From his office in the Smithsonian Institution’s Systematic Entomology Laboratory, Norm Woodley helps care for the world’s largest bug collection and identifies threatening pests before they get into the country.
A fly specialist and taxonomist, Woodley (’76 Entom.) is also a curator of the 40 million specimens housed primarily at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. He and his colleagues use the collection and their expertise to identify insects that have hitchhiked into the country on overseas cargo shipments. Federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service agents collect the bugs and larvae they find on goods that come in on ships and planes. If the agents can’t identify the insects, samples are overnighted to Woodley’s lab for an expert review.
Woodley, an avid fly-fisherman, grew up in the Richland area and found his professional passion early in college. “He was one of the best and brightest undergraduates to come through the WSU entomology program,” says entomologist William Turner, his mentor. Woodley went on to earn a doctorate in biology from Harvard before hiring on with the USDA and taking a post at the Smithsonian in 1983.
He is an authority on the tachinid fly. The fly’s larvae feed on other insects and often can help control pest species like forest tent caterpillars and beetles. “We are trying to identify species and describe new species when we find them, as well as determine their family trees,” he says.
The lab work is demanding, often tedious. Some of the insects are smaller than a millimeter, and Woodley must use a stereomicroscope for general examination and dissection. Of the several hundred species that come into the museum monthly, each must be examined and labeled, dried, and permanently preserved in glass-covered drawers in cabinets. The collection is open to researchers.
Woodley’s most significant find? A parasite fly measuring more than an inch long discovered in 1984 in the Dominican Republic rainforest. The fly belongs to the genus Paradejeania, of which other known species occur more than 1,000 miles from the island. He has also collected insects in Bermuda, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Panama.
After 21 years with the Systematic Entomology Laboratory, Woodley still finds the work fascinating.
“You’re always looking at new things. When you go collecting in an exotic locality, or someone else [has] and hands you material for identification, you’re intrigued by the fact that there are so many new species you’ve never seen. . . . insects have a never-ending supply of evolutionary novelties.”
Woodley frequently returns to Washington and his family home, and occasionally drops by WSU to visit Turner, other faculty, and students in his chosen discipline.
“As the years go by,” Woodley says, “I realize how fortunate I was to have been in the entomology department at WSU and to have intersected paths with Bill Turner. . . . He’s a committed teacher with infectious enthusiasm for general insect taxonomy and biology. . . . a dying breed in a world of increasing specialization. I learned more about entomology in those short years than at any other time.”