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University of Minnesota home to millions of insect specimens

Dr. Robin Thomson is the curator at the U's insect collection, though her family just refers to her as "The Bug Lady."

ST PAUL, Minn. — Not far from the KARE 11 studio, at the University of Minnesota's Department of Entomology, there are millions of dead insects just hanging out in storage.

So, naturally, we just had to find out why. 

Dr. Robin Thomson is the curator at the U's insect collection, though her family just refers to her as "The Bug Lady."

She says the collection has grown to over four million individual specimens.

"It is literally another world, just sort of hiding right under our noses," she says. "This is basically the pinnacle of biodiversity."

Thomson walks from end to end of a vast archive of filing cabinets and frames housing everything from beetles to butterflies, a collection she says was started in 1879, putting it at just over 140 years old. 

"I think we have insects from every continent except Antarctica."

Understandable, but wait, there's insects in Antarctica? 

"Yep... it's definitely not like the hotbed of biodiversity, but there are some."

Thomson later shares a curious beetle with maroon and gold stripes.

"I always thought with these maroon and gold stripes that this should be the mascot for the 'U' but I don't think the 'U' wants a Carrion Barrier," which evidently are quite good at taking care of little dead animals. "I think it's a very charismatic bug especially for Minnesota... this is a beautiful beetle."

Thomson says insects play a major role in life as we know it.

"If we didn't have insects, life would look completely different."

Enter the native bee population, which the Minnesota DNR has taken a real interest in according to Thomson. "Something has caused these bees to shift their county range or to be missing from the state."

And specimens like those in the university's collection help paint a big picture. 

"These historical specimens are what lead to our conclusions about what is going on now and whether or not we need to pay attention to that."

And it's not just the bees. 

"So if every insect in this collection is a single data point, you can start to make a big picture of what used to be or what it is becoming."

And with new finds always being made, the story only grows.

"I don't get bored because I've always got something new... The insect world is so big and so diverse, and there are so many bits and pieces of it that are so amazing. I really love seeing new parts of it and watching other people do the same thing."

To help Dr. Thomson and her colleagues in their mission, you can donate to the University of Minnesota's Insect Museum Fund, here

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