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Illumination magazine.
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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.

WHERE THE BUGS ARE: Sites scales the Haew Lome waterfall in Thailand’s Ranong Province. The falls are home to the Namtokocoris akekawati, a newly decribed creeping water bug.

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.

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Published by the Office of Research.

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