If you thought an insectarium was a kind of biology laboratory — one where a cockroach is pinned to a board and its anatomy reproduced in a ‘diagram’ — nothing could be further from the truth. An insectarium is a living museum of insects. And at the National Bureau of Agriculturally Important Insects (NBAII), off Bellary Road in Bangalore, even those who squirm at the mere sight of creepy-crawlies find themselves in their thrall, discovering how insects benefit agriculture, and their incredible role in our collective histories and geographies.
“Invertebrates, including insects, make up over 98 per cent of the animal kingdom,” says Abraham Verghese, director, NBAII, “Insects are key to our lives. Dung beetles, for instance, feed on manure and boost soil fertility in a sustainable manner. Yet, there is a lot of stigma and fear surrounding these creatures.” And the insectarium aims to change that.
Once you get past the basics — a firefly isn’t a fly, a silkworm isn’t a worm — you learn about insects that prey on a specific type of bug and are used for ‘biological control’: the insects are mass-bred and released into the diseased crop to rid them of harmful bugs without using pesticides. Beetles are essential in the biological control of the fuzzy white ‘mealy bug’ in crops like pumpkin, apple and, more recently, grape in the vineyards of Maharashtra. The tiny trichogramma wasp, which feeds on the eggs of other insects, is widely used for biological control too. The NBAII recently pressed it into service to protect crops of sugarcane and rice.
But perhaps the most exciting bit about bugs one cannot (and need not) swat is the wealth of anecdotes around them. Dr Prashant Mohanraj, principal scientist and head, Division of Insect Systematics, narrates the curious tale of the Central American cochineal (scale) insect — Dactylopius coccus , which feeds on cacti. The red dye extracted from it was so valued that the occupying Spanish rulers imposed a death sentence on anyone attempting to smuggle the insect overseas from the Americas. The British offered a princely reward of £2,000 to anyone who could smuggle it for them. They even built a cactus farm in Madras for the insects. However, the reward remains unclaimed till today. Coffee giant Starbucks, which recently used the insect-based red dye in a frappuccino, was forced to withdraw following an outcry from animal rights activists. And all this drama around an insect that is less than an inch long!
But the tales keep coming. You learn about silkworms and non-violent silk extraction, wax worms used in medical research because their immune system is similar to a human’s, or that research on drosophilia ( Drosophila melanogaster ) has bagged so many Nobel prizes, they now ‘compete’ with mice and guinea pigs in laboratories world over. Or that a termite queen has more nutritional protein per pound than chicken or beef. There’s even a list enumerating the economic value (in dollars, most over a billion) of various insects. It might be just a tiny room, filled with tiny creatures, but it goes a long way in proving that fear of insects is unfounded, and that bigger isn’t always better. ( nbaii.res.in; call in advance.)
(Tara Rachel Thomas is a Bangalore-based writer)