Evolution and the Entomologists
by Charlotte Hsu
A friendship forged over a mutual love for insects, and the alternate career paths of two professional “bug men”
In the beginning
Marc Potzler and Jacob Wickham met as boys in 1988. They were members of a children’s bug club south of Buffalo, having grown up with a fondness for the creeping critters that other people dismissed as pests. Each was an insectophile, a lover of bugs, and this would define who they were for a long time to come.
Marc grew up in West Falls, outside of East Aurora, on a tract of wooded land that Jacob believed to be a park. There were forests and streams and a driveway that seemed like it was half a mile long. The place had a wild feel; it was brimming was bugs.
In this setting, Marc developed an affinity for the cecropia moth, a giant creature he spied flitting around at night outside his home. These half-foot-long beasts resembled small-scale kites, with cinammon bands and cream-colored spots adorning paper-thin wings.
Jacob’s first love in the insect world was, likewise, a moth. He was four when he raised his first caterpillar—a furry, pill-shaped thing that wrapped itself into a cotton-candy cocoon and was reborn, weeks later, in the dark of night.
“I remember my mother waking me up at 3:30 in the morning and showing me this beautiful moth that had emerged,” Jacob says. “I had to let him go, and I was completely hooked.”
Jacob joined Get-a-Bugs, his local 4-H Bug Club, in the fifth grade. It was here that he met Marc. Together, the two boys learned the proper techniques for catching insects. They fashioned butterfly nets from curtains and coat hangers. They mounted captured specimens on foam.
The children in the club built beautiful collections. There were mourning cloaks and leafhoppers. There were beetles, with their sturdy armor, and damselflies, with their shimmering wings.
One day, Jacob arrived at a meeting holding two spare butterflies he had trapped. He gave one of these to Marc. It was a gesture that solidified their friendship. The bond they formed endured over many years, and with it, their mutual interest in bugs.
Both grew up, in fact, to become professional bug men: one, an insect scientist; the other, an exterminator.
Predator and prey
The insect world is full of marvels: Flies that live an entire life, advancing from egg to adult, in just one week; bugs that can freeze solid in winter and reawaken in the spring; red-eyed cicadas, which somehow know to emerge from their subterranean homes to mate once every 17 years.
Insects, despite their unfavorable reputation, are quite successful as far as evolution is concerned. They account for about half of the 1.9 million known species of living things that scientists have catalogued, according to a 2011 report by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University.
A creature is an insect, Marc says, if it has six legs, an exoskeleton, and three body parts: head, thorax and abdomen.
Ants, bees, and beetles qualify under this definition. So do crickets, fleas, flies, mosquitoes, and wasps. (Spiders, scorpions, and ticks—each of which has one pair of legs too many—belong to a different group of creatures called arachnids.)
“They’re just fascinating in their diversity,” said Marc, who studied entomology—the science of insects—as an undergraduate at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). “There’s just so many kinds out there, and if you can think of a niche in the environment, you can probably find a bug that fills it.”
Marc keeps two boxes of honeybees behind his house in rural Holland, New York, and he admires the beeswax city they’ve built, with its cells in a repeating hexagon motif.
He also speaks with wonder of creatures like the giant water bug, a ferocious predator that has the look of an “overgrown cockroach.”
These assassins float motionless in slow-moving streams, with a pair of breathing tubes extending above the water to draw air, like snorkelers. From this position, they strike small fish, tadpoles, and crustaceans, injecting each victim with a chemical that liquifies biological tissue.
The final step in the hunt: imbibing on the corrupted remains.
One of the paradoxes of entomology is that the entomologist, the person who reveres bugs the most, must also kill them for study.
As a member of the 4-H Bug Club, Marc remembers learning how to asphyxiate his prey. The method he was taught required placing each insect in a glass jar with a few drops of crystal clear ethyl acetate. Once a specimen had died, he would fasten it to a board, using pins to hold the wings in place until they dried.
In the summer of 2001, Marc and Jacob were reunited under the auspices of Wayne K. Gall, curator of entomology for the Buffalo Museum of Science.
Both had recently finished college with degrees in biology, and Jacob was pursuing graduate studies at SUNY-ESF. Marc, who was married and had a family, was working at the museum full-time.
“They both impressed me with their passion for entomology,” Wayne remembers.
“Jake struck me as a precocious upstart…We called him ‘The Kid,’” Wayne says. “I believe he was 14 years old, and this precocious kid was leading a butterfly walk or a butterfly program at the Allegany nature program…He wasn’t shy about sharing that interest with others even at the fairly young age of 14, when most teenagers were probably shy and withdrawn.”
