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Scientists meet in Indonesia to chase insects and stare into stagnant water holes

The locals up in north Sulawesi, Indonesia, have seen little like it: Grown orang puteh or ``white people'' chasing around with giant nets after butterflies. Others staring for hours into stagnant water holes or peering intently at a pile of fresh animal droppings. It's all part of the biggest-ever entomological expedition now getting under way in the area. The expedition, which was organized by the British Royal Entomological Society and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, will last through the year and involve more than 100 scientists from 27 countries.

Because of a series of bureaucratic mix-ups and a lack of funds, a base camp has not been built. So the scientists are sharing one long hut on the edge of the jungle with several thousand rather lethal-looking insects. Several members of the British armed forces are also on the expedition, helping the scientists hack their way through the jungle and providing tons of backup equipment.

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For some of the servicemen, it is all a bit too much.

``They even stop me from swatting insects biting me,'' says Cpl. Al Maddison from northeast England. But generally each group remains remarkably tolerant, if a little doubtful about the other's sanity.

Illke Hanski from Finland is studying the behavior of dung beetles. Few people seem perturbed when he brings back his catch for sorting just before lunch.

Dr. Blackith of Trinity College, Dublin, explains the acoustics of the jungle. ``The tropical rain forest is rather like a big cathedral. Sounds go from the jungle floor up to the canopy, the dense foliage at the top of the trees, then echo back down.''

For this reason, says Dr. Blackith, most insect and animal sounds are high-pitched, rather like the song of a boy soprano. ``Have a soprano in here, singing `Oh for the wings of a dove' and it would sound just like Westminister Abbey.''

He demonstrates. The whole forest goes silent.

Reveille is at sunup and the nearby river is the wash place for everybody. ``Pass the soap please,'' and ``I do believe you're on my rock,'' echo along the jungle's edge.

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Even here, there are insects to look at. An entomologist demonstrates how the aquatic cockroach always swims upstream. It promptly scuttles off, downstream.

Every evening, the entomologists give lectures. Peter Hammond from the British Museum describes how to use a ``pooter'' -- a piece of tubing to suck up insects. Once, while using his pooter in London's Richmond Park, he sucked up some spores -- and, he says, became the first person ever to catch sooty bark -- a tree disease.

Most of the military men helping saw their last action charging across the icy wastes of the Falklands. Northern Sulawesi is different, but the forces seem to be adapting. Some battle-hardened troops have taken up butterfly-chasing, and can be seen running half naked and half crazed, butterfly nets aloft, along the jungle's edge.

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