There is a famous religious reference that intersects with natural history. The British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane was asked by clerics what his studies on nature told him about God. He replied that, “the Creator seemed to have an inordinate fondness for beetles.” That 100 year old statement pointed to the overwhelming abundance of beetle species and biologists would still agree that the gold medal for the number of different species is steeply slanted towards beetles; 90% of the life forms we live with are insects, and 30% of those are beetles. That’s about 350,000 species of beetles.
Watching the process of science that attempts to discover and know those species is fascinating. Capturing insects produces large numbers of specimens, because of the abundance of these creatures and innovative mass trapping techniques. The huge volume of specimens collected, especially in the tropics, and the staggering range of shapes and sizes makes for a demanding triage of sorting and preparation for study. Because there is such a huge diversity no one scientist is an expert in all kinds, and so research specimens are shared around, with ants going to this lab, spiders to the next, true flies, bees and wasps to others, and so on. This first pass through a field collection also creates the daunting notion that we don’t really know a lot about what is out there. Scientists are continually discovering a long, long list of insect species that are unknown to science. These species have no names, no description, and we have no idea how they make a living. We do have names for about 1.8 million species of plants and animals and some knowledge about their natural history. But the rate of discovery of the unknown leads us to predict that there are at least 5 million species living with us and perhaps as many as 50 million.
This practice of science and discovery leaves a lot of work for taxonomists and for museums, like Robert Anderson, François Genier and Andrew Smith at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Natural history museums are important employers of science experts, especially the kind that discover and describe the world around us. Science experts at museums also manage scientific data, including the actual specimens that are the official markers of these life forms. For more than a century experts reminded themselves what a meter was by referring to the official specimen kept in the International Bureau of Weights and Measure at Sèvres, France. When we want to remind ourselves about the extent of life on Earth we draw upon the wealth of knowledge at natural history museums. Science experts do that all the time, because there is a close relationship between the extent of life on Earth and human health and well being. More knowledge of our neighbors, especially the six-legged ones, is part of building a history of where we live and how we are doing.