Twisted-wing parasites that burrow into and feed on other insects, vampire-like flies that suck the blood from dragonfly wings, and Ectoparasitic fungi that control and kill termites are just a few of the spooky bugs and phenomena that entomologist and AAAS Member Jessica Ware, Ph.D., encounters as the associate curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History.
But there is nothing more spooky than the future of insects, says the scientist. Insects are dwindling at a faster rate than they have at any other time in recorded history, and along with their decline is humankind’s own chances for survival.
Insects have been around a long time, notes Ware, meaning that the study of their evolution — a topic that has informed her research for most of her career — can better prepare humans for the world of the future.
“When we understand the evolution of insects, we’re basically understanding the evolution of almost everything that came before us,” Ware says. “We can learn lot about the last 400 million years of life on planet Earth.”
To answer the evolutionary questions that have long puzzled entomologists, Ware has done research in various countries like Namibia, Botswana and Australia. From researching insects in Costa Rica’s former conflict zones riddled with unexploded bombs to falling overboard into caiman-populated rivers in Guyana, the entomologist’s stories of international fieldwork are wild enough to inspire a Crocodile Dundee reboot.
But when asked about the genesis of her passion for entomology, Ware points to a map of Lake Muskoka, an island-peppered lake in Central Ontario, Canada. About a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Buffalo, New York, the entomologist developed a fascination for dragonflies and other winged creatures that she encountered while exploring nature with her twin brother and grandparents as she grew up.
Ware continued to feel drawn to the insects she observed during the temperate summers of her childhood and as a university student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. There, she labelled and pinned beetles for the university’s entomological collection while working towards her undergraduate zoology degree. At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, she earned a Ph.D. from the department of entomology, writing her dissertation on the evolutionary history of a superfamily of dragonflies called Libelluloidea.
Now at the American Museum of Natural History, Ware and a team of art directors and educational experts are doing their part to spread the word about insects. They are in the home stretch of opening the Susan and Peter J. Solomon Family Insectarium, a 5,000 square foot gallery scheduled to open February 2023. The insectarium — the museum’s first permanent insect exhibit — will introduce museumgoers to the diversity of insect orders and dive into the life of bugs here on Earth through interactive exhibits, models, live insects, pinned specimens, and fossils. Most importantly, the exhibit will hopefully remind humans why insects are so important.
“In the absence of bugs, we will all die,” says Ware. “In fact, we probably wouldn’t last more than three months.”
That is because insects are responsible for many ecosystem services that humans rely upon for survival, claims Ware. Insects pollinate our crops. They are part of the planet’s clean-up crew of decomposers that break down organic matter. Without insects, the rotting process of dead trees, leaves and animals decelerate, piling up. If we are not careful, Ware’s chilling vision could become a reality. Across insect taxonomy, scientists are already recording losses as high as 80%.
“If this decline is happening at the rate that we think it’s happening at, we don't have a lot of time left before our own species could be at risk of extinction,” she says. “The prognosis is pretty negative, so it's really everybody's job to try and do things that might lessen or slow that decline.”
Today, when Ware is not working on the American Museum of Natural History’s insectarium, she investigates termites and chases down molecular, morphological and geographical data to define the entire order of Odonata. She is also passionate about clearing the obstacles that women and people of color face in STEM. Ware is the co-founder of Entomologists of Color, and in 2021, she co-organized #BlackInEnto week.
Ware has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including Rutgers University’s Teaching Excellence Award, Leaders in Faculty Diversity Award and National Geographic’s Young Explorers grant. In 2019, she was awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering (PECASE) by the United States Government in recognition of her leadership in science and technology.
Looking after the 23 million invertebrate specimens within the American Museum of Natural History’s — to which she has donated around 10,000 dragonflies from her own personal collection — is an honor, declares Ware. It is an opportunity to make sure that each specimen, treated with care, can outlive the humans that come to observe them within the American Museum of Natural History’s curated collection.
“Hopefully people will come to the insectarium to look at the insects and think, wow, I didn't know they were so interesting,” she says. “They’ll come for the dinosaurs, but they’ll stay for the insects.”