#44: Eric Eaton – Insectpedia, Insect Ecology, Wasps, and the Future of Entomology

#44: Eric Eaton – Insectpedia, Insect Ecology, Wasps, and the Future of Entomology Nature's Archive


Eric Eaton is an entomologist and the well known author of Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect, and co-author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Today, we discuss his most recent work, Insectpedia, due out on May 3. Insectpedia promises to be a fascinating and non-traditional look at insects, the people who study them, and their role in history and society.

In today’s discussion, we spent a few minutes learning about Eric’s non-traditional path to entomology and writing, and the lasting impact of one of his kindergarten teachers.

And soon enough we get into some amazing entomological facts. For example, do you know what the fly belt is? As a hint, I’ll tell you it’s not a leather strip used to keep a fly’s pants from falling off. Joking aside, you will hear exactly what the fly belt is and how the tsetse fly is filling a preservationist role. You’ll also learn about parasitoids – and specifically, the differences between parasites and parasitoids. You’ll hear how a wasp targets yellow jacket wasps, but only indirectly through a third party caterpillar. Prepare to have your mind blown.

Eric Eaton with his new book, Insectpedia

And Eric tells us why aphids are actually really important to our food web. And as frequent listeners know, I love aphids because of those links to the food web.

Eric also gives us some perspective on how we, as individuals, can help make societal-level shifts to improve our environment. And stick around to the end – Eric has plenty of fine book recommendations, too (all are listed in the full show notes).

You can find Eric @bugeric on Twitter and bug_eric on iNaturalist, and on Facebook. You can also find him on his blog at bugeric.blogspot.com.

Did you have a question that I didn’t ask? Let me know at naturesarchivepodcast@gmail.com, and I’ll try to get an answer! I’ll add these Q&As to my monthly newsletter, so if you aren’t already subscribed, go here. I promise, no spam. I share the latest news from the world of Nature’s Archive, as well as pointers to new naturalist finds that have crossed my radar, like podcasts, books, websites, and more.

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While you are welcome to listen to my show using the above link, you can help me grow my reach by listening through one of the podcast services (Apple, Google, Stitcher, etc) linked on the right. And while you’re there, will you please consider subscribing?

People, Organizations, Websites

Arthro-pod Podcast

Birdability – wonderful group who also publishes a map with accessibility information for natural areas

Bird Names for Birds

bugeric.blogspot.com – Eric’s insect-oriented blog

Eric’s Interview on the Ologies podcast with Allie Ward

Mike Houck – Portland Audubon Society

Oregon Entomological Society

Princeton University Press

senseofmisplaced.blogspot.com – Eric’s second blog, more social commentary oriented

Unipress Books

Books and Other Things

Note: links to books are affiliate links

Insectpedia, Eric Eaton’s latest book, due out May 3, 2022.

Insects Did It First, by Greg Paulson and Eric Eaton

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, by Lewis Thomas

Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas

Mariposa Road, by Robert Michael Pyle

Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland by Robert Michael Pyle

Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect, Eric Eaton’s ode to the wonders of wasps, full of great stories, photos, and graphics.

What Are People For? by Wendell Berry

Music Credits

Opening – Fearless First by Kevin MacLoed

Closing – Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLoed

Both can be obtained from https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/


Transcripts are automatically created, and are about 95% accurate. Apologies for any errors.

[00:00:00] Michael Hawk: Eric welcome to nature’s archive.

[00:00:02] Eric Eaton: Thanks for the invitation.

[00:00:04] Michael Hawk: So I been aware of your work for quite a while. I think I first stumbled upon your name. In fact, through it was either your blog or through some identification help on bug guide many years ago. So I’m excited to actually have a chance to pick your brain a little bit today.

[00:00:19] Eric Eaton: oh I look forward to it. I heard some of your other podcasts, very impressive.

[00:00:24] Michael Hawk: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it. And hopefully continually improving that’s my goal. Anyway, I have heard you speak previously in different forums. And as I understand it, you’ve had a pretty non-traditional path into entomology. And I’m wondering, can you tell me a little bit about let’s even back up further, where did you grow up and how did you get interested in nature?

[00:00:45] And the very first one.

[00:00:47] Eric Eaton: Oh, wow. well I grew up in Portland, Oregon and I was an only child and I’ve, this is going to sound pathological actually, but I really have never been. I’ve been an outcast in my peer group, let’s say. And so my interest in nature , to hear my mom tell it started in kindergarten, and I do vividly remember that my instructor was a gifted artist and she drew a picture of a trapdoor spider on the chalkboard one day and then explained his behavior.

[00:01:17] And I found that utterly fascinating. And I can also remember us coloring pictures of birds. The funny thing was they were all birds found in the Eastern United States, not anything remotely occurring in the Northwest. But she exposed us as a class to a lot of, natural history. But the things that I gravitated towards were organisms like spiders and snakes and insects and sharks.

[00:01:43] This is way before sharks were cool. Things that were on the outskirts of human sentimentality things. Most people didn’t like. And what I found was that if I couldn’t stand up for myself to my peers, I could research all these incredible organisms and tell them why those animals were cool. And that made me a little bit cooler to somehow a little more, more approachable.

[00:02:09] And I got kids to look for insects during recess and things, occasionally.

