Smithsonian cries uncle on bugs
The generosity of a noted insect collector has created an itchy situation for the famous institution.
Tue, Jun 17, 2014 at 01:43 PM
Lace bugs. Green stink bugs. Black flies. Entomologist Carl J. Drake studied all of these bugs and a whole lot more until he died in 1965. During his professional career at Iowa State University and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, Drake published hundreds of papers about a staggering variety of insects. He named 1,500 different species and he helped farmers control everything from mosquitoes to grasshoppers. His work remains important: according to Google Citations, his papers are still cited by modern-day scientists dozens of times every year.
But beyond Drake's scientific legacy, he also left a few other things behind. When he passed away, he left his collection of 250,000 insect specimens to the Smithsonian, as well as a small fortune of about $250,000. They money came with one very specific string: it could only be used to purchase additional collections of bugs. The Smithsonian did that for decades, and they also invested his money well. Drake's trust is now worth about $4 million, according to the Associated Press, which could buy a heck of a lot of bugs.
There's just one problem: the Smithsonian doesn't want to buy any more bugs. It's not that they don't like insects — really, they do — but ever since environmental laws started changing back in the 1980s, it has become harder and harder for the Smithsonian to acquire new collections and to provide the documentation that the insects were collected legally. If a bug collection contains a paper wasp but doesn't have the correct paperwork, they can't buy it.
And so the Smithsonian wants to do something different. They want to use Drake's trust to buy supplies and support new scientific research into the bugs that the entomologist loved so much. Unfortunately, the legal purse strings controlling the money are about as tight as a cocoon – the money can't be spent for anything other than buying more bugs, regardless of the modern legal problems.
Rather than let the money sit there attracting flies, the Smithsonian has taken its case to the courts. They have asked a judge to loosen the restrictions on Drake's trust. They also want to do more with Drake's original collection. Right now it has to be maintained as one giant hive – all 250,000 specimens are on one floor, far from where they can be seen by the public. The Smithsonian wants to integrate the bugs into the broader collection so they can be enjoyed and studied by more people.
We await the judge's ruling.
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