Just when you thought Unfold was done for the season, we decided to bug you with one last episode. UC Davis boasts one of the largest insect collections in North America, so how could we not take you on a tour? The Bohart Museum of Entomology holds more than 7 million specimens, from the beautiful to the downright terrifying. Its entomologists have even helped homicide investigations, thanks to the bug scrapings left behind. You’ll hear about beautiful butterflies, jewel beetles, murder hornets and cuckoo wasps — as well as why we’re calling this episode “Cockroaches for Dessert.”
In this episode:
Lynn Kimsey, professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and director of Bohart Museum of Entomology
Audio transcriptions may contain errors.
Amy Quinton I had a nightmare last night.
Kat Kerlin What about?
Amy Quinton Well, it's a nightmare I get all the time when I'm stressed. I dream I'm being attacked by a swarm of stinging bees. They're everywhere. And then I wake up.
Kat Kerlin That's awful. Oh, I know you're afraid of bees. I remember that story you did on bees when you were still in public radio.
Amy Quinton Oh, do you? The one about the fate of the bees during the last drought? I followed some beekeepers around checking their hives and had to put on the white beekeeper suit. Here's what they told me about bees.
Beekeeper And you should have a healthy respect for them. But I don't think you need to be scared of them.
Amy Quinton OK, well
Beekeeper You may get some buzzing around the outside.
Amy Quinton That close?
Beekeeper Yeah. Yeah, if they do, don't don't go swatting and worry. The more you swat, they give off a smell that will attract others. We're going to zip this up just so your cord can stick out.
Amy Quinton All right.
Beekeeper OK, you want gloves on too. Probably.
Amy Quinton Probably.
Beekeeper That going to work?
Amy Quinton That'll work. Let's hope it works or I'm blaming you.
Amy Quinton Kat, you can just tell I'm scared to death even though I'm all suited up. But here's the thing that they forgot to tell me about honey bees; they're attracted to dark colors.
Kat Kerlin OK, but you were all set up in the white beekeeper suit, right?
Amy Quinton Theoretically.
Beekeeper We're done at this location. Will hop in. The bees are scattered up and down the orchard.
Amy Quinton That was me screaming. It made a really loud noise.
Beekeeper OK. I'll tell you what. Why?
Amy Quinton Oh that's why. It likes the microphone.
Beekeeper It's the color. They don't like dark colors.
Amy Quinton Yeah. You're just you're reaching your hand on the bees.
Beekeeper Yeah. He doesn't wear gloves.
Beekeeper You even got one on you, how do you like that? Look at that.
Amy Quinton I don't like it.
Beekeeper OK, another one on you.
Amy Quinton Oh my God. Yeah. They just kept swarming my microphone and of course I had headphones on too, so it sounded like they were inside my ears.
Amy Quinton There they go again on my microphone. Maybe I should just take pictures at this point. Yeah, I think I'm chickening out with the microphone. Don't, don't run, right? Don't swat.
Beekeeper Don't swat. You want to stick that microphone right down in there close and get good sound?
Amy Quinton Not really. Oh wow. Look at that.
Kat Kerlin Oh, Amy, you were so brave to battle the bees, your biggest fear, all for a story.
Amy Quinton Right? God, I can still hear those bees in my nightmares.
Kat Kerlin OK, but pollinators are important even if they do have a nasty sting.
Amy Quinton Yeah, I learned a lot from that beekeeper. We also have our own stinging insect expert here at UC Davis, entomologist Lynn Kimsey, the director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology. And she told me about this Schmidt Sting Pain Index. Have you heard about this?
Kat Kerlin No, but it doesn't sound good.
Amy Quinton Yeah. The Schmidt index ranks the pain from insect stings, and she says it's pretty accurate.
Lynn Kimsey I've probably been stung by almost everything on his list.
Amy Quinton Yikes. What's the most painful?
Lynn Kimsey It's a toss up between bullet ants, these big South American ants and tarantula hawks.
Kat Kerlin Whoa. What are tarantula hawks?
Amy Quinton They're big wasps.
Kat Kerlin Oh, and I imagine they prey on tarantulas.