[00:02:14] So nature gave me an escape. My parents had a pretty tumultuous marriage. Getting myself out of the house was a way to alleviate exposure to that and then being able to go exploring. And I was lucky in Portland in that there were a lot of wild areas, very close to home that I could explore, not get lost, but still find really interesting things.

[00:02:37] And then once my parents divorced , I had mentors teachers throughout elementary school, but then when I became a teenager, my mom set out to look for other mentors for me as well. And so I met professional entomologists, became a member of the Oregon etymological society and learned an awful lot through them and was encouraged by them to continue pursuing entomology in particular.

[00:03:02] Michael Hawk: , sorry to interrupt is this is as a teenager that you’re already. Okay. So you’re already like, this is a very serious interest at this point. .

[00:03:10] Eric Eaton: Correct. And then by the time I got to college, I thought I wanted to become an etymologist, but once I was in academia, I found out that I wasn’t being rewarded simply for having an interest the subject anymore. I had to start looking at it through abstraction, through lenses of statistics and, these obsessions with quantification and, extrapolation and abstraction.

[00:03:35] And a lot of that was indoor work. It wasn’t outdoor work. And at that time, which was the early 1980s, molecular biology was starting to gain a lot of traction and feel biology was starting to fall by the wayside. And so the timing was just awful. , I wasn’t able to articulate that at the time.

[00:03:53] I just had this overwhelming frustration. I’ve never been good at math. I avoided statistics and physics and things that, that in retrospect, I wish I had pursued a little bit, at least so I could talk better to scientists, but I have always been a writer and I really never identified myself that way.

[00:04:15] I enjoyed writing, but I felt that I had to have credentials in the scientific world to, , give credibility to my writing basically. And by my fourth year in college, , I moved out of entomology and into recreation resource management, which is where park Rangers and those kinds of people graduated.

[00:04:34] And I wound up not receiving any degree at all. But , in hindsight, most of the park ranger types and naturalists that I. Friends with now are at a desk also. And they’re training volunteers to do what they used to do in interpreting natural history for the public. So it wasn’t really until my early fifties that I realized I’m a writer, I’ve always been a writer.

[00:05:01] I’m good at it. I’m a good science communicator. I’ve, having, talked with another podcast group that is three hosts and they do in our arthropod, is there a podcast? And they made me realize that I’ve been a witness to and participant in the evolution of science communication from the dark ages of slide projectors through, through the digital age that we’re currently in.

[00:05:27] And I really hadn’t thought of that before that makes me pretty unique. That I’ve spanned this era of two very different approaches to science communication. And now I think we’re in a third wave of that, where we’re focusing rightly so on, diversifying the voices that you hear in science communication in terms of ethnicity, non-binary people, transgender people, and these demographics that have been marginalized, if not outright excluded. And we’re also much more aware of people with disabilities. How do we accommodate them much better in the conversation and in terms of experiencing nature there’s a new group called bird ability, all one word. And if you haven’t talked to anybody from there, please do so because they’re at the forefront now of leading advocacy for disabled persons in birding.

[00:06:26] But I think you can extrapolate that to nature study in, in general nature recreation. I like where we’re going. And I, hope to become a bigger voice for those marginalized people and make not only make room for them, but, start suggesting individuals to give presentations at burning festivals and things of this nature.

[00:06:46] Michael Hawk: , that’s great. And I actually, I know you’ve been advocating for more diversity. So I was hoping to ask you about some recommendations as to whose voices should be amplified a bit who I should have on the show.

[00:06:58] So breathability. Yeah. I’ve it’s funny you say that I’ve seen some of their work, but I haven’t connected the dots and thought, oh, that would be a great topic for here.

[00:07:06] Backing up a little bit, . Have you ever had an opportunity to go back and speak to that kindergarten teacher and let them know how big of an influence those drawings and and so forth.

[00:07:17] Eric Eaton: Oh boy. She has since passed on of course I’m 61 years old myself now, but I’m trying to recall. I may have, but I’m certain that my mother made it very clear to her what an influence she was. And that’s fine with me. My, my mom was very good at expressing gratitude and making sure that I did the same.

[00:07:39] Michael Hawk: have to imagine how fulfilling that would be as a teacher to understand how that simple little action led to this cascade of events. And your writing is something that has really drawn me to you, that’s probably a good transition to the first book that I encountered of yours, which was not your first book.

[00:07:57] But the first one that I purchased was during the pandemic, it was a wasps subtitle, the astonishing diversity of a misunderstood insect. And I really enjoyed the book because that hit me about the time where I was really understanding the diversity of wasps for myself. I was making my own personal discoveries.

[00:08:15] And what I really like about it is you can open it. It’s like a coffee table book in a way you can open to any page and there’s a subject and you can read that subject in a few minutes, see some amazing photography and walk away having learned something For me anyway, it begs the question of how did that format come to be?

[00:08:34] Eric Eaton: Oh, excellent question. Publishing has become a very complicated arena. And it’s not, writers still send out queries, nonfiction writers, certainly do. And book proposals where by you have not yet written the book, you are interested in finding somebody willing to publish it before you start writing the entire thing.

[00:08:58] But you do have to do due diligence in, in writing a proposal in this case, the publisher came to me and it was someone who I had been familiar with when she was at another press in the United Kingdom. And when she co-founded Unipress books, she came to me with an idea for writing a book on social insects and not just answered BS that we know of as social insects, but that socially.

