Did You Know?: Purdue Entomological Research Collection

February 23, 2012

Arwin Provonsha is the curator of the Purdue Entomological Research Collection, which offers more than 2 million insects representing more than 150,000 species. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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The Purdue Entomological Research Collection (PERC), whose specimens date back to the beginnings of the University, contains the largest, most complete insect reference collection in Indiana. It's basically a library of bugs. From the exotic (consider the Madagascar hissing cockroach) to the invasive (an Oriental beetle now represents a serious threat to Indiana plants), PERC offers more than 2 million insects representing more than 150,000 species. And they add approximately 15,000 new specimens each year.

Arwin Provonsha, the curator and scientific illustrator, though partially retired, maintains a full-time passion for insects. He's drawn thousands of them, illustrating a dozen books, and, since starting in 1971, he's been the point man for identifying and tagging the creatures as they've passed through PERC.

The research database serves a number of areas, Provonsha says, from taxonomy to systematics. Biologists can understand the relationships of different insect groups and learn about ecology, biodiversity, host-plant relationships, genetics, water quality, climate change and more. About 15 visiting scientists come to PERC each year, and samples are sent out to another 15 researchers.

PERC first blossomed with a donation of specimens from W.S. Blatchley in the late 1930s. "He was one of the late great naturalists in this country," Provonsha says. "Blatchley started off as a high school biology teacher and finished his career as the state geologist. He wrote extensively on beetles, bugs, butterflies and grasshoppers of Indiana."

A nationally renowned repository for beetles and bees, PERC also contains the world's foremost mayfly collection. Those winged critters are stored in vials and preserved in alcohol. Thousands of tiny insects are propped up on pushpins, others are maintained (even in disassembled parts) on microscope slides and a colorful assortment of butterflies and various creepy crawlers are displayed under glass. All are filed away in large metal encasements in the basement of Smith Hall.

PERC is training ground for budding experts like Alex Bic, a junior in entomology, now charged with identifying the butterflies and moths. Bobby Brown, a beetle expert, manages that wing of things.
"One of our long-term goals is to acquire as complete as possible representation of the Indiana insect fauna, which accounts for about 16,000 species," says Provonsha, who notes the biological history PERC provides.

The growing concern of invading species not native to Indiana has created working relationships with PERC and a number of survey groups from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They're setting traps for insects to monitor the introduction and spread of insects, especially as seen in hardwoods. What the survey groups catch is sent to PERC to be identified. 

Along with the day-to-day data work is the outreach work. Provonsha brings out his displays for elementary students, coordinates the Insect Art Contest for K-12 students and serves as the voice of Roachill Downs, the cockroach races at Purdue's Bug Bowl. On these occasions, Provonsha reiterates the critical importance of insects to life on the planet.