Interesting insects

Insectropolis educator Mario Cunha paid a visit to Burlington County libraries to spread the word about the important role bugs and insects play in our ecosystem.

Lucas Gaspari, 9, bravely pets a hissing cockroach held by Mario Cunha from the Insectropolis museum during an educational presentation at the Riverton Library about the importance of bugs and insects.

On Tuesday, July 30, Burlington County libraries were crawling with more than just their usual collection of visitors young and old. Mario Cunha works with Insectropolis, a bug museum in Toms River, doing outreach and educating people about some amazing little (and some not-so-little) creatures.

Cunha brought some multi-legged friends of his from Insectropolis to the Burlington County, Cinnaminson and Riverton libraries to show children bugs are nothing to be afraid of and educate them about the important role they play in our ecosystem.

His presentation included live bugs and insects that children were able to get up close and personal with as well as a wide variety preserved in display cases. 

In performing these outreach presentations, Cunha hopes to not only draw attention to the museum but inspire the next generation to explore an area of science that he believes will make a difference in our future.

“If we start to educate kids at a young age, when it’s really important, and teach them to not be afraid of insects, they are more likely to explore that area, less likely to kill them and more interested in developing a love for the environment around them,” said Cunha. “Nowadays it’s not fighting nature that’s going to win, it’s working with it that’s going to be really important.”

His own love for biology started at a young age. He recalls the moment he decided he wanted to be a teacher in sixth grade and how he married that desire with his interest in the sciences.

“I picked biology, and when you find out that 90 percent of all animals on Earth are bugs you start to see the relationships and how different they are, it’s fascinating. For every person on Earth there are 200 million insects,” said Cunha.

There is a prevalent stigma about bugs being scary or gross that Cunha believes poses a threat to our delicate ecosystem. Using the honeybee as an example, Cunha points out that losing just this one species would mean the elimination of a third of our diet we owe to commercial beekeeping. 

Eva Butler, 5, stares down a live praying mantis.

Not all insects should be welcome in our area however, and Cunha made a point to take some time to talk about an insect that has made for some troubling headlines in Burlington County – the spotted lanternfly. This invasive species can be devastating for New Jersey crops like apples, plums, peaches and grapes and hardwood trees.

“They go into the stem, drink the sap, their body doesn’t process it and what they excrete encourages mold growth and kills the plants,” said Cunha. “They lack predators so their population goes unchecked.”

Residents can look up images of the insect to find out how to identify them. If you think you have spotted one, make sure your GPS function is turned on and take a picture with your phone. You can submit the photo to slf-plantindustry@ag.nj.gov or call the NJ Spotted Lanternfly Hotline at (833) 223-2840.

Although his presentation is geared mostly to the children present, Cunha likes to address parents as well, not only with information about the lanternfly, but to encourage them to foster an interest in bugs in their children. He sees endless possibilities in the future of biological research.

“There are so many problems we hold as a society today that can be solved,” said Cunha.

For example, Cunha points to a certain species of moth with eyes that can absorb 90 percent of incoming light. If we can replicate that kind of a surface on a solar panel, he says, solar efficiency could skyrocket.   

“Innovation and ideas can all come from studying this stuff. Mother Nature has had millions of years to come up with solutions to problems. I guarantee you we’re not going to come up with better solutions than Mother Nature has,” said Cunha.

For more information about the Insectropolis museum, check out its website at insectropolis.com.