September 22, 2006

The Master of Insects Chats About His Love

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Richard Hoebeke is a lean, energetic man in his late 50’s. With his salt-and-pepper mustache, friendly smile and checkered shirt, he looks like he could be the next face of Newman’s Own Lemonade — or at least could give the Welch’s girl a run for her money.

But juice is not his amor real — insects are.

Hoebeke is the assistant curator for Cornell’s insect collection, a six-million specimen library in Comstock Hall that boasts over 200,000 different species of bugs from around the world.

In room 2144 on the second floor of Comstock, there are rows upon rows of steel gray cabinets. Each seven foot tall cabinet holds hundreds of thousands of insects, which are arranged according to family, genus and species, and color-coded by region.

These insects are pinned down in boxes and labeled with their species names. The boxes —along with moth balls to protect the specimen from pests like carpet beetles, which can eat through the entire collection — are stored in long, sliding drawers in the cabinets.

One drawer contained a black-and-white beetle the size of a small palm. It was the African goliath beetle, a plant feeder and the largest known insect in the world.

Hoebeke joked that the insect weighed as much as a Big Mac. A search on Wikipedia later revealed that an adult beetle weighed about 80 grams — heavier than some small birds but thankfully lighter than McDonald’s mega-burger.

Another drawer featured Malaysian walking sticks. These insects, at eight to nine inches, could easily pass for twigs on the ground.

In reality, Hoebeke himself is a rare specimen — a generalist in a branch of entomology where almost everyone specializes. While most entomologists are experts in one family of insects, he prides himself on being able to identify just about any bug that comes across his desk.

His knack for naming is no small feat. In his 30 years as an entomologist, he has identified about 30 species of insects new to North America and six species in one beetle group that were never before documented.

The insect aficionado grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a paradise back in the 1950’s for a boy interested in nature. When he was six years old, he collected butterflies. He gathered bird feathers, rocks and minerals, leaves and other pieces of nature in the fields around his home.

“I was always a collector, but insects kind of got to me. It was one thing that just never left me,” he recalled.

He pursued his interest in nature and bugs in college. At the University of Michigan, he majored in biology as an undergraduate and went on to obtain a master’s degree in systematic entomology. In 1974, he came to Cornell for his Ph.D. and completed his degree three years later with a thesis on rove beetles, which remain his specialty.

In the United States today, there are about one million people who work with insects — in academia, government and other sectors, according to Gary Hevel, the public information officer at Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Entomology.

Hevel estimated that of those one million, only about 150 people can identify species across the board.

Hoebeke is one of those rare people, and his ability means that others are constantly sending him insects to investigate.

“I don’t think a day goes by when I’m not identifying an insect for another authority,” he admitted.

One of his most famous discoveries is the Asian longhorned beetle, an invasive species from China that kills many varieties of hardwood trees.

A New York private landowner first brought the problem to light in 1996. He noticed that the trees in his backyard had peculiar round holes. Thinking vandals had bored these holes, he decided to stand guard one day — and saw to his shock that black-and-white splotched beetles with long antennas were eating away at his trees.

The good citizen contacted his local forestry inspectors, who collected samples of the offenders and sent them to Cornell. Hoebeke identified the beetles a few days later.

Besides getting insects in the mail, Hoebeke also ventures out to areas at high-risk for invasive species like port cities and warehouses. He sets up bug traps around New York and combs through the findings in search of odd species.

“I consider myself a bug sleuth,” he said.

His investigations have propelled him to become the “national identifier” for the Sirex woodwasp — a government title that gives him the final say on whether a suspect insect is actually the Sirex woodwasp.

For the past 28 years, Hoebeke and another entomologist have taken survey trips along the northeastern seaboard — from Virginia to New Brunswick and further up Canada — in search of new species.

This year, the duo flew to St. John’s, the capital of Canadian province Newfoundland and Labrador and the oldest city in Canada. They chose the site because it had a history of port trade and is home to many insects that came over from Europe on trade ships.

On this trip — like on the other trips — Hoebeke and his partner drove along the port area in search of insects. Hoebeke wore a vest with many pockets, in which he transports vials of specimen. The two combed through vegetation with sweep nets and shook out insects from plants with beat sheets, a netted square with a wooden bow in the middle.

For all his enthusiasm though, Hoebeke confessed that he felt like a dinosaur in today’s world. Entomology as a profession has not grown in recent years, and his area — systematic entomology — is on the decline, he said. Hoebeke currently works as a senior extension associate at Cornell’s department of entomology.

The main reason is because there are fewer jobs available. In addition, the jobs that do exist often give weight to molecular aspects of entomology rather than to traditional morphological aspects, said Dr. John Brown, a systematic entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture.

Brown put the situation bluntly: “If I didn’t have my job, there’s no way in hell I could get a job in systematics.”