, second only to the massive collection at WSU,” Peterson said.

From the aerial yellow jacket to the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, the collection became well established in the ’60s and has been built up through the years by donations, curators and students. One of the latest donations came from a Western Biology alumna, Marie Churney, who started collecting when she was an undergraduate in the 1960s. Her collection included specimens from Washington, North Carolina, Florida, and across the Southeast.

Peterson said that the Western insect collection offers numerous educational and scientific benefits to the community.

“It’s useful for supporting a lot of our classes here at Western,” he said. “I often loan specimens out to an Invertebrate Zoology class or our introductory Biology courses that deal with diversity.”

Entities outside of Western have found the collection useful as well.

Three years ago an invasive sawfly species was discovered in the region. They feed on alder, a very prolific tree species in Washington, so there was a concern among entomologists that the sawflies could cause a problem.

The entomologists in the area put out a call for specimens and Peterson sent what he had to them.

Our collection had the oldest specimen in the Pacific Northwest, dating back to 1995,” Peterson said.

That specimen was collected by a student in the Biology department’s entomology course. Having evidence that the sawfly had been around at least since 1995 gave state entomologists a better idea of the problem at hand.

Tours of the insect collection are available, by appointment, to individuals or groups of up to 15 people, including K-12 students. For more information, contact Merrill Peterson at (360) 650-3636 or merrill.peterson@wwu.edu