Ask a Scientist
On December 13, students and teachers interviewed Dr. Toby
Schuh, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History.
To learn about how to tell a moth from a butterfly, the kinds of bugs
people eat, and how many bugs remain to be discovered, read the transcript
|Dr. Toby Schuh is an entomologist at the American Museum
of Natural History.
What do you do at the American Museum of Natural History?
I’m a scientist. My research involves the classification of insects
using information derived from field work and the study of museum specimens.
I am also responsible for the management of our research collectionsI
study the classification of insects and manage our research collections.
My job is to improve the collections by adding new insect specimens and
to keep the collections well organized for other scientists who may want
to study them.
Did you like bugs as a kid?
My father was an entomologist and I was introduced to the study of insects
at age 5. I took to it right away. One of the ways I was involved with
studying insects was with 4H work. I participated in 4H entomology clubs
from age 9 to 18.
Do you study prehistoric bugs and are these bugs part of the
food chains in ancient times?
Most of my work has been on insects that are living in the world today.
But certainly insects that we know that are fossilized were part of
the food chain in prehistoric times.
Where do you go to look at bugs?
I study bugs in the field and in museums. In the field, I have worked
in Africa, Australia, South America, and the Western United States.
When we go to the field we often camp out and this allows us more time
collecting bugs. One of the methods we use is light traps, which attract
the bugs at night. Light traps often times help us capture bugs that
we can't find by any other method, like by searching on plants. Once
I’m in the museum, that's when I take a good look at the bugs
through a microscope. Remember that a lot of our knowledge of bugs and
other insects comes from the study of specimens in museums.
Do the bugs ever bite you?
Some bugs do, particularly Assassin Bugs and Water Bugs. When they bite,
the result can be extremely painful but there’s no permanent damage.
What is the most poisonous bug that you have ever studied?
Actually, no true bugs are poisonous.
Why does a bee die once it stings you?
Honey Bees die because their stinger is pulled from their body. The
barbs on the bee’s stinger prevent it from coming out of your
skin. This means that the stinger and the venom sack are ripped from
the bee's body and they die. This is only true of Honey Bees.
Why do fruit flies increase so rapidly?
When there are no parasites or predators, all of the young insects grow
to be adults and produce offspring of their own. In the laboratory there
are no parasites so mortality is low. In nature there are lots of parasites
and predators which kill many of the young insects.
Is there ever an insect born deformed?
Yes, sometimes one of the insect’s antennae will be missing segments.
It looks funny, but it isn't necessarily fatal.
How did bugs evolve?
Bugs evolved over a very long period of time. The oldest insects were
on earth more than 300 million years ago! These fossils look like modern
groups in many cases but others do not.
What bugs are endangered?
The most endangered insects are butterflies, beautiful butterflies.
The greatest danger of extinction comes from habitat destruction. Sometimes
butterflies are over collected too, but the main threat is the destruction
How does a butterfly eat?
Butterflies have what are called "sucking mouth parts" so
their mouths work like a straw and they can only eat liquid food
like cokes and vanilla shakes just joking.
How can you tell a moth from a butterfly?
Butterflies have small clubs on the end of their antennae like little
tiny spoons. Moths don’t have these.
What’s the difference between insects and bugs?
All true bugs are insects but not all insects are true bugs. All insects
have six legs but only true bugs have stink glands, and a large triangular
scutellum. "Bug" often times is used to mean any creepy crawly,
but the term true bug refers to a particular kind of insect.
How many different kinds of bugs are there?
There are more than 40,000 species of True Bugs. There are probably
1.5 million described species of insects.
What is the most nutritious bug for people to eat?
I don’t know the most nutritious, but in Mexico waterboatmen are
a traditional food source of the Aztecs and still eaten by some people
today. In Asia, giant waterbugs are used as a source of seasoning because
the glands make them spicy.
Can you give me advice on how to be an entomologist?
Study biology in school. If you can, join a 4H club.
Did you ever get to name your own bug?
Yes, I've named many bugs. Many insects have never been studied scientifically,
so they were never given a name. Scientists like me find many insects
that have no name.
How many bugs do you think are still left to be discovered?
Estimates range from 1 million to 10 million species that haven't been
discovered. These species live all over the world even in the U.S. We
have a lot of work to do!
Will bugs take over the universe?
No, nature will always achieve some kind of equilibrium.
