Entomologist Colin Favret is enthralled by insects. Favret, insect collection manager for the Illinois Natural History Survey, is basing his doctoral studies on the systematics of aphids that feed on pinyon pines, found exclusively in the mountainous regions of the U.S. desert Southwest. Favret earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in entomology from the UI.
What does an ‘insect collection manager’ do?
Essentially my responsibilities are to maintain the collection and accession of new specimens. I created and maintain a database that currently has 170,000 records (representing) almost a million specimens. The survey’s collection has approximately 7 million specimens, so we’ve just gotten started. I give tours of the collection regularly, mainly to school groups. I process loans for scientists all over the world who ask to see our material of a particular species or group of insect. As people work with the specimens, they begin to understand the relationships between the species, and they might describe a new species based on our material or they may decide that our material indicates that two previously named species are the same.
There’s a lot of variety in my position, which keeps me stimulated. We have specimens in different formats – dried material, material preserved in alcohol, material on microscope slides – and they each require different care.
As scientists understand insects better, they are changing their names and updating the classifications. I keep track of those changes. I spend quite a bit of time in the library looking up papers that are 100 years old or more.
What’s notable about the survey’s insect collection?
It’s the seventh or eighth largest collection in the country behind others like the Smithsonian and the Bishop Museum, Hawaii. We also have easily the best collection of material from the state of Illinois, and there’s probably no state in the union that has so many specimens and so much known about its insect fauna. For some insect groups, we have some of the best representatives worldwide, such as our caddisflies and bee collections.
What do you find most interesting about entomology?
The diversity. There are so many species of insects and so little is known of most of them. By some estimates only 10 to 50 percent of insect species are known. There’s just so much detail and intricacy in the world of insects, and I just find that fascinating.
Like humans, even identical twins, every individual insect within the same species looks a little different. So we want to have multiple specimens so we know how much variation exists.
What misconceptions and questions do people have about insects and the survey’s collection?
A lot of people see an insect collection as little more than an amateur stamp collection. In actuality, collections serve multiple purposes because every specimen is a record of a particular species at a particular place and time. So using the data associated with our specimens, we can track changes in distribution over time. One of our largest databases is of aquatic insects, and we can see how the streams in the state of Illinois have degraded over the last 50 years because certain species are no longer present or they’re only present in a few restricted streams.
A lot of people come in with spiders they have found in their houses or perhaps have been bitten by and want to know what kind it is. People most often bring in wolf spiders, which tend to be large, hairy and scary looking, and people are relieved to find out they’re pretty harmless.
What kinds of interests do you have off the job?
I love anything that has to do with mountains: climbing up them and skiing down them, but not necessarily during the same season. I’ve climbed pretty much all over the conterminous United States, and a little bit in Switzerland, Africa and Australia. About a year and a half ago, I climbed Orizaba in Mexico, which is the third highest peak in North America. So the other thing I enjoy is traveling. I also enjoy hiking, camping and opera. For the last six or seven years, I’ve been playing chess by mail with my grandmother in Pennsylvania, who just turned 80. She’s an excellent player who’s competed nationally.