[00:09:25] Insects in other orders, like beetles and things of this nature. And she had also mentioned that she had an another author already lined up to do a book on wasps. And I wrote her back and I said that’s too bad because I’d feel more comfortable writing about wasps than I would social insects.

[00:09:41] Although I could do that, it just takes a little more research. And eventually long story short, the person that she had contracted with to do the book on wasps decided not to do that. And so she asked if I would be interested in that. And I said, yes, then I still had to write a proposal, lay the book out organizationally, and then we took it from there Cause it had to pass their editorial board still, but basically Unipress is a publishing partner.

[00:10:11] They don’t do the hard copy publication themselves. They do the package, the book, and then they shop for a publications partner. And that’s how we came upon Princeton university press having an interest in this. It was a long process. The hardest part probably was, I enjoyed researching the book and I learned an awful lot as you should, if you’re writing a book if you do due diligence, but the hardest part was probably finding photos because it to be cost-effective most publishers rely on Stockhouse photography and when it comes to entomology, You are guaranteed to have the majority of photos you get from stock houses, be?

[00:10:52] misidentified, even up to the order of the insect.

[00:10:56] So you have flies that they’re passing off as wasps and that kind of thing. And so not only did I have to find photos that I thought were captivating, but then if they were misidentified, I had to go back and try and find out, okay what is this thing really? And I haven’t been out of the country.

[00:11:15] So For things from Africa and Australia and south America, and what have you, I had to do a lot of research just to identify the thing, but we wanted to make sure that our illustrations were. We’re at the forefront of the book because we want people to be captivated. We want colorful things, demonstrating behaviors that were you need to wasps and enthralling for people to observe. So that was our goal. And from what I’m hearing we achieved most of that at least.

[00:11:44] Michael Hawk: For me, certainly it’s a, it is a captivating book and it’s very accessible. And especially for something like wasps, it’s in the subtitle. I misunderstood insect and the wasp that most people think of are the more aggressive social wasps. And there’s this amazing diversity that exists from golf forming wasps to Sand wasps can just go on and on, oh, by the way. And It’s Something else I was going to say. That’s great about the book as you get into some wasp adjacent topics like mimicry and some of the things that just blew my mind was how some mods and Katy DIDs actually mimic wasps, which just blew my mind. I there’s a lot of mimicry in nature. I had no idea that it extended to Mavs and Katie DIDs mimicking a

[00:12:27] Eric Eaton: Oh, yeah. Even true bugs and write down, not to, just to looking visually like them, but behaving like them, which is even more astonishing and that’s harder to . Communicate in a, a non video way, but we wanted to include that because number one, people that go out into their gardener are likely to mistake many flies and other insects for wasps, but also it amplifies how successful wasps are because they’ve got all these other insects, men became, that’s a real Testament to the fact that you’ve been a successful organism when evolution is is co evolving other insects to look like you.

[00:13:07] Michael Hawk: absolutely. And I have really grown to love the the cynics had wasps that produce galls. And in fact had an episode on on golf forming a while ago. And it’s springtime here. The spring goals are out in force at this point. So I’m looking forward to seeing what awaits me this year. The other question, this sort of bags is our.

[00:13:29] Favorite taxa of yours? Or do you have a favorite taxa?

[00:13:33] Eric Eaton: Oh I tell people that if I’m being honest, I probably got interested in wasps because nobody could call me a sissy for collecting an insect that could fight back. And I haven’t gotten stung that many times collecting wasps actually, but , that’s probably how it started a little bit, but then the more I learned about them and the more I learned about how complicated their behaviors are, how much diversity there is that just got the ball rolling even further.

[00:14:01] And yeah, I would have to say there they’re definitely a favorite just because of their sheer diversity and complexity. I it’s ironic that a couple months ago I learned about an online, a virtual wasp identification course that covered wasps from all over the world. And indeed the participants in this workshop were from all over the globe as well.

[00:14:22] And, while we were doing the course, papers came out identifying two new families of wasps. So that’s how fast the science is moving. And there’s already plans to do a revised edition to this workshop in 2023. And Yeah. it’s just, yeah I told Allie ward on ologies. I told her, I said they ended the day. I just went around the room, picking up the pieces of my mind that had been blown out that day. From doing research, like you mentioned the gall wasps, I was having a hard time getting my head around alternation of generations because some species of gall wasps can produce females part in a genetically.

[00:15:02] And because of the way the genetics work in hymenoptera, I didn’t see how that was possible. And so I reached out to people who were working on this and they were like well, if it’s any comfort to you, we have no idea what’s going on either. you know, There’s still so much left to discover, even with all the advances in our technology and the tools we have to look at things we still have no idea really what’s going on.

[00:15:28] Michael Hawk: Yeah. It doesn’t take too much thinking to realize how much work there is to do still when you consider the millions of species of arthropods that exist in the world. And. The amount of work that goes into doing genetic testing, looking at the genomics of each species, trying to see how they’re related and then you get into to gall wasps.

[00:15:47] And if they’re morphologically are different from season to season and connecting those dots, there’s just so much work to do. And before I forget I will definitely link to your interview on ologies. That was a great interview and I’m a huge fan of allergies. I think that Allie ward somehow manages to link together a little bit of of like fun and goofiness with with good science and it makes her really enjoyable.

