The Bug Collector

Where the Insects go, Bob Sites Goes

By Anita Neal Herrison

It's the kind of work Robert Sites dreamed about as a kid. Traveling to exotic places. Leading discovery expeditions. Finding and describing some of the world's rarest creatures before they disappear.

And it's the kind of work Sites now does as a professor of entomology at MU. Over the last 14 years, Sites has led several expeditions searching for rare insects in Thailand, a country blessed with incredible biodiversity but cursed with a long history of destructive land use. Unlike the United States, where scientists long ago determined what insects live where, Thailand still offers great opportunity for discovery. Sites figures there are thousands, probably tens of thousands, of yet-to-be-described insect species living in Thailand. Many of these don't exist anywhere else in the world. They may not exist much longer in Thailand, either.

Habitat loss is so prevalent in Thailand and surrounding countries that Conservation International, a U.S.-based environmental organization, has labeled the area a "biodiversity hotspot," a phrase it uses to designate "the richest and most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life on Earth." Only five percent of the natural habitat in the "Indo-Burma Hotspot" remains in a relatively pristine condition. The rest has been damaged or destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture, wetland drainage, logging, dam construction and other environment-altering practices. And despite local and international conservation efforts, including the establishment of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, natural habitat continues to disappear. As a result, Sites and other scientists are racing to inventory the region's fauna and flora while oases of natural habitat still exist.

"Most people are concerned about the charismatic fauna, the birds, the mammals -- the pretty things, the big, furry things you can throw your arms around and hug," says Sites. "Well, not really, but you know what I mean. If you try to sell them on preserving the habitat for insects, that's a hard sell. But that's where most of the diversity on the planet is. Of the described species of life on the planet, more than half, 52 percent, are insects."

Sites has been fascinated with insects since he was a kid growing up in Barrington, Ill., a bucolic Chicago suburb known for its lakes, forest preserves, parks and horse farms. Spring through fall, young Sites traipsed around with a group of boys who caught butterflies with homemade nets. Sites and his best friend pursued the hobby through high school, even taking out-of-state road trips to collect new specimens.

The appeal, says Sites, who at 53 retains both his youthful looks and boyish sense of wonder, was not so much the butterflies themselves but the challenge involved in finding them. "Early on, we recognized certain species were found in certain habitats. If you wanted a Great Spangled Fritillary, you had to go to the railroad tracks by a certain set of trees. If you wanted an American Copper, you had to go out into this field near this marsh. I think that's what kept me into it because passively, you're learning a lot about ecology."

By the time he graduated from high school, Sites had a collection of more than 100 unique butterfly species, a collection that today resides in MU's Enns Entomology Museum, which he directs.

Sites knew when he began college at Southern Illinois University that he wanted a career in entomology, and he assumed that meant working in pest management. He majored in zoology and stayed on after graduation to earn a master's degree. A doctorate at Washington State University followed.

Sites' first professional position was as a vegetable crop entomologist at Texas Tech University. It was there that he came across a group of insects called Naucoridae, a family of "true bugs."

"When you're a kid, everything is a bug," Sites explains, but scientifically speaking, the word "bug" is as specific as the word "beetle" or "fly." Bugs are an order -- a taxonomic classification that falls between family and class -- of insects: Some species of bugs are plant-feeders, whereas others are predators. Their defining characteristic is a long sharp mouth, called a beak, which the predaceous species use to pierce prey and pump them full of immobilizing toxins.

After piercing, bugs use their beaks to insert a lacerating appendage into their victims. They whip this appendage around to liquefy the prey's tissue, and then they feast on the juice. "It's damn unpleasant," Sites says. "When one of these bites you, you can't believe how much worse the bite is than a wasp or bee sting." On a recent bug-collecting expedition, for example, a nip on his fingertip left him feeling intense pain up to his elbow for half an hour.

Sites first encountered the Naucoridae family of true bugs in the South Llano River while working at Texas Tech. This "creeping water bug" has since become Sites' specialty. Its various species range in size from about as small as a pinky nail to as large as a thumb nail. They have a flattened, oval shape and come in various shades of yellow, brown and green. This "cryptic coloration" helps them blend in with their native environments, which, depending on the species, might be the riffles of a stream, the edges of a river or the rocks behind a waterfall. There are close to 400 species in the Naucoridae family. Sites found eight at one site on the South Llano River, a real coup given that most sites support only one or two species from the family.

"It was amazing!" Sites says. He received funding from the state of Texas to study how the many species divided up the stream's resources. Once having discovered the delights of working in an aquatic environment, Sites never looked back.

"On a hot summer day, it's so pleasant to get in these cool streams and do your work there," he says. "That's my office, my office in the field. Many of my colleagues are envious, especially the ones here who work in fields on corn pest insects."

Sites is one of only a handful of entomologists worldwide who specialize in aquatic true bugs, also known as aquatic Heteroptera. In the United States, his research has focused on the life histories of these creatures. The research will never lead to a cure for cancer, but Sites says it's worthwhile because it deepens our understanding and appreciation for the scope and complexity of the natural world. Besides, he adds with a smile, "not all research has to have an immediate practical application to humankind."

This is not to suggest that Sites' brand of entomology is without practical value. Sites has studied, for example, how aquatic insect communities respond to the installation of "riparian buffer strips," plots of vegetation placed between agricultural fields and waterways to slow erosion and catch pollutants. By examining the number and types of insects in the affected waterways, Sites can determine whether the strips are doing what they are supposed to do.

