Several groups of high school students at the Central Florida (CFL) Zoo stood in angst. Not because of the zoo’s prowling cheetah attraction, but because of insects.

They froze in the dark, shining flashlights on entomologist Bob Belmont, who entered a walk-in aluminum-screened cage that trapped thousands of bugs that crawled, landed and fluttered around him as he excitedly asked, “OK, who’s next?” Belmont said the students gave him an incredulous look...because willingly going into a cage with thousands of insects in the dark is not most people’s idea of a good time.

These tour groups of students arrived at the Central Florida Zoo as part of a biodiversity event. Belmont’s job, as an entomologist for Massey Services, Orlando, was to show them the biodiversity of insects — yet fear obstructed the evening. All night Belmont tried to convince the students they could see a lot more interesting insects up close if they went into the cage. Eventually one student took the bait, with more students following her lead.

The excitement from the 2010 biodiversity tours kick-started an idea to track all insects at the zoo, day and night. The study lasted five years from 2011 to 2016. Belmont trapped about 10,000 arthropods in the process, ready to be labeled and pinned for the public’s enjoyment.

“Some of the bugs he was catching looked like they came from a rainforest,” Sandi Linn, former education director of the CFL Zoo, said. “I mean who knew they were here in Florida?” Belmont explained to Linn, now a curator of the Orange County Regional History Center, that the zoo’s 40 acres were located on a wetland, and how the property was a “gold mine” for advancing scientific research and discovering new species.

In July 2016, Belmont trapped an unidentified wasp so small it was a third of the length of a pinhead.

“It’s all iridescent blue-green, which is gorgeous…it’s so tiny, with pure red eyes.  It’s neat to see new insects like this. I’ve never seen this wasp in my life, having worked with insects for over 50 years. Insects like this I’ve never seen before keep popping up in the zoo traps. Most people don’t search for insects a third of the length of a pinhead, however, ” said Belmont.

IT’S A TRAP. Trapping unusual insects has taken up more than 1,000 hours of Belmont’s time. Every Sunday for five years, Belmont spent about five hours collecting insects from the various traps, nets and lures placed throughout the zoo grounds.

“Many different positions were chosen for trap placement from high in the trees to within vegetation and even right on the ground,” he said. “In many cases, the traps worked during certain months but not in others.”

Linn said it’s not rare for zoos to sponsor studies, but it is unusual for the study to actually be on the zoo’s property.

Belmont obtained the traps and equipment to house the pinned insects from Massey and donations from various companies. He wrote a 10-page proposal for Massey Services, which included approval for the aluminum cage that permanently resides at the zoo. He was granted about $2,000.

Left: Bob Belmont has spent more than 1,000 hours preparing zoo specimens.
Butterfly specimens dry for one month on a spreading board.
Smaller moths and unidentified insects.

Before Belmont started the project, the donated cage was used to “gather some of the more interesting bugs captured the night before to show the public in the foyer of the Massey Insect Zoo.” The Insect Zoo is a permanent exhibit that was sponsored and built by Massey in 2005 for the public to learn about insects.

WHAT’S THAT? Belmont has run into some problems identifying the thousands of species he has left to label. Out of the 10,000 trapped, he has only been able to label and pin about 6,000 so far.

“Really, really tiny bugs that don’t come into a home or don’t pose a threat are really hard to identify,” he said. “I don’t think any entomologist is able to sit down and immediately identify 5,000 random insects to species.”

The process to identify a new species is a timely and costly one. If an insect cannot be identified by an entomologist, the specimen can be carefully packaged and sent to a museum specialist somewhere in the world who works on that insect family. Labels typically designate the locality (and geocode if possible), date, collection method, collector, any further notes and scientific name, if possible. Belmont’s geocodes on each label indicate within about 10 feet of where each specimen was collected.

“Pinned insects are fragile. You have to ship them in a special way to protect them from damage when shipped to the Smithsonian, or any other large museum, and then you have to wait months before they are similarly shipped back to you, hopefully undamaged with species names on them,” he said. “When you do that, the postage is expensive.”

Belmont shows off several of the specimens he’s collected throughout this project.

Luckily, some species were easily identified. “The diversity of moths, butterflies, beetles, flies, wasps and dragonflies was as we expected,” he said. “We were surprised at the number of staphylinid beetles collected. Hundreds of staphylinid specimens have already been pinned and labeled into short series for scientific studies.”

The time taken to log the information works out to a scientist’s advantage. “This scientific data becomes valuable when you can create a relatively complete list of the species,” he said. “It shows that these bugs, whether pests or not, were living at this point on a map and were living in harmony together. This list can become really valuable when collection dates are linked to accumulated weather data. The data will be useful to many scientists.”

TO BE CONTINUED. The collection Belmont has is housed in two locking cabinets and can only be accessed at the zoo with a reservation.

“Only a small amount of the collection has been identified past order and family,” he said. “Maybe a hundred or so Lepidoptera, for instance, have been named to species, with the majority of the collection needing identification.”

Though he is still sorting through his findings from the five-year time period, Belmont said he wants this to be a continuous study. Eventually, he would like to train students from the area to help him catch and pin bugs; the only help he is receiving now is an employee at the zoo who logs the weather data for him once a week.

“It’s fun for me and exciting things will come from it — state records and new species should soon be found,” Belmont said. “Most entomologists get some form of enjoyment from either collecting insects or working with insects.”

Belmont said Massey encourages team members to engage in the community and he wanted this to become his project for the area of Central Florida and for science in general.

“For me, as an entomologist, contributing to science is important,” Belmont said. “We (entomologists) need to be doing something to enhance our field. I think this project does that.”

The author is an Athens, Ohio-based writer.