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1. What inspired you to enter the field of entomology?I started very young. I basically started out with frogs, snakes, and salamanders, but quickly learned there was a lot of diversity in insects. Actually, my mother tells me I started out collecting butterflies, but I don’t tell people that. I got going into entomology when I was around 10 years old and continued my interest through my high-school years. In high school, students had to make bug collections, and they heard about a kid in their neighborhood who was into bugs, so they came to me for help. I thought entomology was the most interesting part of Mother Nature. So, entomology was my hobby throughout my high-school years and then throughout my college years. When I took my first entomology course as an undergraduate, something was very strange because I actually liked studying for my exams. As I was pre-med at the time, that was a very unusual experience. I took a second entomology course as an undergraduate and felt the same thing. I applied to medical school and didn’t get in, but in the meantime went to graduate school at Ohio State University and was going to try to get into medical school again. I took a lot of entomology courses and knew something was wrong, or something was right, actually, because I just really loved entomology. I thought what’s the point of going into a field that other people think I should go into and where I can make a lot of money when in fact there’s something very genuine deep down inside that tells me that entomology is what I really love doing. And many people don’t do what they love. So that’s how I got into it. I got my Master’s at Ohio State, my Ph.D. at Cornell, and as they say, “The rest is history”.
2. What specific kind of work do you do?When people ask me what I do, I say I do three things here at the Smithsonian Institution. One, is that I manage the collections. Two, is that I do research on beetles. Three, is that I’m a babysitter. This Department of Entomology revolves around collections and whole-organism studies. So all of the researchers need collections: access to specimens, supplies, information, and other stuff. We have three government agencies involved with entomology: the Smithsonian, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Defense. I work with all of the approximately 120 people in these three agencies, whereas most of the researchers in the Department of Entomology just deal with their own areas, their assistants, and colleagues. So interacting with the whole group is quite a challenge, sometimes. Basically I manage the collections, comprising 35 million specimens, and I do research on beetles.
3. What taxonomic groups of arthropods are your assignments?It’s not so much an assignment, as it is a love, and I work on Leaf Beetles. I actually work on Flea Beetles, which is the largest group of the Leaf Beetles (Chrysomelidae). They jump like fleas, but they don’t bite like fleas. I work on systematics, biogeography, and evolutionary aspects of the beetles.
4. What is the most exciting project you have worked on?I mean, there’s a lot of them. I’m working on one now in Costa Rica in the lowland rain forest. So, that’s currently my most exciting project. There’s another project in Mexico, which involves working with anthropologists. Probably the most fun I had was my 4–5 years working in Israel in the desert, working on the fauna of a sumac tree (Rhus tripartita), everything about the tree. It turned up a new species of mealybug and lots of parasites. It was a true natural history study, which I think is the real theme of why a lot of us get into entomology; we just like natural history. And what better group of organisms to see all the intricacies of natural history than insects.
5. What keeps you excited about your profession?Lots of new discoveries and how much unknown there is out there. I like to tell a lot of my colleagues that most insects don’t have names yet; they haven’t even been discovered. So not only do they not have names, we know nothing about their biologies, their behavior, their genetics. The first place you have to start is the classification and naming of these insects, discovery of them. So there’s just a lot of new discovery. Like I said, after you discover them and you describe them, you can name them after your girlfriend, your mother, father, or alma mater; then you can study more about them, and it just opens up multiple doors with Insects, especially with Beetles. It’s just an open door. One out of every four animal species is a beetle. I was on an expedition with the Natural Museum of Mexico a couple years ago. I discovered a new species on the expedition and named it unami. UNAM is the abbreviation for the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the national university. So I named it after the University, and you could name one after Georgetown. Bao, “Could it be georgetownicus?” Absolutely, I’m not kidding about people’s naming this way. I named an insect after my wife, another one I discovered in Mexico. As long as you’re discreet; well, you don’t even always have to be discreet. There are some very humorous names. There was a hymenopterist at this Museum [Dr. Arnold Menke], who’s now retired, who worked on wasps and described a new Hawaiian genus called Aha , and he named the first species ha: Aha ha. [Dr. Menke had “Aha ha” on his auto license plate as well.] And there’s actually papers published on all the funny names people used. I named one after the fruit plant whose common name in Mexican is something risqué, but you have to know Spanish to know how funny this is. But yeah, you can name a new species what you want. It has to be Latinized and has to agree in gender with the genus name, but as long as you follow international nomenclature rules, you can name it whatever you want to. One of the few privileges we get. We don’t get paid for discovering these new species, we just get to name them.