Amy Quinton Yes. And apparently Lynn was also stung by one while working in the desert, collecting flying insects. She says the tarantula wasp has a quarter of an inch long stinger Kat, a quarter of an inch long.
Lynn Kimsey And of course, as I'm putting it into the kill jar, it got me right underneath the thumbnail. And so I'm hopping up and down, doing a little four-letter phrases and words and things cause it really feels like you put your finger on the electrical outlet, but it only lasted about 20 seconds.
Kat Kerlin Oh, that's awful. Oh my God. Why is she telling you this story? I mean, doesn’t she know you are afraid of honey bees, not to mention a tarantula hawk?
Amy Quinton Right? Well, here's what she said when I told her that.
Lynn Kimsey Unlike the tarantula hawk, honey bees, the only reason for having venom is to make you hurt. You know, it's to protect their nests, alright so it's designed to hurt vertebrates, mammals like us as much as possible for as long as possible. Whereas with tarantula hawks, yeah, they use it defensively, but mostly it's to capture tarantulas. So, yeah. It hurts briefly. But..
Amy Quinton Alright. Now that I'm going to have nightmares.
Lynn Kimsey Oh, God. 90 percent of the animals on earth are insects. So you got to get over it.
Kat Kerlin Yeah. Get over it. No, I like honey bees. I actually really like bugs. I mean, maybe not the stinging ones, but I like honey bees. I like butterflies. I love fireflies. I like all the different types of beetles there are in the world like insects are such interesting and curious creatures.
Amy Quinton And they're important in helping us understand our world a little better as you'll soon see. I found out that Lynn Kimsey is full of fun insect stories. One time she even had cockroaches for dessert.
Kat Kerlin On purpose? Cockroaches for dessert?
Amy Quinton You'll find out. We're going to explore the world of insects in this episode of Unfold that we're calling “Cockroaches for Dessert.” Coming to you from UC Davis, this is Unfold, a podcast that breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity driven research. I'm Amy Quinton.
Kat Kerlin And I'm Kat Kerlin.
Amy Quinton So I imagine you've been to the Bohart Museum of Entomology like a thousand times?
Kat Kerlin A few.
Amy Quinton Oh, OK. Good. Well, I had only been there once and very briefly so decided to go back. It's also the 75th anniversary of the Bohart.
Kat Kerlin Oh, cool. I did not know that. I do know that they have a huge collection of insects, like millions. I think they have like more than eight million specimens.
Amy Quinton Yeah. And they're from all over the world, from every single continent except Antarctica. Lynn says they have the seventh largest insect collection in North America and add about 30,000 new specimens a year. So ready for a tour?
Kat Kerlin Ready.
Amy Quinton You might think like I did, that a museum that holds more than eight million insects would be huge, but you'd be wrong. It doesn't seem much bigger than a large classroom, but it's full of towering cabinets.
Lynn Kimsey And what I'm doing is I'm cranking open the compacter range where we have the pin specimens stored. OK, so I'm moving about a ton of steel with my hand. And what this consists of is these mobile shelving units that carry glass-top wooden drawers, that house the pin specimens, and there are 28 of these in each column in this mobile shelving system.
Amy Quinton She pulls out one of these specimen drawers. They can hold anywhere from 10 to 500 insects. In this drawer, there are about a dozen giant butterflies.
Lynn Kimsey They do have metallic blue on them. They're about the size of your hand. If you spread your fingers. You know, the awesome thing about them, though, is when you look at. . . so the top is metallic, the bottom looks like an owl. And so when you look at them, they have these huge eye spots on the hind wings that look just like an unblinking owl staring at you.
Amy Quinton Oh, they do!
Lynn Kimsey Right see? And this is how they protect themselves. So these are called owl moths or Caligo butterflies. They're really butterflies.
Amy Quinton Lynn says birds won't eat these guys.
