Bugs, Brains and Trivia

No detail is too small for students at the Linnaean games, an annual national insect trivia competition

The large eyes of a red dragonfly. (Eryk Rogozinski / iStockphoto)

Entomology students aren’t normally the ones under the microscope, but at the annual Linnaean Games, a national insect trivia competition, they are scrutinized as closely as their own six-legged subjects. Before a crowd of more than a thousand, the larval scholars – mostly PhD candidates – struggle with categories like “Name That Pest” and “Know Your Bug Families.” They tackle current events – this year, expect questions on the emerald ash borer, a beetle poised to wipe out the nation’s ash trees – and high culture. Who wrote the poem “My Butterfly?” (Robert Frost.) Who composed “Flight of the Bumblebee?” (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.)

But the ant lion’s share of the 16 questions at the championships, held on Nov. 18 at the Entomological Society of America’s meeting in Reno, Nev., will likely be along the lines of this pop quiz:

“Name the family of beetles that has one set of eyes on the top of its body and one set below.”

“The action of shifting allele frequency toward the homozygous condition in small populations is called what?”

“Name the portion of the insect brain that receives both sensory and motor fibers from the antennae.”

Tom Turpin, the contest’s longtime moderator, stopped grilling me for a moment.

“You didn’t even know they had brains, right?”

The answers are, respectively, Gyrinidae, genetic drift, deutocerebrum, and not really.

Turpin, a Purdue University entomology professor who teaches, among other courses, “Insects: Friend and Foe,” helped found the contest in the early 1980s. He hoped it would be a lark for graduate students attending the ESA meeting, which these days covers such heavy-duty topics as tick genomics and “21st Century Western Corn Rootworm Management at Home and Abroad.” The games are named for Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century father of binomial nomenclature, who is also the event mascot: on the official banner, Linnaeus, in a wig, is shown carefully recording the genus and species of a crab louse. “He probably had lice,” Turpin says. Thus the wig.

The games have become one of the conference’s best-attended events.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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