Western Professor Collects, Writes the Book on Bugs
The biology building at Bellingham’s Western Washington University is overrun by insects, but not to worry. They aren’t out and crawling around.
In the depths of the building, you’ll find a room filled with small, wooden pallets holding more than 50,000 different insect specimens from around the world. You can check out brightly-colored butterflies, large horned beetles, and even fleas so small the narrow pins used to display larger specimen cannot be stabbed through them.
These insects have been caught by Western students, donated by local naturalists, and maintained by Merrill A. Peterson, who has been the curator of Western’s insect collection since 1997. The insects make up the second-largest publicly held collection in Washington state, says Peterson.
Last August, Peterson came out with the new field guide “Pacific Northwest Insects,” published by the Seattle Audubon Society and available online or at local bookstores. It contains more than 1,200 detailed accounts of species that allow anyone to identify the more than 3,000 different insect species in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, northern California and British Columbia.
After 14 years of writing, photographing, editing, and designing, and a lifetime of loving insects, Peterson says he hoped to provide a larger window into the world of insect diversity here in the Northwest.
“The purpose of the book is to help people connect better with nature,” Peterson says. “If they start to notice what the insects are that are around them, they’ll be able to know what kinds of insects those are and what they do in living their lives. They’re going to care a lot more.”
Peterson, 53, has had a fascination with insects since he was young. He says he would go to the zoo and stare at the bumblebees buzzing in the bushes, because as a near-sighted child, they were easier to see than the lions and tigers in the distance. For his 11th birthday, his great aunt gave him the book, “Watching Washington Butterflies,” and it sparked his passion for Pacific Northwest insects and their scientific nature.
“By the time I was 12, I knew the Latin names of all the butterflies in the state, and I was hellbent on trying to find them all,” Peterson says.
Peterson went on to get a B.S. in Zoology from the University of Washington and his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University.
In 2004, Peterson decided to make a comprehensive field guide of insects in the Northwest. He thought it would take a year to write.
However, it took considerably longer, says his wife Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a science journalist and educator. “At some point, a book goes from being a good idea to an enormous albatross around your neck.”
Over the next decade, it became typical for Peterson, Yoon, and their two kids to hop in their 2003 white Volkswagen camper van in search of other bugs for Peterson’s never-ending list. When he wasn’t on the road, he was researching, talking with experts, editing the content, and teaching biology courses at Western. All his free time went to the book.
“There aren’t too many people with the insane tenacity to do a project like this,” Yoon says. “He was the perfect place between a sane and an insane person.”
At Western where Peterson is the head of the biology department, he uses his extensive knowledge and passion for insects to teach an entomology class each spring. He says he teaches the course for similar reasons as publishing the book: to share his passion and to change peoples’ view of insects.
During the class, students examine insects from around Bellingham, and Peterson teaches them how to properly identify the insects and curate the collections, which is not always an easy feat.
“We would have to look at it under the microscope and count the tarsal segments and see the relative width of other anatomical features,” says Daniel Gallegos, a Western biology student and former entomology student, about identifying insect species in lab. “Merrill would point it out in a second.”
In a world with a changing environment, Peterson is trying to find ways to inform the community about the importance of insects in the Northwest biome and how species’ diversity is diminishing due to large-scale habitat destruction.
“The public consciousness is there when it comes to things like birds, mammals, and the big charismatic creatures like orcas, but not so much for insects,” Peterson says. “They don’t know what these insects are, and if you don’t know what they are, you don’t know what makes them unique and interesting.”
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