Scientists in the United States have long used insects to monitor water quality. The process is elegant in its simplicity. First, researchers determine what insects live in the water and how sensitive they are to contaminants. Entomologists then monitor the insect community and see whether species with low tolerances go missing. If they do, that signals a problem.

When Sites first traveled to Thailand in 1993, it was to help local researchers and water quality officials complete the first step in this process. He has been back dozens of times since, usually with the help of two or three MU students to do more "faunistic inventorying."

Sites and his assistants often work in remote streams and rivers, some of which are crystal clear and some of which are brown with muck. They wade into the water, dig their feet into the sediment and use nets to catch whatever gets stirred up. They then dump the nets' contents into white plastic dishpans and sort out the insects.

Every insect Sites finds he keeps. If it's not one he wants to study, he sends it to someone who does. "The mayflies go to Florida. The stoneflies go to Slovenia. AFRIMS, Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences, takes the mosquitoes," he says.

Sites also collects bugs from waterfalls, where, instead of using a net, he uses his fingers to pick the bugs off the wet rocks behind the falls. He gets soaked. He gets bitten. But, he points out with a shrug, so far neither has caused any permanent damage.

Sites immediately places all the insects in small plastic containers. If he plans to extract DNA, the containers are filled with ethyl alcohol; if not, they contain a mixture of water and 80 percent ethyl alcohol. He labels the containers with the date and collection site and waits to sort them back at his office.

In two to three hours, an average collection time for one location, Sites and two or three team members might collect as many as 300 to 500 insect specimens. "I think you'd be shocked at how much is under the water," he says. "Insects live on the water, in the water, suspended from the surface of the water and in the sediments below. It's a diverse and abundant fauna."

And thanks to Sites, the known diversity keeps growing. Between 2001 and 2004, he participated in a National Science Foundation project in which he surveyed aquatic insects in national parks in northern Thailand, an area with phenomenal biodiversity to which he had never before had access. Greg Courtney, an Iowa State University entomologist who specializes in aquatic Diptera, or two-winged flies, served as the principal investigator for the project. He invited Sites to participate because of Sites' experience in Thailand and his many contacts there.

"Having local participants in a project is always important, especially when you're working in a place like Thailand," says Courtney. "One of the things that has impressed me with Bob and his students is that they've been able to go to areas that we thought had been well-surveyed, and they still manage to find new things. One reason for that is he has had students from Thailand helping him, so it's easy for him to get around and for the students to take him to interesting places where others have not been able to get in the past."

Sites and his students are still sorting through the thousands of specimens they collected and kept. Already the count of true bug species never before discovered has passed 60.

For Sites, the most exciting find came from some rocks behind Huay Yai waterfall in Phu Pan National Park. There he picked up some bugs that belong not only to an undescribed species, the lowest taxonomic classification, but also to an undescribed genus, the next step up on the taxonomic ladder. He found three more species in the genus elsewhere in Thailand and two more species in a trip he took this year to Vietnam, another country in the Indo-Burma Hotspot.

"That's cool," Sites says, explaining he has never before discovered a new genus. "As you ascend taxonomically, it's more and more uncommon to find a new one."

To the untrained eye, an aquatic bug from one species generally looks identical to an aquatic bug from another species in the same genus, but Sites knows where to look for differences.

"In many groups of insects, the male genitalia are very distinctive," he says. "So you have to dissect out the male genitalia and look to see if they're different." Don't worry. "They don't feel a thing," Sites adds.

Sites shares his discoveries with other scientists by publishing descriptions in peer-reviewed entomological journals, and he always sends specimens back to universities in the host country.

"We send a lot of them back, identified, to put in their museums so that they know what their fauna is," Sites says. "It's unfortunate that a lot of scientists from the United States and Europe go to these countries and do their sampling and then keep all the specimens so the host country gets nothing back. We don't do that."

This commitment to giving back is something Dr. Richard Zack, an associate professor in the department of entomology at Washington State University and another of the few entomologists in the world who specialize in aquatic bugs, admires in Sites.

"To me the biggest benefit is he works with people in the country," Zack says. "There are a lot of us who go and collect insects and describe some new species from Mongolia or wherever. With Bob, it's not him and three or four of his Missouri colleagues who are going and coming back. He has grad students from Thailand, and when they get done with their education, they're not going to be working for the New York State Department or something. They're going to be working in Thailand. Any information his students generate, it becomes more than a publication in a journal. It is imparted to the people there so they have ownership. They know what's going on; they know how to do collections; they know how to evaluate habitat. That is a value that a lot of studies don't have."

One Thai scientist who has worked extensively with Sites is Dr. Surakrai Permkam from Prince of Sonkla University in Hat Yai. Permkam has worked with Sites for 14 years, and while he praises Sites' extensive knowledge of insects, he seems even more impressed with Sites' understanding of Thai culture.

"Every time I took him out of the campus for fieldwork, he always showed a sign of 'easy living' or 'being as Thai,' " Permkam says, adding Sites quickly learned enough Thai to communicate well with both academics and other locals.

For Sites, the interaction represents a great perk. "This is one of the most enriching aspects of my job," he says. "Scientists and students in other countries have been the ultimate hosts, always eager to collaborate and interact with me professionally and personally."

Sites now has more than two decades invested into his bug career. Yet he still brings to the work the same joy and fascination he once found chasing butterflies.

"I love the areas I get to work in, both geographically and physically," he says. "And I find these insects challenging. They're interesting. The more I learn, the more I want to know about them. The more questions I answer, even more questions are generated."