Bugfest allows public a view of amazing world of insects

Published 2:01 pm Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What promoters call a “Bugfest,” — two days of collecting, identifying and lecturing on the amazing insect world all around us — was held on Friday and Saturday at the Arboretum, and Dr. John Guyton, an MSU extension entomologist, who lectured at the event, told attendees that although we look on “bugs” as pests, and try all the time to exterminate them, if they weren’t here, we wouldn’t be here either.

“They are an integral part of the food chain, and we actually rely upon them as a basis of support for the existence of the human species on Earth,” said Guyton.

“The atmosphere that surrounds Earth can be illustrated like this: If the Earth were as big as a basketball, the atmosphere enveloping it would be as thin as a sheet of paper. We exist, with the insects, in that thin strip of air,” he said.

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On-hand for the event, too, were Matthew Thorn, a sophomore at Itawamba Community College, who after attending a Bugfest lecture on mosquitoes, got interested in the “pesky critters” and wound up discovering a variety, the rock-pool mosquito, originally from Japan, never before documented as being in Mississippi.

“It was not a new species, but I was the first to document it’s appearance and existence in the state of Mississippi,” said Thorn in a break in the Arboretum’s bugfest events. Thorn is so interested in mosquitoes — “There are literally hundreds of different varieties; the little critters are extremely interesting,” he says — that he intends to study them the rest of his life, and, of course, attend Mississippi State next year to continue his education.

On-hand, too, on Friday and Saturday, were the Lyle sisters, both sophomores at MSU, who are studying bugs, too.

Breanna and Deanna Lyle are going to devote their life to study in entomology, which is the study of insects.

Breanna was running a $100,000 electron microscope being demonstrated at the bugfest, and she was explaining how a pitcher plant captures its insect prey, by enlarging with the microscope, thousands of times the plants hairs that grow along the inside of the plant and are used to capture and trap bugs inside the plant, while a potent brew dissolves the victim in order to extract nitrogen from its victims for the plant’s sustenance.

“It’s a slippery, fun-ride down, but when a bug enters a pitcher plant’s fun-ride, there is no escape back up the slippery, hairy slide,” says Breanna. “It’s sort of like the Hotel California: you can enter, but you can never leave.”

Although Breanna loves operating the electron microscope, her main interests is spiders. “I find them unbelievably interesting and unique. There are hundreds of varieties and some are extremely intelligent,” she says.

“Take, for instance, the jumping spiders. They are so intelligent. They actually study their prey before attacking and find the prey’s weakest point and attack that point of weakness,” she said.

She also said that there are some varieties of spiders, knowing the attraction of bugs to the pitcher plant, build their webs around the top of the plant to capture bugs before they fall in.

And then there are the intricate, geometric webs spun by spiders, the plans for which reside inside their tiny brains, she points out.

Guyton said that he is intrigued by mosquitoes and ants. “We don’t look at bugs as problems; they are extremely important in the food chain. Take mosquitoes, for instance; I swat them, too. But they are important in the food chain for fish and birds and other animals and the larvae digest matter at the bottoms of pools and ponds, which helps eliminate waste.”

“And ants are nature’s most curious species. Their scouts are continually out front looking for food, and as soon as they find it they go back and tell the others, and the others follow a chemical trail to the food laid down by the scouts,” said Guyton. “Really, amazing.”

“Another amazing insect found in the backyard is the Dobsonfly, which have huge mandibles. One would never think that such a monster resides in our own backyards,” said Guyton.

Says Thorn, “We look on mosquitoes as pests, but they actually are an important part of the food chain. I find them extremely interesting. There are hundreds of different varieties in Mississippi, and you have to examine them under a microscope to tell which variety you are looking at. I was amazed when I found this variety that had never before been found in Mississippi,” he said.

If you missed this year’s bugfest, there will be another one next year, said Pat Drackett, Arboretum director. “These are truly unique events and give everyone a chance to see nature at work right here in our natural settings, and how marvelous it really is. Participants from 10 years old on up can attend,” she said.