[00:16:11] Listen. So I’ll include that in the show notes for sure. And the reason why I reached out to you ultimately was you have a new book right around the corner called insect pedia. And just to be clear, that’s not Insecto PDF it’s insect PDF, correct.

[00:16:26] Eric Eaton: correct.

[00:16:27] Michael Hawk: And it looks like another interesting format, another unique or innovative way to approach a, an immense topic.

[00:16:35] So can you tell me a little bit about the book? Who’s your target reader? What are you looking to accomplish?

[00:16:40] Eric Eaton: This was another situation I wish the publisher reached out to me. When we got wasps going my editor at Princeton university press said, oh, by the way, we’re doing this the PDF series. And he said, I don’t know if you’ve seen fungi, pedia. That was the first one in the series. But we want to do one on insects. Could you write that for them? And so he sent me a copy of a bunch of PDF and the whole series, by the way, even if you’re not interested in insects, please pick up another one of the PDF series. It’s just this really unique combination of topics related to the subject itself, short biographies of people that have influenced the science tangential topics.

[00:17:22] Like, How things figure in entertainment and the arts. And so it presented a really unique challenge as well as an opportunity to cross pollinate with different subjects. So if somebody is not interested in insects, just for their own sake, you’ll find entries in this thing that, that talk about, insects in art and insects and literature and, how insects impact us economically, both positively and negatively and edges and weird stories that, you can scarcely believe that it’s a non-fiction book.

[00:17:57] If you read some of these stories, I can hardly believe it myself. And I know some of these people that have researched these topics yeah it’s meant to be entertaining as well as educational. And I think publishers weekly just wrote a review about it saying basically that it’s full of humor as well as insight.

[00:18:15] And that was my goal is to be, it’s always been, my interests to educate people in an entertaining fashion and, insects certainly give multiple opportunities for that.

[00:18:26] Michael Hawk: So it’s such a wide variety of topics. I think Princeton university press calls the series compendiums. If that’s a plural, I’m not sure what the plural of compendium is actually a compendia. I don’t know. But in any event yeah, it’s touching on social impacts, historical impacts the people, some natural history of course, in there.

[00:18:47] So just give me a flavor for yourself, a career into of a few decades. How much research did you have to do for a book like this? I’m just wondering, is it just top of head knowledge or do you have the ideas? Are you out there searching for new ideas to include in the book? I can’t basically what I’m saying is I can’t really fathom what it would be like to be someone in your position who has accumulated all this knowledge over the years, and then how that translates into the creation process.

[00:19:16] Eric Eaton: Wow. A lot of times back there uh, a little bit of all of the above actually. Yeah, certainly I have knowledge of the basic okay. My goals, probably three fold, number one, give people a basic knowledge of entomology and what it means. That you Can go from there to anything else related to entomology that strikes your interest.

[00:19:43] know, I talk about metamorphosis, for example, I talk about, taxonomic classification, economic entomology, integrated pest management, that kind of thing. So if your interest is in, in one of those areas, the entries there give you a real basic snapshot of that kind of thing.

[00:20:00] And then you can go from there and then my other. Goal was to bring to light, people and aspects of entomology that the have flown under the radar. And that includes people of color women, and the idea of ecosystem services, which are services that insects provide that we traditionally have not put a monetary value on.

[00:20:20] So they don’t go into our cost benefit analysis very often, things like pollination decomposition , and disposal of organic waste. That’s another big one there seed dispersal, a lot of insects are responsible for dispersing seeds, especially ants. So yeah, basically introducing people to two aspects of antibiotics.

[00:20:40] Might not have thought about previously and people involved in the science that have flown under the radar. So I have to hand it to Princeton university press because I have ideas and that I’m not aware, a lot of other people share. And that might go against the grain a little bit for traditional entomology, especially economic entomology.

[00:21:04] And they let those things into the book. And, I’m very encouraged by that because I think we need a lot more participants in the discussion who may, may not have who may see things differently than, people that stand to gain financially or academically that can introduce new aspects to discussions that impact.

[00:21:24] Michael Hawk: Can you give me an example of something that you were happy to see Princeton allow through to the final publication?

[00:21:31] Eric Eaton: Yeah. I’m, most of this goes to the prologue and the epilogue in the book. But we, a lot of our knowledge of Antibalas, especially in non Western regions, the neotropics Africa, Asia, has come well, Australia has come from colonialism and we don’t really think about that. When we go to a museum and look at their collections, we don’t, tend to think about how were these objects and artifacts and specimens obtained?

[00:22:04] Well, It was through colonialism and Probably, I don’t think it’s a stretch To say we did not give due respect to the indigenous peoples who made that possible or who we fought to get the. Specimens that we brought back to our Western countries and nations. And we certainly didn’t respect indigenous information and knowledge and use of a lot of these species.

[00:22:30] And so ethnobotany for example I think that’s finally starting to gain some traction that, okay. Maybe these medicine men actually were onto some things. The origins of a lot of things, especially in medicine and in food and agriculture, we’re not giving indigenous peoples nearly enough respect of any respect.

[00:22:50] And I’m really encouraged by people like yourself and Allie ward and other podcasters who, and people in social media, on Twitter and Facebook who are saying, Hey let’s look at this. Let’s listen to some other voices for a change. And, that’s one of my goals in the. Future of my own careers to get out of the way, as much as I liked seeing all the work in print it’s easily as gratifying, if not more so to, to help somebody else get their voice out there.

