Be it the creepy crawlies or the incessantly buzzing beings, insects aren’t generally given a second glance, apart from the occasional swatting to drive them away. But Dr Abraham Verghese is a man who believes otherwise. Ask him why and he suggests I take a tour of the insectarium in the National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources (NBAIR) in Bengaluru. An initiative of the NBAIR, this insectarium houses live samples of insects that are beyond the usual realm of mosquitoes and cockroaches. You can expect to find diving beetles, praying mantes, lac insects, flower chafers, wax worms and many others in this museum. “People believe all insects are bad, which isn’t entirely true. A majority of the insects found in nature are vital to the biodiversity,” explains Dr Abraham, director, NBAIR, Bengaluru.
As we walk around the museum, he explains the characteristics of every insect displayed and its role in the ecology. “The resinous secretion by lac insects, called lac, has high economic value and is used in making bangles, pens and nail polishes.” We come across a tray filled with sand in which there are funnel-shaped depressions. “This is going to be interesting. Watch closely,” exclaims Dr Abraham. He gets an ant from the garden outside and drops it into the depression. Within seconds, sickle-shaped jaws stick out of the soil, crush the ant and pull it inside. As I stand wonderstruck, Dr Abraham says they are antlions that live right under such depressions in the soil, so as to catch their prey unaware. “It’s an ingenious death trap. After eating all the flesh, they throw out the carcass on the soil,” he says.
The museum is filled with many such examples. The cochineal insects, which when crushed, produce a red dye, the wild silk moth from which one can gain Ahimsa silk (unlike other silkworms, it isn’t necessary to kill the pupae of wild silk moth to get silk), mimicking butterflies — all are displayed in their glory in this one-of-its-kind museum.
As we move along, a peculiar board catches my eye. It reads ‘nutritional value of common animal food vs insects’. It turns out insects are high sources of protein! So, does that mean we have to start gulping down insect milkshakes every morning? Dr Abraham laughs, “In the north-eastern states of the country, insects are a delicacy. Across the world, people consume about 1,900 types of insects. Chocolate-dipped insects, barbecued larvae and fried crickets might just be our best bet against protein shortage in our diets.”
The insectarium, which is open to the public only on Saturdays (10am-5pm), records students as the highest number of visitors. “Kids find looking at live insects more fascinating than learning about them in books amidst four walls. I hope to get as many students inspired as possible through this museum,” he says.
A visit to this unique museum will not make you start a lifelong affair with the creepy crawlies. But they will definitely change your outlook towards them. “It’s never easy to convince people to like insects. But all we hope to do is to make them realise that many insects are beneficial to humans, especially farmers,” explains Dr Abraham.
The NBAIR helps out farmers in the State by offering them organic and natural alternatives to control pests in their farms. Prashant Mohanraj, head, department of insect biosystematics, says, “It’s all about killing one insect with another, negating the use of chemical pesticides.” Many of their cultures are also sold commercially in the State.
The point being...
Dr Ankita Gupta, a scientist at NBAIR, explains why research on insects is vital. “One of the major reasons why we do this is because we don’t have a proper record of all the insects in the country. If we need to understand the evolution of these insects, we need some kind of reference.” Later, I am directed into a preservation room neatly stacked with hundreds of boxes containing all kinds of insects. As we walk around, Ankita sheds light on the preservation process. The insects collected after days of exhaustive field work, sometimes from remote locations, are brought to the institute. Extreme care and caution is exercised to preserve the insects to store them exactly the way they were found in nature. The insect is photographed, probed, classified and stored in the repository for future references. In a bid to make the data available for others, the institute also has an online database with every possible element of information on all kinds of insects.
As I go around to get one more look at the fairly important beings, I can’t help but ask Dr Abraham if he has eaten any insect. “Not yet. But I am changing my perception of them.” Maybe it’s time we changed ours too.
Log on to www.nbair.res.in for more information.