Bugs in the System
The next time you have maple syrup with your pancakes, thank the Bishop Museum's world-class entomology collection. Here's why.
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They swarm our picnics, drink our blood, snack on our houses and dive-bomb our faces in the night. Most of us try to get as far away from them as possible. But this morning, deep in the Waianae Range, in a steady, obliterating rain, we are actively looking for them—and not finding a single one.
“We,” in this case, includes entomologists Neal Evenhuis and Dan Polhemus, who are armed with sweep nets, shrubbery-beating sticks and long-tubed aspirators for sucking unsuspecting critters off branches and leaves. None of the equipment will be any use if we can’t find them in the first place.
“It’s the rain,” muses Evenhuis. Most insects don’t like it, and go into hiding. The best way to succeed on a day like this, he announces, is to look for something that doesn’t mind getting wet.
We head for the seep, a bare rock face over which water trickles continuously, rain or shine. Sure enough, a few tiny flies are taking off and landing on the seep face, unperturbed by the soggy conditions. Evenhuis shows me how to sneak close enough to a fly to clap a tiny plastic vial over it, and proceeds to catch every fly for which he aims, pointing out their differently colored iridescent bodies as he pops them into alcohol solution to take back to the lab.
Polhemus (who until recently ran the DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources) shows me some tiny native snails who don’t mind the weather. The inside of my waterproof jacket is dripping. Considering that we’ve traveled three hours to catch five flies, Evenhuis and Polhemus seem unaccountably cheerful. “The thrill of the hunt,” Evenhuis calls it. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
“You just have to keep coming back,” agrees Polhemus, climbing into the SUV. Evenhuis will ID our flies when he gets back to his office at the Bishop Museum, where he serves as chairman of the Department of Natural Sciences. You never know: one of these little insects could be a species unknown to science.
That’s not hyperbole. Between them, Evenhuis and Polhemus have found and described more than a thousand new insect species. They’ve prospected all across the Pacific, in remote, hard-to-access areas from Papua New Guinea to French Polynesia, but many of the discoveries have been in Hawaii. Polhemus has published descriptions of 63 new species in Hawaii alone, with 35 more in the pipeline. Evenhuis once stumbled across a population of Orangeblack damselflies—a threatened, endemic species that had been thought to be extinct on Oahu for more than two decades—in a muddy wheel rut near Tripler Hospital. It is still the only known wild population on the island.
A whiff of Victoriana clings to entomology, the study of insects: We think of a man in a pith helmet, pursuing a butterfly through the jungle with a sweep net. Add some Gore-Tex, subtract the helmet, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. Descriptive entomology, as practiced by Bishop Museum, is one of the last great frontiers in biodiversity.
In fact, Bishop Museum is a leading institution for Pacific research. Part of this is the J.L. Gressit Center for Research in Entomology. With 14.7 million specimens of insects and related arthropods, the Gressit Center is the fifth-largest entomological collection in the world.
By the time you read this, the flies we captured that rainy Sunday morning will have been absorbed into the center’s impressive company, which means Shepherd Myers will have spent some time with them; every specimen that enters the Gressit Center passes across the worktable of the museum’s 29-year-old entomology collections manager. Myers prepares new specimens for storage and display. He sends them out to people who have requested them, and checks them back in when they’re done. “We get requests from every corner of the globe to work on Pacific Rim stuff,” says Myers. “It’s a very active collection.” How active? “The first year I worked here, I [processed] nearly 20,000 specimens.” Myers is also in charge of protecting the insects from the things that could harm them—sunlight, heat, humidity and, ironically, other bugs—as well as showing visitors like me around his remarkable domain.
What's an insect?
Glad you asked. Generally speaking, an insect has six legs, a tri-segmented body, antennae and an exoskeleton, which means that its hard structure is on the outside of its body. This last detail makes insects ideal for collecting. Just as mammals’ bones can survive indefinitely in the right environment, so can an insect’s exoskeleton, properly stored, preserve its outward form for hundreds, thousands or millions of years.
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