On a warm sunny day in late summer, one would expect to find many insects and other bugs in central Pennsylvania. The monarchs are beginning to migrate southward, the caterpillars are getting fat on the vines and trees, wasps and bees are visiting flowers, dragonflies are flying and perching around streams and ponds, crickets and katydids chirp from dusk to dawn, and spiders are building intricate webs. And, of course, thousands of people flock to the Great Insect Fair at Penn State to learn more about them. This year, not only did the Department of Entomology show off all the insects mentioned above, we focused on all the insects and their behaviors and functions that we don’t normally see. The theme this year was “See the Unseen.”
This year’s exhibits included the old favorites like the butterfly tent, insect zoo, build a bug, face painting, honey tasting, and insect deli. But there also were some new and exciting exhibits highlighting the “See the Unseen” theme. There was a tent displaying the diversity of nocturnal insects, like moths and crickets in a completely dark tent with only black lights showing off all the insects that are active then. Another cool exhibit was a tunnel simulating being under the ground where children, and some goofy adults, crawled through and saw the diversity of creatures that can be found there. Visitors also got to see aquatic insects that swim and dive in fresh water like dragonfly nymphs and backswimmers. The insect galls exhibit displayed the amazing plant structures that larval gall wasps induce when they live in there. There were even dissected insects so people could see their powerful flight muscles and intricate internal organs.
Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research (CPR) had a strong presence during this event at Ag Arena. The CPR’s exhibits included stinging social wasps with a dissected bald-faced hornet nest and living paper wasp nest. There was a whole table dedicated to bumble bees, where colonies in action were displayed. This table also hosted bumblebee micro-colonies to show differences between bumble bee queens, workers, and males, and a game explaining the interaction between bee diseases and nutrition. The CPR also worked to educate about the diversity of bees. There was an exhibit explaining how to identify a bee, and how to not be tricked by mimics and lookalikes such as wasps and flies. Another exhibit explained the nest structure of solitary bees, which represents majority of bee species. There was a display showing how different bee species have different types of hairs and structures used to carry pollen, which included 3D printed models of a leaf-cutter bee and a squash bee. Finally, there were exhibits explaining what bees smell, how they see flowers (which is much different than what we can see), and how flower shape and size influences feeding, which illustrated the different ways that flowering plants have co-evolved over time to attract bees and other pollinators.
Overall, the Great Insect Fair was a tremendous success, with at least 4,000 visitors this year! Outreach events like the Great Insect Fair are the best opportunities to connect scientists and the public. It provides an opportunity to share in curiosities, interests, and knowledge, as well as to promote an appreciation for nature. It was great to see how fascinated by insects visitors of the Great Insect Fair were. Additionally, we appreciated the chance to share information about bees and how cool they are! Every year, members of the Department of Entomology hope to spread our passion and interest in insects to our audience, including kids and adults of all ages.
By Anthony Vaudo, Postdoctoral Researcher