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Illumination magazine.
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INSECT TRAWLER: Bob Sites scoops specimens in Ban Klong Kanan, Thailand. There are perhaps tens of thousands of undescribed insect species in Southeast Asia.

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."

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