[00:23:18] And so probably, I know I’m getting a little bit off topic here, but, that’s one of the aspects of my career I want to do more of, and that is, advocate for these other voices, help them amplify their voices, find them publishers to,

[00:23:32] Michael Hawk: Yeah. To an earlier question, you said, wow, there’s a lot to unpack there. And I’m thinking everything you just said. There’s so much to unpack. you know, just like some of the thoughts that were streaming through my head, as you were describing this as is yeah. Back in colonial times, there were expeditions to go collect samples and they were oftentimes ruthless and their behavior on those expeditions jumping to there’s this promising drug that is starting to make some headlines called rapid myosin.

[00:24:03] That is based on a fungus that was discovered on Easter island. I think the island is like rapid Maui in the indigenous language, but it’s turned out to be really beneficial in a number of different ways that really aren’t understood and. One of the early correlations was simply that the people that lived there had a longer, healthier life span.

[00:24:24] And then they figured out that this is in the soil and now they’re trying to go backwards and figure out what are the actual biological pathways that enable it to, to work? How does it work? And, we could just go on and on on the topic, maybe have a little bit of natural history.

[00:24:38] I looked at some of the preview pages that are available in insect PDF, and there were some really tantalizing topics in there, but it’s only a few pages of preview. So I was hoping maybe I could ask you like, what were some of the more interesting natural history aspects that you profiled in the book?

[00:24:56] Eric Eaton: Oh, you want me to give some secrets away? Now

[00:25:00] Michael Hawk: It could be from the preview pages.

[00:25:02] Eric Eaton: I actually have not seen the preview pages.

[00:25:05] or you’re talking about actually here’s an interesting thing that happened during the publication of the book. I had an entry for the gypsy mock and it’s still in there, but between when I wrote it, That story and that little entry.

[00:25:19] And when I got to look at the proofs for the whole book there had been an upheaval about that name, gypsy moth, because gypsy is an epithet, a racial slur for the Romani people. And this is great example of how things are thankfully progressing. So a group of graduate students is my understanding went to the entomological society of America and said we needed to change the name of this moth and the common name.

[00:25:47] The scientific names are not as mutable as common names. So the scientific name for the gypsy moth is why mantry, disbar, that’s going to remain the case unless the genus name changes for some reason, because it gets lumped with another one. I don’t see that happening, but the common name can certainly be changed at will.

[00:26:11] And so the students lobbied to have it changed. And the interim name they gave the gypsy moth was the LD moth for Lyme Andrea disbar. So I said, okay, I guess I gotta run with that because that’s all that’s available right now. So I changed the whole entry to reflect that. And now, since the book is supposed to come out on May 3rd is my understanding since that happened the name has now been changed to the spongy moth as a reference to the spongy egg masses that the females create after mating.

[00:26:42] . It’s akin to changing the name of your school mascot. If it was the Braves or Indians or whatever it’s a very small token step to more systemic changes that we need to see, but it’s a start and there’s a movement again, in the birding community. The Vernon community leads the way in a lot of this kind of thing.

[00:27:04] And I I’m, hoping the entemological community can catch up to them, but there’s a movement called bird names for birds out there now. And so a lot of these names attached to either some of the ruthless explorers we mentioned or, just, people, slave owners, that kind of thing.

[00:27:21] We’re trying to remove those names from the common names of some of these organisms to reflect. Our respect for indigenous peoples and people of color, et cetera. And I think that’s a good start. Obviously we need much greater movement in , social justice and what have you, but good.

[00:27:39] The more we get that kind of thing into the public sphere and publicize it the better. So that was one thing that changed during the process of making this book, which is just astonishing to me. But that we have things like the tsetse fly in Africa is actually over 20 different species.

[00:27:55] If I recall correctly and they occupy equatorial Africa below the Sahara desert in what’s called a fly belt and different tsetse flies, occupy different habitats from Savanna, grassland to wetlands and. the wet and dry season, the fly bell either expands when it’s the wet season or contracts during the dry season and indigenous livestock herders know this.

[00:28:23] And so that’s why they move their livestock flocks because the fly, the flies were well-known for transmitting sleeping sickness to humans, which is caused by a microbial organism called a trypanosomes. But in livestock, it’s called the Ghana and it has, it can be a lethal thing. Now, the wildlife of Africa as immunity, relative immunity to, Nygaard.

[00:28:49] So it has, wildlife has free reign, no matter whether the flies are occupying the ecosystem at that time or not. But people had heard livestock there that are vulnerable. Tuna Ghana must move their livestock accordingly. And this is all going to be complicated now by climate change, because you’re going to see much more volatile weather over the seasons.

[00:29:12] And it may be that the dry season will extended more or the wet season more depending , on climate change. But while obviously people who heard lifestyle consider the fly, a pest wildlife conservationist might look at the tsetse fly as a savior because it’s keeping competing, grazing animals out of these areas where wildlife needs to graze.

[00:29:36] And certainly if if you extrapolate to corporate ranching that’s extremely important because otherwise, if you didn’t have the tsetse. Certainly the Savannah would be capitalized upon by the ranching industry. Our view of what is a pest, what is not a pest depends a lot on perspective.

