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UC group revels in a bug's life

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It takes a special kind of person to love bugs the way the researchers do at the University of California, Davis.

The university's Bohart Museum of Entomology has one of North America's largest collections of arthropods - creatures that wear their skeletons on the outside, such as insects, spiders and crustaceans.

OAS_AD('Button20'); There are about 7 million specimens housed in one large room at the university. Most are preserved and pinned in display drawers. Many are tiny and nondescript at first glance.

But in what they call their petting zoo, the museum staff members also keep creatures that are super-sized and very much alive.

There are footlong African millipedes, giant hissing cockroaches, hairy tarantulas and assassin bugs that spray poisonous saliva.

During a visit last week, an immense hairy spider from Costa Rica sat in its cage, grooming itself with its front legs like a cat.

School groups and the public can tour the museum by appointment.

Showing off the collection, museum director Lynn Kimsey reached into a glass tank and picked up one of the giant millipedes. It curled around her hand, gripped her tightly with its hundreds of legs, and began to nuzzle at her palm.

"What's with this chewing bit?" she asked a colleague. "I've never had him do this before. It thinks there is something absolutely fascinating about the palm of my hand."

The petting-zoo bugs, though not as horrifying as the giant spiders and centipedes in the recent remake of "King Kong," are enough to make some observers queasy.

The museum's entomologists, however, seem to have a childlike sense of wonder when it comes to arthropods in all their forms.

Kimsey, for instance, said her parents gave her first butterfly net when she was 5 years old, and she's been collecting insects ever since.

On the museum wall is a photograph of a very young Kimsey holding her butterfly net, wearing a pair of rubber boots and sitting on a fence post.

Below it is a quote by the writer Jane Austen: "They are much to be pitied who have not been ... given a taste for nature early in life."

Kimsey went on to get her undergraduate degree and doctorate in entomology at UC Davis, which is regarded as one of the best programs of insect study in the nation. She has been director of the museum for the past 16 years.

"I still can't believe someone pays me for my obsession," said Kimsey, 53.

Kimsey and her fellow researchers said they look at the world of bugs with awe.

Graduate student Mike Niemela,who works at the museum, produced a small glass vial that appeared to hold only some clear liquid.

"There's an insect in there," he said.

The insect was a tiny brown speck, nearly invisible to the unaided eye. Under a microscope, however, the speck turned out to be a fully formed fairy wasp, a tiny creature that feeds on the eggs of other insects and plays a valuable role in pest control.

"If you think about all the wiring, where do you put it in something that small?" Niemela said.

Niemela, 37, said he is always discovering something new in the amazing world of bugs - a world that children seem to take to naturally.

"People have a learned horror of insects," Niemela said. "Kids are open-minded. Some of us stay that way, and others don't."

In the museum's display cases, there are neon-colored butterflies and a footlong walking stick from New Guinea.

Another case holds orchid bees from the jungles of Latin America, with colors ranging from indigo to emerald to brilliant copper. The vivid metallic colors actually make the bees blend into jungle greenery, Kimsey said.

The UC Davis collection was founded with two boxes of flies in 1946 and named for Richard M. Bohart, a museum supporter and member of the Department of Entomology faculty for more than 50 years.

The museum has several roles, including research, teaching and educational outreach.

The museum staff also provides a variety of practical services to companies and individuals, many of whom send in photographs or samples of pests to be identified.

Companies that package salads for fast-food restaurants and grocery stores have sought help in getting rid of bugs in their products.

Homeowners whose houses have been built with salvaged wood will often find bugs crawling through holes in the drywall, including 2-inch-long wood-eating wasps and beetles.

"People don't like stuff coming out of their walls," Kimsey said.

Farmers seek help in dealing with crop-destroying pests, and environmentalists ask for assistance in identifying endangered species.

One thing that keeps the researchers busy is individuals with "delusional parasitosis" - people who think they're crawling with bugs, said Kimsey.

They send in all sort of bodily samples, convinced that the museum can find microscopic parasites, she said.

The staff also engage in their own academic research. Niemela said he is especially interested in jewel beetles but also collects other kinds of arthropods.

Last Tuesday, a silk moth emerged from its cocoon. The beautifully colored Texas native had clear, membrane-covered windows in its wings.

"Ooh, Mike, that one's so pretty. Are you going to kill it?" asked Dani DuCharme, 25, the museum's director of outreach and education.

Niemela injected the moth with alcohol, killing it very quickly, and put it on a wooden spreading board. He pinned its wings and body in the manner he wanted it displayed.

Asked if he disliked killing the moth, Niemela said: "I do, kind of, but if you're going to collect these things it's the only way to get perfect specimens."

Niemela is married. He said his wife doesn't share his passion for bugs but puts up with it admirably.

"Considering I have a freezer full of dead insects at home, she's pretty tolerant," he said.

About the writer: The Bee's Hudson Sangree can be reached at (916) 321-1987 or - Get the whole story every day - SUBSCRIBE NOW! 

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