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Sam Noble Museum Unveils Oklahoma’s Ugliest Bugs in New Photo Exhibit

The Sam Noble Museum and Oklahoma Microscopy Society celebrate 20 years of the Oklahoma Ugly Bug contest with a colossal insect exhibit.

Not a lot of people are eager to get their hands on tiny creatures that sting, scurry, pinch or make you itch. Alas, every year hundreds of kids around Oklahoma show their bravery — and curiosity — by descending on parks, playgrounds and other insect habitats in search of Oklahoma’s “ugliest” bugs.

Now in its 20th year, the Oklahoma Ugly Bug contest challenges students across the state to track down and capture caterpillars, beetles, cicadas, ants, moths and the like in hopes of finding the most unique insect.

This year, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History teamed up with the Oklahoma Microscopy Society (the entity that orchestrates the annual contest) to celebrate two decades of bug-catching and identification. Now through June 18, the museum has on display 20 larger-than-life images of insects caught by contest winners during the past 20 years in its exhibit, “Ugly Bugs! Celebrating 20 Years of the Oklahoma Microscopy Society’s Ugly Bug Contest.”

“This exhibit provides a great opportunity for kids to learn more about the world around them and do so on a much different scale than they’re used to,” said Katrina Menard, entomology curator at the Sam Noble Museum. “Visitors will be able to see the beauty of these bugs that they wouldn’t be able to see with the naked eye.”

Open to all Oklahoma elementary schools, the annual “Ugly Bug” competition is designed to get students interested in microscopy and entomology at a young age. The rules are simple: Each school can submit one bug — the “uglier,” the better. Entries are processed at scanning electron microscope labs across the state, currently including Oklahoma State University, Phillips 66 and the Samuel Roberts Noble Microscopy Laboratory on the University of Oklahoma Norman campus, and imaged by a scanning electron microscope. The school with the winning entry, judged by a group of OMS members, scientists and volunteer judges, receives a Leica stereomicroscope.

Jane Dmytryk, a second-grade teacher from Jackson Elementary, is known around her school as the “ugly bug teacher.” Dmytryk has participated in the contest every year since its inception and has integrated the contest through the whole school. She said the students know once September rolls around, they better be ready to head outside and search for bugs.

“It’s made them so much more aware of the outdoors, the environment, what kind of habitats these bugs need,” said the one-time contest winner. “Some kids even build up a whole little habitat for their bug, and they check on it every day to see how it’s doing.”

20 years of surprises

The scientists inside the Samuel Roberts Noble Electron Microscopy Laboratory scan and image the bugs to produce the macro photos. Scott Russell, director of Samuel Roberts Noble Microscopy Laboratory, said they’ve not only seen some downright ugly bugs in the past 20 years, but they’ve been sent some pretty unusual vermin as well.

“Among other things, we were occasionally getting tarantulas, scorpions and other spiders, and most of them do have venom,” he said.

Um, yikes?

The contest now prohibits arachnids, which include tarantulas and scorpions in addition to your harmless Daddy Long Leg spider and the venomous brown recluse found throughout Oklahoma. That rule is only partly for the child’s safety, Russell said.

“Anybody who collects a honeybee is looking for trouble, too. Or a wasp, and we do get those.”

Actually, the ban on spiders came about after a contestant submitted a tarantula not-so-wisely enveloped between two paper plates stapled together. The spider’s mass (which could have been somewhere between 1 and 3 ounces), combined with the time it takes to mail something through the U.S. Postal Service, meant bad news for those who had to handle it in transit.

“Tarantulas are big, sort of wet insects; it was pretty stinky,” said Greg Strout, research scientist at the Samuel Roberts Noble Electron Microscopy Laboratory. “We put it in the fume hood for a couple of weeks before we even dealt with it.”

Russell chimed in, “We got a note from the post office. We got a long note.”

The lab crew also received a delivery of a black widow spider nest, complete with a batch of eggs.

“That was really, really exciting,” Russell added.

Aside from the arachnids, which, by the way, aren’t even in the insect family, other questionable critters get caught and sent in.

“There are some that, when you get them, you kind of wonder what people were thinking,” Russell said. “Like crab lice, you know? Yep, we’ve gotten lice before — not personally.”

What’s so funny, though, is the students are absolutely aware they’re catching lice and sending it off to a stranger to scan and image.

“That’s right, they have to identify it,” Russell said. “That’s part of the challenge. They have to state the kingdom, phylum, order, family. They have to do the complete scientific classification. The real exercise is doing science and collecting bugs.”

Once, the scientists received a Madagascar hissing cockroach that was found at Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City. That prompted yet another rule: The contest will only accept bugs native to Oklahoma.

Sam Noble Museum exhibit

The museum exhibit, sponsored by Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores, also incorporates displays that educate about entomology, physics, microscopy and mathematics.

To prepare a bug to image, researchers first must dry out the bug, inside and out. Ones with a hard shell like a beetle can be air-dried without losing their shape. But, because soft and squishy bugs like caterpillars and spiders shrivel up like a raisin, scientists must use a tool called a critical point drying machine (or CPD). In a process similar to freeze-drying, this machine allows them to use a trick of physics to remove all moisture from the bug without damaging it.

The area inside a scanning electron microscope is small, and many times the bugs are too big to fit. If that happens, the lab workers carefully trim the bug and keep the parts they want to look at more closely.

To make the bugs easier to handle and face the right way inside the microscope, they are stuck onto a mounting pin called a “stub.” To look at specimens with a scanning electron microscope they must be electrically conductive, so the scientists use a special double-stick tape made of carbon, or a paste containing small silver particles.

Then, they coat the bug with a layer of carbon, then a thin layer of a gold and palladium. That’s a thickness of about 12 atoms (the length your fingernails grow in about 5-10 seconds!).

The bug on its stub is placed inside a machine called a vacuum evaporator. After all the air is pumped out of the glass chamber, a rod of carbon is heated to white-hot causing small particles of carbon to fly off and deposit on the bug.

Now the stub is placed inside a machine called a sputter coater. The air inside the cylinder is replaced with a small amount of argon gas. Electricity is passed through the argon between two electrodes creating a purple plasma. Gold and palladium particles sputter down onto the bug, covering it in a thin coating of metal.

The coated bug on its stub is placed on a special tool that reaches far into the SEM. It allows scientists to position the bug properly on the microscope’s “stage.” After the tool is removed, the chamber is sealed shut and all of the air inside is pumped out.

In addition to the ugly bug photos and explanation of the imaging process, the exhibit features those metal-coated bugs as well as packaging used to transport the bugs from the classroom through the postal service and to the lab. Classmates often brainstorm the best ways to ship each bug, and those methods, OMS members say, can get interesting.

“They range from Ziploc bags where the bug may be crushed and unusable by us, to very elaborate ideas,” said Preston Larson, research scientist at the Samuel Roberts Noble Electron Microscopy Laboratory. “You get a lot of Kodak film containers, some iPhone boxes, and I’ve even seen one in a Styrofoam egg.”

The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is located on the University of Oklahoma Norman campus at J. Willis Stovall Road and Chautauqua Avenue. For accommodations, call (405) 325-4712 or visit SamNobleMuseum.ou.edu.