This article is part of our Museums special section on how art institutions are reaching new artists and attracting new audiences.
Jessica Ware, associate curator for the American Museum of Natural History, becomes enthusiastic about the beetles. She thinks cockroaches have a bad reputation. The cicadas, well they are just beautiful and she is proud that the ones that come every 17 years are unique to North America.
But while perhaps an entomologist shouldn’t make favorites, it’s the dragonfly that really makes her heart sing. She wears a dragonfly brooch on her dress. She has a dragonfly tattoo on her arm.
They are like lions in the sky, he 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 are extraordinary predators.
Doctor Ware, 45 years old, who works in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, is the perfect ambassador for insects. He lets people know that they never thought about it except as an annoyance because they are both fascinating and important.
Dr. Ware isn’t just an advocate for 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’d say in every job 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 woman of color.
To help bring more people of color into entomology, he helped start a collective, Entomologists of Color, as a way to advocate and provide resources for non-whites interested in an entomology career and to support them once they have a job.
A paper she co-authored in 2020 noted that while people of color are underrepresented in all STEM fields, fewer than 100 African Americans identify as entomologists in 2017.
The museum has made progress in diversity, a museum spokesman said, and noted that the new museum president, Sean Decatur, who started on April 3, is Black. In addition, renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium museum and has held a scientific leadership position at the museum since 1996.
I would say I feel very optimistic about the next generation, Dr. Ware said, noting that there is more racial diversity among those studying science now.
If we look at who’s in graduate school now and if efforts are being made to retain those people, then there should be a much more diverse STEM workforce in the near future, he added.
But back to bugs or even bugs, as bugs are specifically bugs that have a straw-shaped mouth. For Dr. Ware, it’s an especially exciting time, as the museum prepares 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 was part of the small team to choose what will go into the new insectarium, the museum’s first permanent gallery devoted to insects since the 1970s.
Selecting which of the approximately 350 representative specimens of more than 20 million insect specimens held 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 collecting insects that go through an incomplete metamorphosis, which includes only the egg, nymph and adult stages; insects such as a butterfly undergo complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa and adult). Grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles and yes, dragonflies, are all examples of incomplete metamorphosis, also called non-holometabolous.
It was really tough, because we had to collect all the non-holometabolous that will remain forever in this giant insectarium. Goodness! she said, recalling the heartbreaking decisions she had to make. I remember looking at all the drawers and thinking: what could I choose? But we really wanted to show the breadth of variation and also things that would inspire 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 sort through the bugs, eventually vetting the options down to a final list. And then they needed to be spruced up, as in some cases they had been stored for years and decades and weren’t quite in shape to be displayed. Many insects had lost their heads, legs and wings over the years and needed to be meticulously reattached.
Once assembled, she and her colleagues carried them on these rickety carts to the insectarium. And they are very fragile. We were amazed that they all made it, because just a small bump can knock off a leg, 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 among different types of insects. They make up 80% of animal life and are essential for the life of most animals, including humans.
Entomologists are often irritated that their important work is absorbed by the plight of more recognizable 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, the felling of trees undermines the ecosystems in which many insects live. They face extinction because they cannot adapt to warmer temperatures fast enough, and the environmental chaos caused by extreme weather events can be fatal.
Universally, the numbers appear to suggest a rate of decline we have not yet seen in the earth’s history, Dr. Ware said. Last year, he was part of a team of researchers awarded a National Science Foundation grant to study the decline of insects globally.
And this is something he saw firsthand in a place he loved from his childhood. Dr. Ware, born in Montreal and raised in Toronto, spent summers with her grandparents in Northern Ontario. She and her twin used to visit Lake Muskoka, fish and canoe and watch the dragonflies fly around.
Now there are far fewer of them.
He credits those lakes with sparking his fascination with insects. Her grandparents didn’t have much formal education, but they loved nature and loved asking questions, she said. My grandmother was constantly saying, “Why do you think it’s a green snake?” Why do you think there are two yellow dragonflies? Why do you think this is happening? I think this is what she set us in the way of being curious.
Her passion for the water, for snorkeling and fishing prompted a family friend to tell her that she should consider becoming an oceanographer. She knew nothing about college or being a scientist, but she memorized that word, she applied and was accepted to study oceanography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
But after the first lessons he had an epiphany. That wasn’t what interested her.
It was the study of waves, right? she said. What I wanted was marine biology. I was so naive, and that’s an understatement. Luckily, she was allowed to switch majors and she loved it, especially learning about invertebrates, like sponges and jellyfish. But, as she researched more, she discovered that it really all boils down to bugs.
There are more of them than anything else, Dr. Ware said. And from that moment I decided to dedicate my life to entomology and insects.
In one of the museum’s storage areas, looking through drawers and drawers full of bugs, he says he sees them as the closest thing we have to a time machine. They’ve been around much longer than most in life.
They’re the most diverse creatures on the planet, he said, adding: When you actually start studying, you realize that what we know about each of those species is next to nothing. We know a lot about honey bees. We know a lot about some things. But so often the species is described, and it is the last time it is observed.
So if you are someone who likes discovery, if you are curious and like to do something creative, this is a good job. It’s like solving a mystery every day.