Dr. Kelton Welch
February 9, 2023
In December of last year, we reached a big milestone for both me and Ecdysis Foundation. The number of arthropod specimens I have identified during my time at Ecdysis reached one million! We had fun with it, gathering everyone around to watch as I entered the identification into our computer program, BugBox, and hit “Enter”. Christina recorded the historic moment and posted the video on our various social media feeds.
It was a moment that we curated carefully. The specimen was a male Tennesseeellum formica, a fairly common type of tiny, web-building spider. It was collected alongside a female member of the same species. When I knew I was closing in on my millionth bug, I planned it out so that the millionth would be one of my favorite species. I wanted to make sure it was one that I could identify down to the species level with 100% confidence (I couldn’t risk botching my big moment, could I?). I also wanted it to be a species that was special and meaningful for me personally (I had studied Tennesseellum formica, among other spiders, for my doctoral dissertation).
I assigned it a specimen number (“Linyphiidae 004J-002”, if you’re interested) and added to our archived collection, complete with a happy little orange label on the vial that says “millionth!”. I took the specimen back to the collection room and photographed it with our big microscope camera, and then I posted the photos on my personal Facebook feed. My aunt pointed out that it had been collected on her birthday, so I named the female specimen (my 999,999thspecimen, Linyphiidae 004J-001) after her: “Jolene”.
Was specimen Linyphiidae 004J-002 really the exact millionth bug? I don’t actually know. You might be surprised to know how hard it is to count to exactly one million. We haven’t always had a computer program to keep count for us, so the total number of bugs I’ve identified was determined by manually collating a lot of different datasheets from a lot of different projects, and in the end, it was a bit of a guessing game. But it was close enough to the exact count — I’m sure the “true” millionth identification happened sometime during that month of December — and this felt like the right way to celebrate it, even if I’m technically guessing a little bit.
So, what does it feel like to have identified a million insects? I don’t really know. There’s a certain realization that that’s a pretty special accomplishment: how many people out there have identified a million bugs? I know I’m not the first, and I know there are probably some people out there who’ve exceeded my score by a fair amount. I don’t think there’s a leaderboard for this, or a special “million-bug” club that I could join. But, it’s one of those things that makes you reflect on life. I love my job, and I love spending hours on end sorting and identifying bugs. I definitely want to identify bugs for a living when I grow up. And maybe someday, I’ll actually feel like I’m good at it.
But you know what? We’re actually just getting started at Ecdysis: tens of thousands of bug specimens are still rolling through our lab everyday. I’m sure I’ll hit another million in the next several years. But, my first millionth will always hold a special place in my heart.