The Bug Closet is like a library for insects.
This small, unassuming room on the first floor of the Biological Sciences building proves that looks can be deceiving: Beyond the cramped, closet-like antechamber from whence it takes its name, the Closet blossoms into a sizable room stacked from floor to ceiling with cases that house one of the largest collections of entomological oddities in Florida.
The Closet, which was established in 1993 by research associate and bug fancier Stuart M. Fullerton, has grown from its origins as an undergraduate specimen-gathering exercise into a biological index that houses more than half a million unique insect samples.
“Having a collection of insects here means that we’re constantly doing something, whether that’s getting new donations to process, processing new samples, databasing - you name it,” said Sandor Kelly, the collection manager of the Closet and a UCF alumnus.
Kelly said the collection consists of nearly 550,000 samples that are pinned and labeled, each of which corresponds to a database entry, where they are further organized. On top of that, there are still close to 15,000 to 20,000 samples waiting to be identified, he said.
In addition to its cataloging efforts, the Closet regularly loans out samples of its specimens to colleges and research institutes around the globe.
“Since our collection is fully databased, researchers can borrow specimens from us much like I would borrow a book from the library,” said Erin Barbeau, the outreach coordinator for the Closet. “These specimens can be used in taxonomic, ecological and, under certain conditions, molecular research by UCF researchers and researchers across the world.”
Like any good library, the Closet’s duties don’t end at lending. Its members regularly embark on “Bug Blitzes,” where they comb the campus and areas around Central Florida looking for unique new species of insects.
“It’s an event to go out and survey as much insect diversity as we can,” said Brian Silverman, a volunteer at the Bug Closet and an environment sciences major. “We’ve described something like 15 to 20 new species [of insects] here at UCF alone.”
Insects are also sent to the Closet to be identified. Staff members use an array of microscopes and magnification devices to get an up-close look at the telltale anatomical markers that separate one species from another. When the species is identified, the specimen is named, numbered, photographed and filed away on one of the hundreds of shelves, cubbies and containers occupying the closet.
But because the specimens are often so small, photographing them involves special effort. Which is why former assistant professor Hojun Song donated a specialized camera rig. The Closet’s specimens can now be captured and displayed at a scale where even laymen could appreciate the unique beauty of creatures whose bodies might be no larger than the head of a pin.
“We actually have to stack or composite a number of photos together, because the subjects are so small and so little of them are in focus. We’ll take anywhere from 20 to 50 pictures to get a good exposure,” Silverman said.
When asked why he went to such effort to photograph a bug, Silverman said that the answer was self-evident: They just look cool.
“There’s a lot about bugs that people just don’t know,” he said. “You’re used to seeing maybe four or five bugs — you see wasps, you see roaches, you see flies — but there’s so much more to it than that. If you look closely, there’s more diversity in the insect world than you could ever hope to appreciate in a lifetime.”
Bernard Wilchusky is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future.