The 'Arthropod Hunters,' Drs. Matt Bertone and Nancy Brill.
My co-worker, Dr. Matt Bertone, is an insect ID expert on-board the project. We begin the day by packing up our collecting supplies and driving to homes, mostly located in suburban neighborhoods, within a 30-mile radius of Raleigh. When we show up at the homeowner’s front door, they smile and seem so genuinely excited to see us. And maybe a bit apprehensive, too.
“I’m anxious to see what you find…or do I really want to know?” the homeowner asks with a nervous laugh.
“You can be as involved as you want,” we say, as we gear up for a 3 to 4 hour collecting experience and explain what we’re about to do.
And we’re serious about collecting. We collect insects that may have been dead for years because we’re hunting in places the average person may never see or bother to clean — where even during a bright sunny day with all the lights on in the home, I still need a flashlight to comb the floor and walls. I don’t want to leave behind a single specimen, many of which look just like a speck in ‘Whoville’ to the untrained eye. We crawl on our hands and knees, wearing construction-type knee pads and spelunking-type headlamps being careful not to knock anything over, as if all the owner’s belongings were Lladro figurines. We attempt to maneuver our way around and underneath unsteady end tables and other furniture with the coordinated stealth of James Bond.
Then suddenly, while I’m collecting in the upstairs bedroom, I hear Matt burst with excitement from the first floor at the discovery of a dead, 4 millimeter long inconspicuous fly found in a windowsill:
“Oh, this is great – a new species we haven’t found yet! That makes 12 so far.”
As I approach with curiosity to take a look, the homeowner asks a bit puzzled, “Are you just as excited as him?”
Yes, I am. Up to 12 species of flies found on just the first floor – that’s AMAZING!
These discoveries sometimes lead to understanding human behavior or the natural history associated with our findings. Lace bugs, minute pirate bugs (Anthocoridae), Neotephritis fruit flies, and aphid exuviae found on a shelf or windowsill probably meant there were cut-flowers in the home at one point. Curiously, the variegated mud-loving beetle (Heteroceridae) we found inside the light of a dining room chandelier tends to be more associated with muddy banks and streams than homes.
“There’s a ditch close to my backyard,” the homeowner said, offering a likely possibility for the source of the beetle.
And once in a great while we perform entomological diagnostics. One owner, whose house was situated far back into the woods, pointed to his legs:
“I’ve been getting these bites lately on the lower half of my legs whenever I go outside…what do you think it is?”
Unfortunately, our training does not include medical dermatology, but many times our discipline crosses over into other areas of science.
“Are they small, red bumps? And do you only get them when you go outside?” Matt asked. The man nodded.“It could be seed ticks,” Matt said and suggested an over-the-counter preventative spray.
The stay-at-home moms and dads are excited for us to show their kids what we do and what we find.
One mom enticed her boys away from video games: “Listen to what the scientists are saying.” Ants, flies and cellar spiders held their attention for a few minutes before they returned to their games.
I crushed an odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile) to demonstrate the smell to an excited five-year old, who then proceeded to squish every insect he found, including a live lightening bug from outside. “Oh no!” I said, “Let’s not crush all the bugs.”