Lynn Kimsey Eye spots are pretty effective on birds. They don't mess around with things with big eyes because they could become dinner, you know. Yes, those are pretty cool. And these guys that, again, like the owl butterflies, bright colors on the top, but when they have the wings folded up, they look like a dead leaf. They're brown, speckled brown, little chew marks, leaf veins, the whole works, even to the point where they have tails that look like the petiole on a leaf and they actually will roll over on their side with the wings closed. So they really do look like a dead leaf on the ground. It's very funny. So these guys are awesome. Yeah, they're really great.
Amy Quinton Lynn's love for insects began when she was given a butterfly net as a child. But her love for butterflies drifted away, replaced by her love for scary stinging insects, including the infamous murder hornets.
Lynn Kimsey (Laughs) I'm the queen of murder hornets. You know that, right?
Amy Quinton Murder Hornets, in case you don't know, are two-inch long, invasive Asian hornets that can wipe out honey bees, by usually decapitating them and feeding their thoraxes to their young. They're also capable of killing humans. While they've been found in northern Washington and eradicated, they are not in California.
Lynn Kimsey From my standpoint, it would be awesome to have them here. No one else would feel that way. But environmentally, they probably can't live in California because the summers are too dry. If you look at the distribution maps of their native ranges in South and Central Asia, it's all places with summer rain. So waah, no, no murder hornets.
Amy Quinton Lynn says every year she discovers things about insects that are just plain weird. Take the murder hornet.
Lynn Kimsey It turns out that at least one of the species of those hornets is photosynthetic. You know, we think of plants or bacteria as being the only things that can capture sunlight and turn it into stuff. These wasps, they have yellow bands on the abdomen which apparently act like solar panels and they can use it to heat themselves up and generate energy. And yeah.
Amy Quinton Yeah, murder hornets are scary. And speaking of murder, Lynn once helped prosecutors convict a murderer just by identifying bugs on a car.
Lynn Kimsey So they wanted to know if the insects on the radiator could tell us where the car had been. And it turned out we could, based in a large part by having this collection available for comparison, right? So we could know where those species we found occurred in the natural world.
Amy Quinton Lynn's testimony at trial that some of the bugs were from the western U.S. helped convince jurors that the accused murderer, Vincent Brothers, lied about where he was at the time of the murder. He was convicted on five counts of first-degree murder for killing his wife, three kids and mother-in-law. Insects in the Bohart collection can help scientists uncover lots of mysteries. DNA from bugs here can reveal what California landscapes were like in the early 1900s.
Lynn Kimsey For example, we have a lot of specimens that were collected from a town called Samuel Springs, which is in Napa County. Well Samuel Springs' is now under 50 feet of water in Lake Berryessa. But we can look at the specimens and tell you what that habitat was like, what kind of plants were there because of the pollinators, what kind of soils and so on. So it really is an image in time and space in here.
Amy Quinton There are so many different kinds of insects in Bohart, I asked Lynn to show me her favorite.
Lynn Kimsey My favorites. OK, we'll have to go down here. Let's see.
Amy Quinton She walks down the aisle to show me what she absolutely goes cuckoo over.
Lynn Kimsey These are called cuckoo wasps and their nest parasites of other wasps and bees, basically. So this one, for example, attacks wasps and bees that make large mud nests like mud daubers do. And these guys are parasites on those.
Amy Quinton It might sound strange to love a parasite until you get a close look at them. They glow with brilliant colors, including Lynn's favorite.
Lynn Kimsey Metallic blue. Yeah. Oh, yeah, I'm a total sucker for it. Metallic colors. So the whole, this whole family of about, oh, I forget how many species, maybe 10,000, they’re almost all metallic blue or green or even golden depending on where they're from.
Amy Quinton Beautiful iridescent colors are quite common in the insect world.
Lynn Kimsey So these would be scarab beetles, for example. Here's a group of bright green scarab beetles. These are commonly called fig beetles.
Amy Quinton Those are pretty.
Lynn Kimsey A little bit. Yeah, they're quite handsome.
Amy Quinton Some of the scarab beetles look like emeralds. I must admit, I was becoming bedazzled by beetles.
Lynn Kimsey This is another gorgeous one that you find in the American tropics. It's a scarab. It's about marble-sized, bright metallic pinks, blues to greens, and a great big horn coming off the front of the head. And these ones like poo.