[00:29:54] And I think that the tsetse flies a good illustration of that.

[00:29:58] Michael Hawk: Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s a. And in a way to make the right thing happen, maybe we can just hit a couple other interesting topics. I don’t know if they’re in the book or not, but one topic that I’ve always found really fascinating is hyper parasitoids or hyper parasitism.

[00:30:15] And I know you see that in different insect species. So are there, what might a observer be able to find if they’re out in nature that would be reflective of hyper parasitism. And if that’s too specific, I can take a step back and just let you talk about some example.

[00:30:31] Eric Eaton: Yeah, I’m trying to think of even I’ve ever seen an example of hyper parasitoid ism.

[00:30:37] Michael Hawk: Let’s start with parasitoids.

[00:30:39] Eric Eaton: yeah, that was something relatively new to me. When I was started, the wasps book was I knew what a parasite was. A parasite was something that, that lives in or on a host, usually without killing it, but sometimes it killed it.

[00:30:54] It turns out that a parasitoid is a parasite that almost always kills its host. And so the majority of insects that we know of as parasites are actually parasitoids and they usually result in the mortality of their hosts, how people figured out some of these relationships.

[00:31:15] Or pathways I should say to hyper parasitoid is just, I have no idea. It must have taken Houdini to figure this out because the first one I heard about was when I was still in Oregon and it’s a wast called a trigger analogy and the species up there are I guess they’re still technically parasitoids of yellow jackets.

[00:31:38] But they don’t get there the way you would think they are not brave enough to enter the nest of the yellow jacket and lay their eggs. So what the female trigon Allah does is she lays hundreds. If not thousands of eggs on foliage and these eggs are, have a hard capsule and they’re meant to be consumed by caterpillar. Or sawfly larvae. And so these eggs are consumed by the caterpillar or incident larva. And nothing happens unless a yellow jacket comes along and grabs that caterpillar, choose it into a pulp and takes it back to the nest to feed the yellow jacket grubs. And then there, the eggs inside the caterpillar are ingested by the Yellowjacket larva.

[00:32:27] And then they emerge into the trig Unal, wasp larva, which feeds on the yellow jacket. Grub. Yeah. Aye aye. And so that means not only is there luck involved, but that means the majority of time it’s probably not working. That I guess is what boggles my mind is. How can something so convoluted with, this infintecimal percent of possible success endure and things be perfectly fine.

[00:32:56] I think that’s a good Testament to not only the ingenuity of nature through evolution, but just, the endurance and durability of nature in the face of all these things that, that other organisms throw at it, including us.

[00:33:13] Michael Hawk: Yeah. Talk about mind being blown your point, a, the people who discovered this, that’s amazing. Like how is that possible? Because it’s also happening on. Small-scale and so infrequently, but then when you think about the traditional narrative around evolution in selective pressure, and now you have this very indirect relationship and it really in my engineering centric mind is really struggling with how does evolutionary pressure lead to this outcome?

[00:33:45] It’s just crazy.

[00:33:46] Eric Eaton: Yeah. There’s, to add a little bit onto that there are some hyper parasitoids that are termed obligatory, meaning that unless all the sequences, all the steps in the sequence happened, then it’s a fail to what we call. Facultative hybrid, parasitoid ism, where, okay.

[00:34:09] If all the steps of the sequence don’t happen, I guess they’ll make use of this interim host. And so you have that happening with things like, certain economic wasps or recounted wasps, or to kin flies, things of that nature whereby they can skate by if their intended target never materializes.

[00:34:30] But so there are, there are exceptions to the idea that it all has to fall into place. But for obligatory hyper parasitoid, it does all have to happen that way.

[00:34:42] Michael Hawk: Yeah. And then the other part of my mind is just thinking again about all of the. Millions of species and thus trillions upon trillions of relationships that exist that yeah. There’s going to be a few random things that happen occasionally too, in that mix. But yeah, this sounds more than random.

[00:34:59] It’s too coincidental. And know, I began this with a bit of an ignorant question about like, you can we observe hyper parasitoid ism and just starting out with and I apologize to my listeners because they, I think they understand how much I love my backyard aphids at this point.

[00:35:17] And I mean that seriously, I enjoy seeing aphids in the backyard because there’s always something interesting that happens when you have aphids, like lacewings come along or lady beetles or wasps come along. And next thing you know, you have this, sort of. enlarged carcass of an aphid with a little trap door that has been chewed away as evidence that something happened.

[00:35:39] Can you tell me a bit about what’s going on there?

[00:35:41] Eric Eaton: Okay. what’s happening there. So there’s a little tiny wasp that’s even smaller than the aphid and it’s a braconid and actually there’s braconids and then there’s another whole family of wasps that does the same thing that are not braconids, but they’re related to them.

[00:35:57] And so she, she doesn’t have a stinger as most wasps do not by the way. They have an egg laying organ called an ovipositor and for wasps that sting, the sting is the modified ovipositor that has now become weaponized for mostly for paralyzing. prey that she then provisions for her offspring, but in the case of things like Ichneumonid wasps and braconids and the really microscopic hymenoptera they have ovipositors.

[00:36:28] And so she uses her ovipositor to lay an egg inside the aphids. She injects it in there?

[00:36:32] And if kids are pretty defenseless usually, so this is not a real huge ask. But so she lays an egg in there and her offspring then eat the aphid from the inside out. And in fact, never exit as a larva. And so they’re consuming the aphid inside.

