Buggin' out: Insect world continues to amaze University of Minnesota entomologist

Leonard Ferrington of the University of Minnesota has devoted much of his research to aquatic insects, which “continue to fascinate” because of their vast numbers and importance to ecosystems, food webs and fisheries.
That’s pretty phenomenal to think that entomologists have been working for, what, 150 years describing species and to find out only about a third of the species are actually described at this point in time?

When you see a bumblebee nestled in a purple hosta flower, Leonard Ferrington, a professor and research entomologist at the University of Minnesota, urges you to think of the positive interactions instead of the negative.

For instance, instead of worrying about the bee’s stinger, think about how it plays a key role in the pollination of flowers.

Having those deeper discussions about insect life—and understanding their role as more than a creepy bug older siblings scare little sisters with—is Ferrington’s field of study. It’s an immense one, even bigger than he originally thought.

(Entomology entails) “everything from using insects as test organisms to understanding the molecular processes, to doing field assessments of how different types of food amounts affect insects, both positive and negatively,” Ferrington said.

“We don’t like (insects) where they’re not supposed to be. We don’t like them in our house. I don’t either. If we get away from (how they interact negatively with us), and that’s just a small number of insects, there are so many out there that are really beneficial. We have to kinda look beyond the few that are most conspicuous and interact the most negatively. If you do that, you see how fascinating they are.”

For Ferrington, his natural curiosity about the insect world started at the age of three while watching a spider’s web.

“I tried to learn as much as I could all the time about insects,” he said. “I can remember my father, years ago, feeding insects to a spider on our front porch. And that was so fascinating. Of course spiders aren’t insects, but it was that interaction between insects and spiders … that really started me into looking at fine detail and what was happening.”

Ferrington spent his first three years of college thinking that he wanted to be a biochemist. After he realized that he could be paid for doing research on aquatic insects, he immediately switched orientations.

Ferrington eventually landed at the University of Kansas, where he worked for 20 years. His first job was to develop a list of aquatic insects.

“There were 35 species recorded, and when I left 25 years later, we knew about 800. So, it was actually pretty fascinating to make all those discoveries,” he said.

Thirteen years ago, he left Kansas for the University of Minnesota, though he’s hardly grounded there. Ferrington’s insect studies have taken him to Norway, Iceland, Argentina, South Africa, Mongolia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Puerto Rico, among other countries.

Out of all those locations, Mongolia has a special place in his heart.

“We worked for about a month, each of two summers, in Western Mongolia. We lived in the countryside and we camped. We ate local foods, we moved around in Russian-made Jeeps, and visited with local groups of people,” Ferrington said.

“There are all these other benefits. I mean, there’s a whole different way to living on this Earth than the way we do it in the United States.”

Yet traveling around the world isn’t like a trip to the Kalahari for an entomologist.

“Literally, you have to take everything with you and you have to get ready for it, get prepared and carry supplies,” he said. “It isn’t like a vacation. It’s work. It really is hard, but it’s exciting.”

Becoming an entomologist can be a tough road, too. The University of Minnesota has an undergraduate program called Environmental Science Policy and Management. It’s a great starting point for aspiring entomologists, Ferrington said, since it gives science students a better understanding of research, observation and patience.

All are vital if you eventually want to be hired as one.

“What we typically do is, students would get a degree, perhaps in environmental sciences or biology or ecology, and then they would go on to a graduate program at a masters level,” said Ferrington, who also mentors graduate students at U of M.

“So, it typically would take four years of college and the two years of graduate school to really develop a technical background to a level that you would be employed as an entomologist.”

All these years into his career, the insect world continues to surprise Ferrington — particularly how few species have been described.

Roughly 3.8 million specimens make up the University of Minnesota’s impressive insect collection at the St. Paul campus. From the massive Goliath beetle and aquatic Belostomatidae (more commonly known as the toe-biter) to exotic and shimmery blue Morpho butterflies, researchers continues to fill display cases with their finds.

“That’s pretty phenomenal to think that entomologists have been working for, what, 150 years describing species and to find out only about a third of the species are actually described at this point in time?

“It takes some time to really understand what (insects) are doing, to understand their role in their ecosystem processes. They kinda speak their own language and we have to infer that from their behavior.”

CAREER ADVICE

This is the first installment of “The Way I Work,” a regular ThreeSixty feature aimed at providing insight into unique and interesting career fields. Intrigued by this career path? Entomologist Leonard Ferrington offers the following advice to teenagers:

“Realize that if you follow your interests, then there are employment opportunities associated with insects. At the same time, keep in mind that it does take quite a bit of study and commitment to learn enough about them that you’re able to really obtain a job working with insects,” Ferrington said. “I mean, if you’re happy with it as a hobby, that’s fine too. Insects as a hobby are great. But if you actually want to have a career, it does take quite a bit of study. You have to really be committed to being a good scientist.”

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