Amy Quinton They’re so pretty though they could be jewelry.
Lynn Kimsey They look like jewels. They really, truly do. They're absolutely gorgeous.
Amy Quinton Then Lynn grabs a three-inch long, aptly-named Jewel Beetle.
Lynn Kimsey Euchroma gigas. This is the one from Latin America that it's just huge and it's metallic green and pink, kind of, depending on the angle of the light.
Amy Quinton Lest you think all insects are beautiful, let's move on to the less beautiful and likely the least liked, unless you are a hungry toad or a famished frog. And that's cockroaches. The Bohart has some live ones, which I did not know. Oh, look at these things.
Lynn Kimsey Yeah. So we have two right now we have two different kinds of cockroaches. We have these huge cave roaches and then the hissing cockroaches. Those are smelly things. The cave roaches.
Amy Quinton The cave roaches are absolutely huge. Dozens of them scurry around in a large terrarium at the Bohart. They're right underneath the walking sticks and not too far from Cocoa McFluffin, the pet tarantula.
Lynn Kimsey Cave roaches look like your standard American cockroach on steroids. So they're about twice the size. They have really big wings, kind of pale, tan-colored with a dark patch in the middle. And they normally live in caves. They're kind of scavengers. So we actually brought this colony back from a cave in Panama.
Amy Quinton Unlike their neighbors, the hissing cockroaches of Madagascar, that prefer to eat fruit, Lynn says the cave roaches crave protein.
Lynn Kimsey They like dog kibbles. They're really gross when they fly overhead at night because they sound like little B-52 bombers going overhead.
Amy Quinton Lynn spent some time in Panama where she got her first taste of a cockroach.
Lynn Kimsey When I was working in Panama at the field station run by the Smithsonian, and the cooks decided to make us a big treat because we hadn't had, you know, any fancy food for a while. So they made oatmeal cookies with raisins, which is awesome, right out of the oven. You know, I took a big bite out of mine and then I realized that the raisin that I just bitten in half and swallowed had legs. Oh, and, you know, cockroaches kind of taste the way they smell that kind of.. .yeah.
Amy Quinton Funky.
Lynn Kimsey Yes. So I'm not a fan, I’ll just say.
Amy Quinton Lynn says it was completely unintentional, cockroaches were not on the dessert menu.
Kat Kerlin Oh, my God, that is so gross. So she didn't eat them on purpose?
Amy Quinton No, she told me no one eats cockroaches on purpose. Here's why. Apparently, they pee into their own fat in their bodies and store it there. It makes them taste awful.
Kat Kerlin Oh, that's so gross. Oh, my gosh. And they're going to outlive all of us.
Amy Quinton Very likely.
Kat Kerlin I imagine you could have told us a lot more stories about insects at the Bohart.
Amy Quinton It would take all day. But there was one more little moth I wanted to tell you about.
Kat Kerlin Oh, yeah?
Amy Quinton The Donald Trump moth. Have you heard about it?
Kat Kerlin Oh, yeah. So that's the one with the scales on its head that resembled Donald Trump's bad comb over. Am I right?
Amy Quinton Yeah. The neopalpa Donald Trumpae. Lynn says the scales also give it a pouty look. It's also very tiny. Little bitty front legs. Small genitalia. She called it unremarkable, but it was found in Southern California and it is a newly discovered species.
Kat Kerlin You can say that again. You can find out more about the Bohart collection by visiting their webpage at bohart.ucdavis.edu. And you can find links and more episodes of unfold at ucdavis.edu/unfold.
Amy Quinton Thanks for listening. Unfold as a production of UC Davis, it's produced by Cody Drabble. Original music for Unfold comes from Damian Verrett and Curtis Jerome Haynes.
Amy Quinton Hey, if you like this podcast, check out UC Davis's other podcast, The Backdrop. It's a monthly interview program featuring conversations with UC Davis scholars and researchers working in the social sciences, humanities, arts and culture. Hosted by public radio veteran Soterios Johnson, the conversations feature new work and expertise on a trending topic in the news. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.