6. Would you like to work on any arthropod group that is currently outside your assignment? If yes, what is it? Why?I suppose I would, and I have. I’ve actually published papers on several orders of insects, but seeing how much there is to do with Flea Beetles just in the Neotropics, that’s probably going to keep me busy. But it wouldn’t preclude me from working on other groups, which I’ve done in the past. I mean, insects are fascinating, and I’ve worked in the field and in museums on all continents except Antarctica; and I’ve published papers in all those places, but I think now my concentration is Flea Beetles in the New World Tropics, so that’s probably what I’ll stick with. There’s more than enough to go around.
7. In retirement (if you ever feel like retiring), would you sstill continue work with arthropods ("bugs")?Yes, beetles. That’s one of the advantages of my profession. When I hear about people’s retiring, I don’t know what they’re going to do. We entomologists never have a problem knowing what to do in retirement. Most of my retired colleagues are as busy or busier than when they weren’t retired, except that they get to choose what they’re busy with. But with insect systematics, there’s never an end. So, I’ll have plenty of work to do after I retire and like a lot of people, I’ll look forward to retirement so I can do more of the things I like to do rather than the things I have to do.
8. How often do you see changes occurring in species due to environmental changes that occur in your specialty arthropods?That’s pretty hard to observe in the short term. You certainly don’t see new species evolving. The most you can hope to see is changes in insects’ uses of food plants. That you can sometimes find an introduced, alien species that feeds on a native plant (a new host plant) when it is in a new location, or the opposite, when a native species feeds on a new host plant, which is an invasive, alien species. I did a project in Cambridge, Massachusetts some years ago. Walking along the river there, I saw an alien, invasive plant that I recognized from my work in the Mediterranean Region; and sure enough, that’s what it was. There were some beetles on it which I predicted, because there was one genus over there that voraciously feeds on this plant. There was a beetle feeding on it, but it turned out to be a native, local beetle. That parthenogenetic beetle species was known from Eastern United States, but nobody knew its food plant. So through a little bit of research, I figured out what its likely native plant hosts might be. And while my paper about it was in press, a graduate student in Wisconsin working on prairies, not even an entomologist really, discovered that this insect was feeding on one of the plants I predicted. So that kind of change you can see, I don’t think you’ll see real changes in species, except maybe also distributional changes. You might see a species’ range’s shrinking in your lifetime.
9. Is biotic conservation important to you? If yes, why?Yes, very much so. I’ve been very involved with insect conservation. One of the few insect conservation organizations in the world is called the Xerces Society, it was started by a graduate student at Yale University in 1974, and I was there at the time and became an officer. So yes, it is important. As Professor Ed Wilson says, “There’s lots of little things that run the world,” and if we don’t conserve them in their natural situation, there will be a domino effect on even us. Not that I care particularly about what happens to us (haha), but insects are indicators of changing environments. We constantly have to deal with people who say that if we collect to much, we’ll endanger insect populations. That’s rarely what endangers a population. Habitat destruction often endangers populations. So, insects are just a way to see what’s happening to environments. So yes, conservation is important.
10. What's your most remarkable bug encounter?Discovering a new species when you know it’s a new species is pretty cool. So, that’s one kind of remarkable experience. And of course, it’s happened to most of Museum entomologists multiple times. When you get to be an expert to the point where you really know your critters in a particular area, you sometimes instantly know that a species is new to science when you first find it. And of course, you’re all fired up and you want to collect more of them and figure out what the plant is that they’re feeding on, or you want to go other places and try to find them. I think the discovery in the field of a new species is pretty exciting and pretty remarkable, and it’s what keeps a lot of us going. One of the differences between most entomologists and many other kinds of biologists is we get out in Mother Nature [= the field] a lot. Unfortunately we end up spending a lot more time in the lab after we’ve been in the field, because there’s a lot of work to do to study the collected material properly. It’s exciting to be outside in the field, see the many insect interactions and habitats. Further, field research can be a excuse for traveling around the world. There are insects everywhere. A lot of people are more oriented towards one region or another, but to synthesize ideas well, you really need a global overview.
11. What was your most dangerous bug encounter?—
12. If you had to choose between a vertebrate and arthropod for a pet, which would you choose. Why?—