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College Art Professor Challenges Students To Build Insect Motels


At the University of Wisconsin, some students are blending art and science to create hotels that might save disappearing insects. Susan Bence of member station WUWM explains.

SUSAN BENCE, BYLINE: Every year, lecturer Katie Martin-Meurer watched her three-dimensional design course students complete their projects and dump them into the garbage after being graded. So she decided that instead they should create bird houses for a local park. But then Martin-Meurer was shocked to learn there might not be enough insects for those birds to eat. She relayed the information to her students in a cavernous university classroom.

KATIE MARTIN-MEURER: Insects, worms and other small animals that carry out vital functions for life on Earth have declined by 45 percent on average over 35 years.

BENCE: Scientists have identified nearly a million species of insects, yet entomologists are alarmed about some steep declines in invertebrates. They point to herbicide spray and loss of habitat. The list goes on. After hearing that, Martin-Meurer decided her students would create habitats out of natural materials. They would need to be durable and functional and of course artsy. The insect hotel project was born.

Daniel Young has observed insect decline firsthand. The UW-Madison entomologist has been studying a rare lake trout beetle for years. He calls the insect hotel project a marriage between art and science that nature needs right now.

DANIEL YOUNG: Ecosystems are generally thought to be pretty resilient. But the best prize fighter is pretty resilient, but how many punches can you take?

BENCE: It was Tom Kroeger's job to teach the art students some science. He runs a local park in Milwaukee along Lake Michigan and studies insects.

TOM KROEGER: The more you look into them, the more fascinating you find them to be. But most people just never get past the point that they land on you. On occasion, one bites you. And they're just kind of a nuisance. But they're much, much more than that.

BENCE: Student Angeline Weidensee powered through her aversion to bugs and built an insect castle. Its first floor is a bumblebee box.

ANGELINE WEIDENSEE: They make their nests with, like, single cells just kind of stuck on to one another, and it gets kind of messy. So every year, the bottom it has to be cleaned out. So I made it with, like, a little door so you can open it. The middle part is filled with pine cones, and it's meant to be for ladybugs and other small beetles to make their homes in. And then this part here is for solitary bees that don't...

BENCE: The hope is that both insects and people will gravitate to the structures. Each is tagged with a QR code. Pull out your phone, and scan the code to learn which bug or bee it is designed to shelter and why it matters. All 90 insect motels made their public debut at Tom Kroeger's park on Lake Michigan's shore. He did keep his favorite. It looks like something Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed. The rest will be installed at nature centers and along hiking paths throughout the state. For NPR News, I'm Susan Bence in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with theLake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.