Bugs, Brains and Trivia

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

Dragonfly eyes
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.

“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.

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