Dragonflies, Beetles, Cicadas — What’s Not to Love?

This article is part of our Museums special section about how art institutions are reaching out to new artists and attracting new audiences.

Jessica Ware, an associate curator for the American Museum of Natural History, waxes rhapsodic about beetles. She thinks cockroaches get a bad rap. Cicadas, well, they’re just beautiful and she’s proud the ones that come every 17 years are unique to North America.

But — even though maybe an entomologist shouldn’t play favorites — it is the dragonfly that really makes her heart sing. She wears a dragonfly brooch on her dress. She sports a dragonfly tattoo on her arm.

“They’re like lions of the sky,” she said. “They intercept their prey like lions do — they don’t fly to where the fly is now, they fly to where it will be and cut it off. They’re remarkable predators.”

Dr. Ware, 45, who works in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, is the perfect ambassador for insects. She makes people who have never thought about them — except as an annoyance — understand why they’re both fascinating and important.

Dr. Ware is not just an advocate for the insects; as a Black queer woman and the first Black person to hold a tenured curatorial position at the museum, she wants to attract more people of color to entomology.

“I would say in every job that I’ve ever had in science, I’ve always been the only Black woman,” she said. “In graduate school, the only Black woman; when I was a postdoc here, I was the only Black woman.”

To help bring more people of color into entomology, she helped start a collective, Entomologists of Color, as a way to advocate and provide resources for nonwhites interested in an entomology career and to support them once they have jobs.

A paper she co-authored in 2020 noted that while people of color are underrepresented in all STEM fields, as of 2017 “fewer than 100 African Americans identify themselves as entomologists.”

The museum has made progress in diversity, a museum spokesman said and pointed out that the new president of the museum, Sean Decatur, who started April 3, is Black. In addition, the famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium and has held a scientific leadership post at the museum since 1996.

“I would say that I feel very optimistic about the next generation,” Dr. Ware said, noting that there is more racial diversity among those studying the science now.

“If we look at who is in graduate school now and if efforts are made to retain those people, then in the near future, there should be a much more diverse STEM work force,” she added.

But getting back to bugs — or actually insects, since bugs are specifically insects that have a mouth shaped like a straw. For Dr. Ware, it is a particularly exciting time, as the museum gears up this spring to open its $431 million Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation on New York City’s Upper West Side. Dr. Ware has been part of the small team to choose what will go into the new insectarium — the first permanent gallery in the museum dedicated to insects since the 1970s.

Selecting which of approximately 350 representative specimens of more than 20 million insect specimens stored in the museum should be displayed in the insectarium was a brutal choice for the three curators and their assistants.

Dr. Ware was in charge of picking insects that go through incomplete metamorphosis, which includes only egg, nymph and adult stages; insects like a butterfly go through complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa and adult). Grasshoppers, cicadas, cockroaches, and yes, dragonflies, are all examples of incomplete metamorphosis, also called non-holometabolous.

“It was really tough, because we needed to pick all the non-holometabolous that will be in this giant insectarium forever. Goodness!” she said, recalling the agonizing decisions she had to make. “I remember just looking at all the drawers and thinking: ‘What am I possibly going to pick?’ But we really wanted to show the breadth of variation, and also things that would spark wonder — so my goal was to try and show things that would make people see insects in a different light.”

It took her and her assistant about a year and a half to select the insects, ultimately winnowing the options down to a final list. And then they had to be prettied up, since they had been stored for years — decades in some cases — and weren’t exactly in shape to be displayed. Lots of insects had lost their heads — and legs and wings — over the years and they had to be meticulously reattached.

Once they were mounted, she and her colleagues wheeled them “on these shaky carts down to the insectarium. And they are very fragile. We were amazed they all made it, because just a minor bump can make a leg fall off,” she said.

It’s an important time for another reason: many scientists fear we are in the midst of an insect apocalypse, with steep declines reported globally and across different kinds of insects. They make up 80 percent of animal life and are critical to the lives of most animals, including humans.

Entomologists are often miffed that their important work gets subsumed by the plight of more relatable mammals. But more attention is being focused on the issue as numerous factors, including climate change, deforestation, agriculture and pollution, are destroying both the abundance and diversity of insects.

For example, cutting down trees undermines the ecosystems where many insects live. They face extinction because they can’t adapt quickly enough to warmer temperatures and the environmental chaos caused by extreme weather events can be fatal.

“Universally, it seems that the numbers are suggesting a rate of decline that we’ve not yet seen in the history of the earth,” Dr. Ware said. Last year, she was among a group of researchers awarded a National Science Foundation grant to study insect decline on a global level.

And this is something she has seen firsthand in a place beloved from her childhood. Dr. Ware, who was born in Montreal and raised in Toronto, spent summers with her grandparents in northern Ontario. She and her twin used to visit Lake Muskoka, fishing and canoeing and watching the dragonflies flying around.

Now there are far fewer.

She credits those lakes with sparking her fascination with insects. Her grandparents didn’t have a lot of formal schooling, “but they loved nature and they loved asking questions,” she said. “My nana was constantly saying, ‘Why do you think that’s a green snake? Why do you think there’s two yellow dragonflies? Why do you think this is happening?’ I think that’s what set us on a path to being inquisitive.”

Her passion for the water, for snorkeling and fishing prompted a family friend to tell her she should consider becoming an oceanographer. She didn’t know anything about college or being a scientist, but she memorized that word, applied and was accepted to study oceanography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

But after the first few classes she had an epiphany. This wasn’t what she was interested in.

“It was the study of waves, right?” she said. “What I wanted was marine biology. I was so naïve, and that’s a bit of an understatement.” Fortunately, she was allowed to switch majors and loved it, especially learning about invertebrates, such as sponges and jellyfish. But, as she studied more, she discovered that everything really comes down to insects.

“There’s more of them than anything else,” Dr. Ware said. “And from that moment on, I decided to devote my life to entomology and insects.”

In one of the museum’s storage areas, looking around at drawer upon drawer filled with insects, she says she sees them as “the closest thing that we have to a time machine. They’ve been around a lot longer than most life.”

They’re the most diverse creatures on the planet, she said, adding: “When you actually start studying, then you realize that what we know about each of those species is almost nothing. We know a lot about honeybees. We know a lot about some things. But so often the species is described, and that’s the last time it’s ever looked at.

“So, if you’re someone who likes discovery, if you’re curious, and you like doing something creative, this is a good job. It’s like mystery solving every day.”

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