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)

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“We draw a pretty good crowd, because it’s real entertainment,” says Turpin, who typically presides over the contest wearing a tux with a monarch butterfly bow tie or ladybug-spotted lapels. He’s one of the ESA’s acknowledged comedians: When the group produced a pack of insect-themed playing cards recently, he and another entomologist posed as the jokers.

Linnaean levity does not always translate for the layperson, though.

“The category ‘Know Your Bug Families?’ There’s humor in that.” Turpin chortled.

“Not all insects are bugs.” Bug, he explained, is a version of the Celtic word “bwg” (pronounced “boog”), which means ghost or spirit. It was originally a reference to bedbugs, which bit in the night, leading tormented Celts to suspect they were being assaulted by supernatural forces.

“Bed bugs are part of the order Hemiptera, so only members of the order Hemiptera are bugs,” he went on. “Students know they will be asked questions about Hemiptera. To what family does the box elder belong, for instance?’”

Such hilarity aside, the graduate students are “very deadly serious” about the games, said William Lamp, coach of the University of Maryland team, which, after succeeding in regional rounds, advanced to compete in Reno this year along with nine other teams. To prepare, teams from universities across the country practice weekly, poring over classic texts like P.J. Gullan and P.S. Cranston’s “The Insects,” memorizing banks of recorded questions from previous games and reading journals to keep up to date with the latest in pesticide chemistry. They bone up on social entomology, medical entomology, ecology and the dreaded systematics, which includes insect phylogeny and evolution. They also work on speed and reflexes, slapping at the buzzer like they’d swat a vicious mosquito.

For their trouble, winning teams receive a plaque and bragging rights – the “glory of accomplishment,” Turpin says. A few top performers have reportedly garnered job offers from impressed audience members.

The Maryland team, a newcomer going up against such powerhouses as the University of California at Riverside, is not expecting victory-- this year, that is.

“We just don’t want to embarrass ourselves in front of this crowd of famous entomologists,” says team captain Bob Smith, a second-year PhD student studying the effects of urbanization on caddisfly dispersal. But no matter how hard the questions get, his team intends to have fun. “It’s a release from our research,” he says. “As a grad student, you learn to pose novel questions, where often the answers aren’t known.” In the Linnaean Games, somebody, somewhere – sometimes right beside you -- always knows the answers.

UPDATE: The team from University of California- Riverside was victorious in the 2008 competition. The team of Ph.D. students were led by coach Darcy Reed and captain Jennifer Henke. Students from North Carolina State came in second-place.

About Abigail Tucker

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

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