[00:36:50] And in the process of that, it bloats the oven into that mummy that you described, then the mature larva pupa, it turns into a pupa. And then when it’s ready to emerge as the adult wasp the adult wasp chews that circular hatch. Top or back end of the aphid and comes blasting out. And you’ve got what looks like a door in a dead aphid. And the other interesting thing about aphids is that they typically are most abundant in early spring and late fall. And in the course of feeding aphids, excrete copious amounts of liquid waste called honeydew is very sugary is full of carbohydrates. And it is craved by everything from ants and bees to flies and wasps and even butterflies.

[00:37:39] Michael Hawk: the marketers were for the aphids to name it honeydew, they were, that was masterful it’s waste after all.

[00:37:46] Eric Eaton: Yeah. Yeah. If you ever parked your car under a tree full of aphids, you’re probably not too enamored with honeydew, but but so think about it. In early spring and late fall, there’s not a lot of flowers around producing nectar. So if you’re spraying for aphids, you’re, you’re not only doing an exercise in futility because they’re very good at reproducing as many insects are.

[00:38:09] But you’re robbing all these other insects have a really vital energy source right before they go into hibernation or into a mating frenzy to get the females through to the next generation, that kind of thing. Yeah, aphids really important source of fuel for other insects, not just the aphids themselves, but the waste products they produced.

[00:38:31] Michael Hawk: Yeah, there’s the, you mentioned the craving the ants have, and there’s probably not time to go into the stories of how ants can. Ranch or farm aphids, but but that’s another really fun one. And you started talking about spraying for aphids, and that might be a good segue into, you had mentioned when we were talking in advance of this, the double-edged sword of chemical pest control.

[00:38:54] And I was intrigued by where you wanted to go with that. So I’ll just ask you what would you like to say.

[00:39:01] Eric Eaton: Oh it’s, it’s the history of this is as far back as the agricultural revolution , the way I see it, every revolution in terms of our civilization magnifies the previous revolution. So you had the. Agricultural revolution, which seems legitimate. We got to eat after all. But then it became exercise in monoculture.

[00:39:25] Then we had the industrial revolution and that brought with it, the ability to mechanize agriculture and expand its scale even further. And after world war two, we were using very potent insecticides on these monocultures because there were no reservoirs around our crop lands for natural, pest control, like the wasps we were talking about and lady beetles and things of this nature.

[00:39:53] So we had to become reliant on chemical treatments because there was no other way to effectively control pests. Now we have the digital age and we’re automating a lot of. Mechanical ways of harvesting and planting and what have you. So we’re getting further and further away from an interaction with our food.

[00:40:14] We’re not, we don’t get our hands dirty much anymore, which I think is one, bad thing about the course of agriculture. But the other aspect of this besides scale at an unsustainable level is that what we do on, in agriculture, our methodology for that trickles down to the homeowner and their garden or yard, and we become conditioned as consumers to believe that the solution to any problem is either a product or sometimes a service. And so we don’t. Stop and think about maybe some, maybe I need to learn more about this. Maybe it really isn’t even a problem. But if it is, maybe there’s a different way I can handle this other than running to the hardware store and getting a pesticide. That’s where we have to start interrupting our culture based on this economic reflex to treat every problem with a product or call somebody with a service to intervene.

[00:41:14] And so that’s where I think we need to make the big shift. It has to come at a consumer level because certainly in our current government industrial complex we have way too much. Influenced from the corporate sector on regulation or deregulation or under regulation would be their ideal on our lawmakers.

[00:41:35] So we as consumers have to take more responsibility in,, maybe taking a moment to think about whether we really need a product or a service. And then act accordingly, certainly there’s situations where you have to have professional help. I do not recommend taking down a Hornet nest by yourself, for example, or certainly. It’s impossible to treat termites if you have them in your structure without a professional help and without chemical controls, but you can go a long way to preventing that by not having mulch it at your foundation, not stacking your firewood up against your house, really basic things like this.

[00:42:15] And so that’s where I think we need to make an emphasis. We need to start relaxing weed ordinances that prevent us from growing native plants, or maybe even having our own vegetable gardens. We need to do more local agriculture as consumers. We need to patronize our local farmers more than we do.

[00:42:36] I’m lucky right now to be living in. Relatively rural Northeast, Kansas, not too far from Kansas city, but we have a farmer’s market in our town during the summer months where we can get locally produced, produce even meats. Those are the kinds of things that we need to do create community gardens and this is being done.

[00:42:55] So I’m very optimistic if we can keep that train going and build up some steam for it, that we will start shrinking away from agribusiness and start looking at local agriculture, stop investing as much in processed foods which is where most of agriculture goes to now. I think probably I liked chips as much as the next guy, but you know, I’d rather have. More intact ecosystems. Thank you very much. Yeah. Yeah. We have to prioritize And then act accordingly as consumers.

[00:43:25] Michael Hawk: , I think the way that we do act today is out of momentum and the path of least resistance and. Yeah, the, these things are sold as being easy. And unfortunately we aren’t thinking about the trade-offs that are inherent to every decision that we make and the trade-offs to having a lawn or putting fertilizer down or putting chemicals down every six weeks as a as a certain lawn care provider likes to market heavily on, on TV.

