From the hottest tropics of South America to the farthest reaches of icy Alaskan slopes, insects are everywhere. Larger animals eat them, plants need them to grow, and humans need them, too.
Wherever you find bugs, you'll find bug hunters. And summer is the busiest season for both. Entomologists, the scientists who study insects, travel the globe searching for new information about these fascinating and ancient creatures.
New species of insects are discovered every day, says Jim Wangberg, an entomologist at the University of Wyoming at Laramie.
When he was a kid growing up near San Francisco, Dr. Wangberg collected bugs and studied them. But when he went to college he studied general biology. He was the first one in his family to go to college, and they thought he was crazy to go to graduate school, too. But he did, and it was there that he finally followed his dad's advice. Follow your passion, Wangberg's father said. That's when Wangberg found entomology.
"My passion is bugs!" Wangberg says. He considers himself very fortunate to be able to do what he loves to do - and be paid for it.
Wangberg's job has taken him on many adventures, to such places as England, Egypt, Somalia, and Kenya. Most of his research, though, has been in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States.
He went to Egypt on a project for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to help develop new crops for livestock to eat. The trip did not begin well. While he was at the airport in Paris waiting to fly to Cairo, he looked out the window and saw the suitcases with his clothes and equipment being loaded on the wrong airplane. His landed in Cairo carrying only his wallet and passport. His luggage did finally catch up with him -six months later, when he was back home in the US.
Insects, yes, but big game, too
On another of Wangberg's trips, he flew to Somalia. He and other scientists were trying to help the Somalians fight insect pests. He took a side trip to Kenya, where the small four-seater plane had to buzz giraffes to chase them off the grassy landing strip so the plane could touch down. That night, as he slept in a grass hut, screeching noises woke him. A group of baboons was dancing on his hut. They were trying to tear off the roof!
The next night he slept soundly until 3 a.m., when a loud, throaty sound outside his screened window awakened him. He looked out the window, and two eyes glowed back at him in the dark.
The leopard left him alone.
In the morning, a native guide walked with him as he looked for insects. The guide knew few English words. But he had Wangberg's full attention when he said one of them.
"Dangerous," said the guide. He pointed through the tall grass at a lion stalking a herd of water buffaloes 60 yards from where they stood. "We go now." They did!
Besides nets and "kill jars," in which captured insects are quickly killed with chemicals, entomologists also use "aspirators." These are small vacuums that suck bugs into bottles. Homemade ones are often improvised, with the bug hunter providing the suction. Small jars have two tubes coming out of the lid. The bug hunter sucks on one tube (the one with the screen on it), and aims the end of the other tube at the insect to be captured. "After you've sucked up an insect or two," Wangberg says, "you remember to keep on the screen."
In his work on the rangelands of Idaho and Texas, Wangberg used a commercial vacuum called a D-Vac. It's mounted on a backpack, which has a lawn-mower-sized gasoline engine. The engine is connected to a long flexible tube that's twice as wide as a clothes-dryer vent hose. The hose is draped over the hunter's shoulder.
"You crank up the engine," Wangberg explains, "put the tube over a small plant, and suck up every living thing that can't hold on." The bugs go into a container. Later, scientists can accurately name and count all the insects in a particular plant community. It's an important way that entomologists learn about biodiversity and insects' effects on a plant.
A weird sight, vacuuming plants
Wangberg knows he looks odd when he uses the D-Vac. One time he and a student were walking along the roadside, sweeping nets across some plants, using their D-Vacs on others, and crawling on the ground with their kill jars.
People often stared at them when they used D-vacs, but this time a family pulled off the road to watch. The kids pointed, and the parents gawked. When Wangberg and his assistant had finished their bug collecting, he walked toward the car to explain what they had been doing. But the father was so alarmed that he slammed the car into gear and roared down the road.
"I know we look peculiar," Wangberg admits, laughing.
His special field of research is insects that make galls, growths on plants that make the stems swell. Insects lay eggs inside the plant. As the insects develop, the plant grows a protective covering around them. (Oak apples are examples of galls.) Inside the gall can be a whole community of insects, guests, parasites, and predators, all living together.
"It's another little world," Wangberg says. He collects galls by the bagful to study later in his lab.
Insects continue to take Wangberg to places he could never have imagined going when he was a fifth-grader collecting bugs. And he is frequently invited to schools and museums to give his demonstration on "Insects as Food." Insects are an important source of protein for many cultures worldwide.
"Insects are such amazing creatures," Wangberg insists. "When I was a kid, I collected so many, mounted them, labeled them. My mom says I never grew out of it!"