Entomology department to receive crowdfunding to develop photos of collection

Zainab Calcuttawala

UT’s entomology department will receive funds to commission a collection of professional insect photographs. 

The Department of Annual Giving has selected the entomology department to participate in the HornRaiser program, UT’s official crowdfunding platform. The project will raise money to hire students to produce photographs of insects for public use.

Alex Wild, curator of ants for the Entomology Collection, said that the funds from the HornRaiser program will benefit the students and the scientific community by providing a way for everyone to obtain high-quality images of nature in a legal way. 

“The main impetus for copyright is that people who create for a living need to eat; at some point, money has to change hands,” Wild said. “The other way to get stuff done is to commission it. When you have money up front, then you can actually support people to take photographs for the public domain.”

Wild said research in the field often uses a multidisciplinary approach, based in biology and sociology, to derive models that solve business dilemmas. For example, Southwest Airlines uses a process called “ant colony optimization” to solve logistical efficiency problems.

“Airlines are interested in figuring out how to minimize their fuel use and maximize their profits, and they have these really complex series of routes and schedules to move all these airplanes around,” Wild said. “This is conceptually the same problem in an ant colony. A certain number of ants have to move a certain amount of things to a certain amount of places, so we can copy them. It turns out that these companies save millions of dollars a year in fuel costs because of these algorithms.”

UT’s Entomology Collection includes more than 1,200 species of butterflies and moths, about 70 species of ants and around 200 species of bees, according to Rob Plowes, research scientist at the Texas Invasive Species program housed within the department.

Entomologist Mike Quinn said the Entomology Collection is necessary for recording the distribution and diversity of species for the generations-long research process on the biological life of Texas.

“Ed Riley, [the associate curator of Texas A&M University Insect Collection], would show people the collection and pull out a drawer, and he would say ‘The person that is [going to] work on this phylum might not even be born yet,’” Quinn said.

Wild said ants can even help expand the field of sociology.

“Ants are sort of like alien civilizations. They’re like us — they always live in groups,” Wild said. “Because there are 20,000 species of them, they have invented 20,000 different ways to have a civilization.”