[00:43:51] Yeah, everything has a trade-off and when the trade offs are one or two steps removed, it’s really easy to ignore them. It

[00:43:57] So Eric, I as is often the case, I wish we had double or triple the time to just keep going, but all good things must come to an end. But before we end I would love to hear thinking back in your evolution as a science communicator, a writer and entomologist are there any top of head events, like a book or a wildlife encounter or a mentor or something along those lines that really helped escalate your interest or your knowledge in the space?

[00:44:24] Eric Eaton: oh mentors too numerous to name and I keep to them. Unfortunately, the older mentors are falling now, of course. But Mike Howe, who was a person at the Portland Audubon society gave me my first writing break when he invited me to volunteer. To write for a publication called the urban naturalist, which is now defunct, but it’s been turned into a couple of additions of wild in the city by our Oregon historical society press.

[00:44:53] I worked on the first one. I did not work on the newer edition but that was where I had to start writing regularly. And so that was a really good exercise. He also let me illustrate the things I wrote. Robert Michael Pyle has been a long time mentor. He’s best known as a butterfly expert and author of many fine books like Mariposa road.

[00:45:14] The thunder tree where Bigfoot walks he’s been very encouraging but also a great example of diversification without losing, once power in their writing. So he goes out of his comfort zone and still. Exceptional material. But I remember when I was in college taking biology and in our lab, one of our TAs started each session by reading from the book lives of a cell by Lewis Thomas and Lewis Thomas.

[00:45:46] The late Louis Thomas was at Sloan Kettering cancer center, but he was able to, genius level physician, but was able to write for the polyp, like in a very captivating manner. And he likened that the title essay lives of a cell. He likened the earth to a single celled organism and he did that extraordinarily convincingly.

[00:46:10] And I subsequently read his other books including late night thoughts while listening to Mahler’s ninth symphony. But these. They’re great because these essays are easily readable and in a matter of minutes, but they’ll leave you thinking for forever Wendell Berry, another author. I would highly recommend he’s also a poet, but he’s written many fine books of essays.

[00:46:36] Like what are people for, he comes from rural Kentucky. And he’s all about landscape level ecology and impacts from external sources and things of this nature highly recommend his work as well.

[00:46:50] Michael Hawk: Those are some new ones for me. I heard a couple that were familiar and a couple that are new. So I’m looking forward to checking them out and we’ll link to us, to them. And how about upcoming projects? Anything you’d like to highlight? Like we didn’t even talk about your blog and you have a couple of blogs, in fact.

[00:47:04] Eric Eaton: Yeah, I’m not blogging as frequently as I would like. But my two blogs are bugeric.blogspot.com and that’s where my entomology things go. And mostly what I’m trying to do at this point is help promote other people’s efforts. Now I’m happy to do that. I’m happy to entertain guest blogs.

[00:47:26] If I find you and I find that you’ve got something unique to say, or you’re very good at saying it I will come to you. And my other blog is senseofmisplaced.blogspot.com. And that’s where I go off on tangents That may or may not be related to insects. It’s more about it varies maybe pandemic oriented or maybe it’s I haven’t done anything yet on the.

[00:47:49] What’s happening in Ukraine. But you know, certainly a lot about consumerism and how to, how do we get beyond that or how do we change it in a way that is more sustainable, that kind of thing. So there’s a lot of different topics there. It’s more personal to in, in terms of my experiences and viewpoints, but as far as books go yeah, it already took me a little while to do, to get back into the insect PDM mode because I wrote that two years ago.

[00:48:19] But, yeah, the author, there was always thinking another book or two ahead of what they have just done And then there’s projects you can’t talk about because you’re under non-disclosure agreements and things of that nature. So, I will probably get back to you when I have something more tangible.

[00:48:33] Michael Hawk: That works. And the easy thing to do would be for people just to follow you on your blog or on social media. And I’m sure you’ll announce when things are ready to be announced. So how can they get.

[00:48:44] Eric Eaton: this is true. Yeah. This is where I am. I’m a bug Eric on Twitter. Yeah. And I’m at bug underscore Eric on I naturalist, which is a a great website for recording your own observations wherever you are from or traveling through. I am not on Instagram. They kicked me off for reasons that I can’t understand.

[00:49:08] And wouldn’t let me get back on. I do have a flicker photo stream that I think I’m bug Eric there as well. Basically, if you Google bug Eric, you can find me almost anywhere. And Eric are eaten writer on Facebook.

[00:49:23] Michael Hawk: Alright. So with that, is there anything else that you would like to.

[00:49:29] Eric Eaton: Just thank you again for engaging. And I always delighted by when I run across people like yourself, who are yourselves insightful and ask probing questions and, are eager to do the kind of thing I’m doing, which is, educating people while entertaining them as well.

[00:49:47] And it people that can make me think harder, who challenged my perspectives. I was, I always value that. So thank you.

[00:49:54] Michael Hawk: Oh, the pleasure’s all mine there. Thank you for taking the time out of your day and doing this. I, as I said at the beginning, very excited to have this opportunity with you and hopefully people listening, gained a little bit of value from it as well. So thanks again.

[00:50:08] Eric Eaton: Oh, you’re welcome.

One thought on “#44: Eric Eaton – Insectpedia, Insect Ecology, Wasps, and the Future of Entomology

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