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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.

Lavonne Leong

Entomologist Neal Evenhuis is the chairman of the Department of Natural Sciences at the Bishop Museum.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Insects.

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.”


Brilliantly colored butterflies like this Papilio Ulysses are the insect world exception, not the rule.

Photo: Olivier Koning

“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.
 


Stocky beetle Heterorrhina macleayi.

Photo: Olivier Koning


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.

 

See more of Olivier Koning’s bug photos.

 

 

Shepherd Myers, the museum's entomology collections manager, says that while many bugs are so small "they look like crud on your windowsill that you would sweep away," when magnified, they are as distinct from each other as lion's, tigers and bears.

Photo: Olvier Koning

Entering the collection, on the first floor of Bishop Museum’s Pauahi Hall, feels a little like breaching a bank vault; we pass through two pairs of battleship-gray doors that create an airlock, controlling atmospheric conditions. There are no windows in this vast, subterranean-feeling chamber, lit only by fluorescent lights and the pools of illumination created by researchers’ microscopes. The room is filled, floor to ceiling, stretching into the distance, with aisles of pine boxes that slide out for closer inspection. Each glass-fronted box, containing meticulously mounted creatures great and small, has a label, and each label has a color: pink for “found in Hawaii,” white for the rest of the world.

Lastly there are the green labels, which Myers calls “the oh-mys and gee-whizzes.” Although the collection isn’t open to the public, part of his job is to show it to groups and people with specialized interests. Some of the green labels read “Huge Beetles,” “Large Spiders,” “What Bit Me?” and “Underneath It All, This Thing Can Fly?”

“The most fun is to get people who don’t want to be here,” says Myers. “People are inherently averse to insects. They come in like this”—he demonstrates crossed arms and a stiff body—“but when they lean in”—he mimes peering closer—“you know you have them.”


The little blue weevil seen via automontage.

Photo: Courtesy BIshop Museum

His visitors come from all walks of life: In addition to a steady stream of researchers, he’s hosted a Thai princess with her entourage, autistic kids, prison parolees and various dignitaries, foreign and domestic. Newt Gingrich once came through, looking for the bats upstairs. And there has been a suggestion that Johnny Depp, rumored to be a butterfly enthusiast, might like a peek at the collection—since part of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film will be shooting at the museum this summer.


Photo: Olivier Koning

The real work of the Gressit Center collection is to serve as a giant database, only not the kind that fits on a hard drive.

“Identification is the cornerstone of science. This is the place to come for that,” says Paul Krushelnycky, a UH researcher who is working with ants, earwigs and katydids in the collection. “You can’t answer questions”—or even formulate questions—“if you don’t know what you have.”

Research scientists are far from the only people who use the collection. A significant portion of those seeking answers at the Gressit Center are state, federal and international officials who work in a world where invasive species, in an increasingly globalized trade environment, are estimated to cause about $1.5 trillion in damage each year—about 5 percent of global annual gross domestic product.
 

Black Market Butterflies

Scientists aren’t the only ones contributing to the Gressit Center’s collection. Criminals do their share, too. In some circles, insect collecting—particularly butterfly collecting—remains a gentleman’s pastime, and uncommon (and, unfortunately, sometimes endangered) specimens can command uncommon prices. In fact, as illegal traffic goes, the dollar value of exotic animals is thought to be surpassed only by that of drugs and arms; a splendid Queen Alexandra Birdwing butterfly specimen can fetch thousands. A good deal of this insect contraband passes through Honolulu International Airport, where some of it is detected, confiscated—and sent to Bishop Museum.
 
 

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.