March–April 2022


Bitten by the Bug Bug

Robin Thomson spends her days surrounded by 4 million dead insects.

Mary Hoff

As curator of the University of Minnesota Insect Collection, Robin Thomson is in charge of some 4,060,820 deceased insects and other arthropods from around the world. Mounted on pins or stored in vials in cabinets and drawers, the specimens range from near-microscopic mites to butterflies the size of a baseball mitt. Thomson organizes the collection—one of the largest of its kind in the United States—and keeps it safe from harms such as light, humidity, and (yes) living insects. She helps researchers access the collection. She gives tours and takes samples to classrooms to inspire future entomologists. On top of all of that, she conducts her own research on caddisflies and teaches classes. 

Q | How did you get into entomology?
I did my undergraduate at Gustavus Adolphus in biology. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was a lifeguard, I spent about three days at the Minnesota Department of Health, I was a vet tech assistant, and then I got a seasonal summer job at the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District identifying mosquito samples. I absolutely fell in love with what I was seeing under the microscope. We have about 50 species of mosquito in Minnesota. The thought of 50 of just this one kind of insect right here in Minnesota blew my mind with the sheer, “What else is out there?” I decided I wanted to go to school for entomology.

Q | Who uses the collection, and how?
The Minnesota Zoo has come in to do bee research. We’ve had the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency come in, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The Department of Agriculture is usually trying to compare something they found in the field to see if we have any records of it having been here historically. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is in here pretty regularly. They want to catalog all of our historical bees so they can get an idea of which bee species you would typically find in which county of the state.

Q | What’s life like as a curator of insects?
I never really know what I’m going to be focusing on on any given day. We’ve had people email and say, “Hey, can you get pollen off of some of your bee legs from 50 years ago? We’re trying to re-create floral communities in such-and-such county and see what bees were feeding on at that time.” I really love knowing that I’m helping all these other projects.

Q | Any challenges?
There are definitely days I shake my head and say, “I can’t keep up with this stuff.” People think it’s a static collection, but it changes all the time. We amend and change our opinions on how insects are related to each other, on how they should be identified and organized. Every time taxonomy changes, we have to change the collection.

Q | What’s your own research focus?
I work with microcaddisflies. I study their biodiversity—how they evolved into the different species groups, their distributional patterns, descriptions of new species, checklists for what people are finding in other countries. I’ve done research in Australia, Venezuela, eastern Russia. When you’ve got the funding to travel, it’s pretty great.

Q | Have you discovered any new species?
Probably around 30. You get to name them. I named one after my mom, one after my dad; my sister got one. I had a few friends who helped me do my fieldwork, so I named some new species that resulted from that after them. There are rules we have to follow. Not a lot, but  some.

Q | Tell me about your tattoo.
That was my gift to myself when I defended my dissertation. It’s a microcaddisfly. It’s probably about 4 or 5 millimeters in size, and I blew it up for the tattoo. We have an artist that we hire once in a while; she does beautiful full-color illustrations. At one point we had her do this genus Ascotrichia from Brazil for one of my publications. When I  finished my degree I used it as the basis for my tattoo.

Q | Are insects declining?
That is an interesting issue. It hasn’t been properly documented. It’s not that it’s not happening, but it’s not been documented in a way that scientists are comfortable saying it’s happening for sure. While there probably are insect species that are doing poorly, there also are insect populations that are fully taking advantage of that and expanding their range and distribution.

Q | Do you have a favorite insect?
Mosquitoes will always be a favorite. We have some really beautiful mosquitoes in this state. We have one with purple legs and little white feet. It looks like it walked through white paint. We have some with shiny blue legs that are very cute. But I don’t know if I have one runaway favorite. There are just so many that are so interesting.