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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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Native bug: a Kamehameha butterfly.

Photo: Olivier Koning

More native bugs: a Koa beetle and a Kauai moth.

Photos: Olivier Koning

By way of illustration, Myers slides out another green-labeled box, this one devoted to a large black and white beetle. It isn’t pretty, nor is it native to Hawaii. What it is, is hungry. For live hardwood.

When trees all over New York City started dying, with telltale holes bored through their heartwood, officials hypothesized that the mystery beetles they found might have hitched a ride on a container from Asia. The city sent a specimen to the Bishop Museum, where it was promptly identified as an Asian Longhorned Beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis), an “indiscriminate timber pest” that—especially in new environments where nothing has evolved to eat them—is very bad news.

When it comes to controlling an invasive infestation, time is of the essence. Left to its own devices, with an abundant food source and few known predators, the alien species population can explode. The ecosystem will eventually come to a new balance, but it probably won’t be one we like—and in the meantime the invaders might have taken a few species, and a few industries, down with them. In the case of the Asian Longhorned Beetle, that toll could have included the timber industry, ornamental trees across the Northeast and the maple syrup industry, since sweet, soft sugar maple, indigenous to the region, was the beetle’s favorite chow.

“People come to us in a panic, trying to figure out, ‘Well, what is causing all this trouble?’” says Myers. “Once you figure out what it is, you can come up with an eradication strategy.”

Dr. Neal Evenhuis with the museum's collection.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Hawaii, being a tropical archipelago with no insect-killing winters, is particularly vulnerable to invasion. “Collections like these are a frontline defense,” says Myers. “Huge amounts of volume in trade and goods come through the Pacific. We’re in an ideal position to provide support to researchers of state agencies and federal agencies who want to understand what they’re looking at.”

On the pure science side, what a researcher is looking at, suprisingly often, turns out to be something that no scientist has seen before. It’s rare to find a new kind of mammal, fish or bird, but thousands of new insects are described each year. If you discover it, you get to name it. Evenhuis, for example, has in his upstairs office several new species of fly, genus Campsicnemus, that he collected recently in French Polynesia. From a human perspective they look like every other speck with antennae, but seen under a microscope, one of the new species turns out to have comically beefy, hairy forelegs, with skinny upper legs. Evenhuis will name it after a certain large-forearmed, spinach-eating cartoon character. Campsicnemus “popeye” will be joined by Bluto and Superman, among others, and together, they’ll become the cartoon flies.

When you have named more than 500 species, you need to get creative, and Evenhuis is known in the entomological community both for his prolific research and his sense of humor. “There have been articles written about my funny names,” he says. One particularly fruitful run several years ago led to Pieza pi, Pieza kake, Pieza deresistans and the immortal Reissa roni. Evenhuis, who is a former president of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, is especially fond of Phthiria (“theorya”) relativitae, which sadly had to be renamed when he determined that the original genus had been misidentified.

These cartoon fly specimens, as the ones that first define their species, are destined for the collection’s VIP lounge: the primary type room. Except in special cases, for each species there is only one primary type specimen in the world, from which the official published description of the species is derived. The Gressit Center has more than 17,200 primary type specimens. They are stored one to a box, so that if bug parts fall off (it happens), researchers will know which insect they belonged to.

Nobody gets into this inner sanctum unless they’re escorted by Myers, so the door to the primary type room is unmarked. Through it, we enter a different climate. This small room is kept noticeably cooler than the main collection, and smells faintly of—“mothballs,” confirms Myers. “Naphthalene. It kills your sense of smell,” which is why it’s no longer used for the rest of the collection. It’s extremely effective at keeping out live bugs who might want to make a meal of the specimens.

When you’ve got a Noah’s ark of the entomological world, you use naphthalene: “Sometimes a whole species is named after one [existing] specimen,” says Myers. “You can’t replace it.”

There are a few precious specimens in the Gressit Center that everyone hopes will never make it onto a display pin. Back in the main collection, Myers and I find museum technician Keith Arakaki, who takes a break from preparing ant specimens to show us something special. “You might want to take a look at these,” he says conspiratorially, sliding a large glass vial under the microscope lens. In the scope’s white light, slender, translucent creatures float as if in ether: bug-eyed, with two arms akimbo. One of them twitches, setting several more into frantic motion, and I feel a shock of delight. As they boogie around their watery chamber, Arakaki explains that they are larvae of Megalagrion xanthomelas, the threatened Orangeblack damselfly that Evenhuis found near Tripler Hospital. If these make it to adulthood, they will be released into the wild, perhaps establishing a new damselfly colony. Looking into the microscope, Myers’s eyes glow. “You know what’s neat, is to see something alive,” he says. “Not in an after-market sense of applying value to it. It’s just exciting it’s alive.”       


Fun Bug Facts

• It’s possible to live in Hawaii and not worry about ground termites. Just take to the hills. Denizens of Volcano, Hawaii, and other upcountry locations can build their wooden houses with impunity.

• If you want to kill a fly, move slowly at first, until you’re within close swatting range. Flies tend to ignore very slow movement.

• Don’t just throw the cockroach in—flush that toilet. A cockroach can survive underwater for 40 minutes.

• To produce a pound of honey, bees fly more than 50,000 miles, the equivalent of twice around the globe.

• If you’re thinking of eating the potato salad from which you just shooed a fly, think twice: houseflies spit on, and liquefy, their food before slurping it up.

• Insects make up 85 percent of Earth’s biodiversity. Out of 1.2 million known animal species, 920,000 are insects.


Contributing editor Lavonne Leong once spent a month uneasily searching her home for a centipede after spotting one slither by. When she’s not looking for insects, Leong frequently writes about art and culture.


See more of Olivier Koning’s bug photos.

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