Marc was quieter, but equally devoted to insects. With Wayne, the childhood friends conducted surveys of aquatic bugs, spiders and moths at Tifft Nature Preserve near Downtown Buffalo.
The trio also took turns staffing the museum’s exhibit of oversized robotic insects, which was called “Backyard Monsters.” Some were 20 feet fall. Visitors were invited to bring in bugs for the entomology team to identify and preserve.
Summer ended, and the three men went their separate ways. Wayne, who still hangs a poster in his office describing Marc and Jacob’s work, left the museum to become New York State’s western regional entomologist.
Jacob went on to earn a doctoral degree from SUNY-ESF. After that, he moved to China to continue research he had started on the Asian longhorned beetle, an invasive species that has attacked hardwood trees in America’s Midwest and Northeast.
Marc, meanwhile, took over for Wayne as bug collection manager for the Buffalo Museum of Science. But in 2003, Marc was laid off.
He looked for museum and university jobs in the region, but came up bare. Finally, his wife and children in mind, he tamped down his pride and phoned Chris Phillips, operations manager at Buffalo Exterminating, a local pest control company.
“I got a call from Marc, and he was basically stating to me that they were going to do some cutbacks at the museum, and was just wondering if I happened to have any open positions anymore,” Chris says. “And, of course, a guy with Marc’s credentials, I said, ‘If I don’t, I’ll make one for you.’”
So Marc joined the company as a technician. On routine service calls, he found himself waging war on yellow jackets and baiting ants. The field was full of weird, little horrors: Bed bugs that could go for months without a meal, fruit fly populations that refused to die.
“At first, I really wasn’t keen on being an exterminator,” Marc says. “I didn’t want to deal with pesticides. I didn’t want to be an exterminator; people view exterminators as something between the plumber and the garbageman.”
As time went on, however, he learned to appreciate the work. He found the clients fascinating. He visited mansions and tenement houses, saw how people lived on every rung of life. Regardless of their station in society, his customers were thrilled to see him: He was there to help.
In the office, Marc taught co-workers about insect biology and insect habits. At restaurants, he coached managers on preventing infestations: Seal gaps in the wall. Eliminate standing water. Clean up!
Fewer bugs meant less use of pesticides.
“I love it,” Marc says of his job today.
Jacob isn’t surprised. He remembers working with Marc until 2008 as leaders of the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage, a yearly series of nature walks in Allegany State Park in Upstate New York.
“Marc would always do a ‘bugs and people’ field trip, and he would talk about doing pest control not using pesticides, but using the knowledge of biology—kind of like green, friendly ways—to control pests,” Jacob says.
Jacob continues: “Exterminating might have a bad rep, but they actually do a lot of IPM, or integrated pest management, and the goal of that is to use the least amount of pesticides.”
Wayne elaborated on this idea, calling the art of extermination “applied entomology.”
“I would encourage you to use the term pest control operator, PCO,” he advises. “In my opinion, the best pest control operators are the people who understand the biology and behavior of insects, because pest control isn’t just spraying or killing things, but using knowledge of their behavior to control them.”
Marc says that after college, he had always hoped to find a career that focused on reducing the deployment of poison against bugs. Extermination, however unexpected, turned out to be that calling.
What explains the success of insects, from an evolutionary standpoint? What accounts for their abundance on Earth?
Wayne, who taught a class last year on the biodiversity of bugs, offers one: metamorphosis, the exhaustive, physical transformation that many insects undergo.
In species that experience metamorphosis, juveniles and adults are so different from one another that they occupy different ecological niches, eating different foods, Wayne said. This means they don’t compete with one another for resources—an important advantage when it comes to survival.
A butterfly that begins life as a striped caterpillar will shed its soft and tender skin; lie dormant as a pupa inside a hard, golden chrysalis; and, finally, sprout wings and break free.
Both the cecropia moth that charmed Marc in his youth and the swallowtail he got as a gift from Jacob undergo metamorphosis. So do many plainer-looking bugs, like lacewings, houseflies and fleas. The great, furry bumblebee begins life as a bumblebee maggot.
In nature, the ability to change is a blessing.
It’s true of the insect world. And as Marc and Jacob’s story proves, it’s true of the human world, too. These two boys, who began life in a similar place and with similar interests, ultimately traveled different paths. Neither could have predicted what he or the other would become; both are happy in their new skins.
Charlotte Hsu is a freelance contributor to Artvoice. A former reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, she now works in the University at Buffalo’s communications office. She writes about Buffalo at buffalostoryproject.com.
Note to readers: The term “bug” technically refers to insects belonging to the order Hemiptera, but we use the word more loosely in this story. It should also be noted that scientifically speaking, maggots are the larval form of flies from the order Diptera, which does not include bumblebees.blog comments powered by Disqus
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