The Vastness of Bugspace

.002% of the world's known beetle species

I woke this morning to see I’d been linked by astroblogger Phil Plait, reminding me of a pontification I’ve been meaning to pontificate.

All fields of science are more unknown than known. That’s pretty much a given considering the span between the enormity of the Universe and the subatomic details of its smallest particles. But not all fields are unknown in ways where non-professionals readily step up to make contributions. Astronomy and Entomology have this in common: regular people, working in their yards, have the ability to discover fundamental new things.

Space is huge. BugSpace is also huge. Maybe there are three million insect species. Maybe there are 5 million. Or, 15. Or, 80. No one really knows. In any scenario, though, a majority of species remain in the dark. For those species that are known, most have only a name and a location. Their food, behavior, chemistry, and genetics are simply undocumented. Thus, we know little about the species we know exist, and nothing about the rest.

But these are just words. You can catch a glimmer of the vastness of BugSpace yourself right here on the internet.

One of several subgenera of sweat bees, a partial list, from BugGuide.net.

BugGuide.net serves one region, North America, that ranks among the least biodiverse of the continents. And, it contains only a fraction of the described species that occur here. Yet, have a surf through BugGuide’s database and see how quickly you get lost. Here’s a random starting point if you need one. A staggering number of bugs are out there!

Insects are large enough that most can be seen with the naked eye, and with a little magnification their features can be examined. A hand lens, digital camera, or  microscope renders the untapped diversity of insects accessible to nearly anyone. Thus, entomology is both unknown and available to the amateur, and that means discovery is ripe for the picking. Just last week, for example, a citizen-scientist rediscovered a species of lady beetle thought extinct in New York.

As another similarity between the disciplines, light pollution is terrible for both astronomers and insects. But that’s a topic for another day.

2 thoughts on “The Vastness of Bugspace”

  1. One of the wonders of the internet, for people like me, has been the opportunity to both learn and share what I know (and photograph) with scientists in those fields where I can make a contribution. In Texas, where I live, there are listservs (Texbirds, Tx-butterflies, Tx-ento, etc.) with reports from all over the state from both amateurs and professionals interested in various taxa. We can “watch” (for instance) the migration of birds through reports from the north boundaries of the state all the way to Mexico.

    I (like many others) have contributed county records to OdonataCentral (NA odonates) and BAMONA (NA leps)–all confirmed by specialists from my photographs. These add to the body of knowledge of range and abundance. And contact with those more expert has increased my own awareness (and enjoyment) of the critters and plants native to our region. BugGuide, in particular, has been a great resource for someone whose biology degree barely touched insects (only in one invertebrate zooology course.)

Leave a Reply