Colorado State University Bug-Loving Students Swarm to Celebrate Club’s Centennial

Bug-loving students at Colorado State University will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Gillette Entomology Club – the oldest student group on campus – with a Bug Bash this week.

The Bug Bash will be held from 6-10 p.m. Friday, April 6, in the Plant Sciences Building. Attendance is free and open to the campus community.

The event will include an arthropod petting zoo, allowing bash-goers to hold “Steve,” a giant African millipede. They also may handle a friendly Chilean rose hair tarantula, a giant Asian mantis, or a Madagascar hissing cockroach.

And if that’s not enough to entice the crowds, surely CSU students will do “the wiggle” for fortified snacks, including Chirpy Chip Cookies (special ingredient: edible crickets) or Chex Mix Plus (the “Plus” being protein-rich mealworms).

Carnival games will include a bed-bug toss. But don’t worry, the blood-sucking insects used in this game are plush toys.

The Bug Bash also will feature a showing of “Them!” The classic 1954 sci-fi movie follows the hero’s encounter with a nest of gigantic irradiated ants; it nabbed an Oscar nomination for special effects.

The Entomology Club was founded by Clarence Preston Gillette, a renowned insect scientist who worked in a variety of leadership roles at CSU from 1891 to 1935. Gillette, CSU’s first entomologist and an expert in aphids, started the entomology group with four student members in 1912.

As it has from the beginning, the 100-year-old club holds student gatherings on campus to nurture its members’ shared interest in insects and other arthropods, which are said to account for more than 80 percent of all known living animal species. Just one group of insects, beetles, is considered so vast that scientists estimate one of every five different living things on Earth is a beetle.

Club members, numbering about 20, also focus on outreach: They visit area schools and share bug facts with students ranging from preschoolers to fellow collegians. The club’s cockroach races have become a zany trademark. The races pit discoid cockroaches – ideal because they neither fly nor climb – in erratic scuttles across painted plywood as viewers cheer them on.

“The most gratifying part of our outreach is when somebody is deathly afraid of insects, or their reaction is, ‘Eww, that’s gross,’ and then they transition toward being knowledgeable about these amazing creatures, and even being willing to hold or touch them,” said Kyle Conrad, club president and a CSU senior majoring in biology with a minor in entomology. “If you watch the cockroach races, you’ll see people go from being disgusted to saying, ‘I want to hold my champion!’ and giving them pep talks. That’s an awesome transition.”

Love them or hate them, bugs demand attention based on their numbers, their variety, and the major roles they play in the environment, in society and in the economy.

“When it comes to insects, we can’t live with them, and we can’t live without them,” said Boris Kondratieff, a CSU professor of entomology and the club’s faculty co-adviser.

“Why can’t we live with them?” he asked. “They spread fatal diseases, they are major agricultural and environmental pests, and they’re a nuisance. Why can’t we live without them? They are indispensable for pollination, they provide decomposition, they are critical to biodiversity, and they are part of virtually every food chain.”

The Gillette Entomology Club often lures people toward this broad appreciation by presenting what Kondratieff calls the “ooh, aah stuff” – big, flashy bugs including giant butterflies, moths, millipedes and tarantulas. Sometimes the club shows off preserved specimens, and sometimes it presents live arthropods.

Entomology is a trademark feature of the CSU College of Agricultural Sciences for good reason: Many crops rely on insects for pollination and other critical activity; just as many are vulnerable to insect destruction. That’s why honeybee hives are trucked to orchards and produce fields nationwide, and why Russian wheat aphids and other invasive insects are the focus of multimillion-dollar research projects.

If members of the Gillette Entomology Club are a barometer, this generation of young scientists hopes new knowledge will lead to improved management practices that rely less on blanket pesticide use and more on insect monitoring, effective biological controls, pest-resistant plant varieties and targeted pesticide use, among other tools and strategies.

One hundred years after its founding, the club’s core goals remain the same.

“I hope we can encourage people to have more wonder about nature,” said Conrad, the club president. “I’ve always been enthralled with bugs because there’s a big mystery about them. It feels like one of the final frontiers left to explore.”