Beetles — the neighbors you should consider

TEDxAlbertopolis speaker Max Barclay with beetles from the Natural History Museum, London collection. (Photo by Kevin Webb; copyright Natural History Museum)

TEDxAlbertopolis speaker Max Barclay with beetles from the Natural History Museum, London. (Photo by Kevin Webb; copyright Natural History Museum)

It’s quite likely that you hang out with beetles way more than you think. There are more than 400,000 species of the insect crawling around the world, and when you’re outdoors, “one in five of the creatures around you is likely to be a beetle,” says entomologist Max Barclay at TEDxAlbertopolis.

Barclay is a curator and collections manager at the Natural History Museum in London, presiding over a collection of more than 20,000 drawers of beetles, sourced from communities all over the world. “Centuries of human lifetimes have been poured into this collection,” he says at TEDxAlbertopolis, “… my colleagues and I feel like we’re at the center of a web of global knowledge.”

Part of the the Natural History Museum, London's beetle collection. (Image by Joana Cristovao; copyright Natural History Museum)

Part of the the Natural History Museum’s beetle collection. (Photo by Joana Cristovao; copyright Natural History Museum)

These beetles have remarkable lives — ones of diversity in location, habits, attributes and more. “Beetles are one of the largest and most diverse groups of organisms on the planet,” Barclay says. “So far, scientists have discovered more [beetles] than the combined total of plants and vertebrate animals [in the world].”

Collecting these creatures not only provides a rich resource for scientists looking to learn new things about insects (and the world around them), but also provides a unique view into the evolution of our understanding of the natural world, Barclay says. Specimens in the museum’s collection hail from pioneers like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace and from scientists working today. These drawers of beetles tell the story of how we’ve come to understand the Earth through some of its seemingly unassuming inhabitants.

Part of the the Natural History Museum's beetle collection. (Photo by Joana Cristovao; copyright Natural History Museum)

Part of the the Natural History Museum’s beetle collection. (Photo by Joana Cristovao; copyright Natural History Museum)

“The collections at the museum are used for answering all sorts of biological questions,” Barclay says:.”‘Why are there so many different kinds of beetle? How did they divide the world into 400,000 or more different jobs?’ … One thing that is certain is that people who are studying such a vast group of organisms are seeing a picture of the world with a lot more resolution and much more pixels than most people.”

To learn more, watch Barclay’s entire talk below:

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