What was your favorite species of bug to study?
As this Web site shows, I study true bugs almost every day. Other than
true bugs in general, I don't think I have a favorite.
Are scorpions arachnids?
Yes, they are. They have 8 legs and that's your clue.
What insects does the group true bugs include?
Water Striders, Bed Bugs, Assassin Bugs, Stink Bugs and let’s
not forget Plant Bugs.
Are bugs smart?
The bug brain does a good job at what it was designed to do, which is
to find its food source, find a mate, and reproduce. Beyond that, there’s
not much happening.
Why do animals adapt?
A good answer would be difficult to get across in a short answer. If
you have an opportunity to see the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum
of Natural History and also on the Animals,
Adaptation, and Galápagos Islands site, you’ll find
a good answer.
What was the very first bug you studied in depth?
The first group of bugs I studied was Shore Bugs that live around the
margins of streams and ponds. This was in college and I studied them
because I was offered a research scholarship called "Research
Experience for Undergraduates" from the National
Science Foundation. It’s a great program.
Do you have lots of bugs at the museum?
The insect collection at the American Museum contains about 17 million
specimens of those, 700,000 are true bugs.
What is a day at the museum like for you?
First I check email and then I look at my daily schedule. Sometimes
I have a meeting. I often meet with other members of the Planetary
Biodiversity Inventory project and we discuss our research progress.
I try to set aside time every day to study specimens through a microscope.
In the end, science is about writing papers. I spend a lot time writing
about the observation of specimens and data we bring back from field
What college can I go to become an entomologist?
Every state has a "Land
Grant College,” which will have a department of entomology.
The University of California especially Berkeley, Riverside,
and Davis have great entomology departments. The University of
Georgia and Cornell also have great entomology departments. There are
What are the smallest and biggest bugs you have studied?
The smallest bugs I’ve studied are what I call “Minute Tropical
Litter Bugs.” These are less than one millimeter in length. The
largest are Giant Water Bugs which are can be as big as 10 centimeters.
Did you ever eat a bug? If so what bug?
I have eaten some insects. I've tried termites, caterpillars, several
kinds of beetle larvae, crickets, ants, and grasshoppers. Some of these
you can buy in stores even in the U.S.
Do you like to read? What are your favorite kinds of books?
Yes, I like biography and history books.
Are there any live insects in the museum?
We have a butterfly exhibit which includes a lot of living butterflies.
Do you kill the bugs that you study?
Yes, we do. For the type of study we do, which is a structural study,
we can't study bugs when they’re alive. We take a small sample
in order to learn about them. Those same specimens wouldn’t have
a long lifespan in nature.
Do bigger bugs usually eat the smaller bugs?
Not necessarily because many large insects are vegetarian. Most stink
bugs and squash bugs are vegetarian and they’re some of the biggest
true bug species.
What is the most common color for a stink bug?
Many are green and blend in with the plant they live on, but even more
of them are of brown or varied colorations.
Do moths eat wool?
The larvae of some species of moths eat wool but not very many.
Do bugs ever carry diseases?
The most important disease carrying bug is the Kissing Bug. They’re
blood-feeding bugs that transmit Chagas disease to humans. They’re
in the New World Tropics like Brazil and Argentina. Other insects such
as mosquitoes transmit diseases like Malaria and Yellow Fever.
Do you plan to study bugs your whole life? What else would
you like to study if not bugs?
During the past 30 years I’ve worked at the American Museum and
my research has been on the study of true bugs. So I think I will continue
in this path. If I had the time, I would like to study beetles.
Why are insects good and bad?
Insects are good because they help us maintain balance in many ecosystems
particularly in areas like decomposition and pollination. And they’re
bad in a human sense because they transmit disease, they eat our crops,
and they can bite.
What bug eats the most?
I'll give you an example: a hungry bed bug’s abdomen will triple
in size when filled with blood!
Do bugs have personalities?
My studies haven't produced an answer to that question.
What bug has the weirdest name?
I always thought that the Kissing Bug had a funny name.
Do butterflies kill other insects?
No, butterflies are vegetarians as larvae and as adults they feed on
Why do you think it's important to study bugs?
One thing that any entomologist would say is "once you start you'll
find you can't stop." Because there are so many insects to study
and they’re so important to humans for good and bad reasons.
I’d recommend that if you want to study entomology, you take
biology in school and practice your writing skills in order to prepare