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A bug’s life is a fascinating life to KU scientist

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at 7:36 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at 7:39 p.m.

Photos

— Michael Engel is a University of Kansas scientist who literally co-wrote the book on bugs.

The research was stimulating. He was shot at twice: in Israel in 1997 while collecting bees and in Kyrgyzstan in 2000 while hunting bugs and fossils.

He likes bugs. Most people hate them.

He gets that. But bug research before and after the 2005 publication of “Evolution of Insects” has sent him into 40 countries, north of the Arctic Circle and down to the equator in tropical rain forests in search of live bugs and long-dead fossils. It figuratively sent him back in time and made him the teller of some of the crazier stories in creation.

No matter how far he’s traveled or how deep in time he delved, one of his favorite stories is about a bug scientists found not in Ethiopia or China but right down the road from Lawrence, in a cow pasture near Elmo.

It was a giant bug named Meganeuropsis permiana.

“A vicious, aerial predator,” he said. “Not the insect you’d hunt with a butterfly net. You’d hunt it with a shotgun.”

Surf the forest

“Evolution of Insects,” co-written with entomologist David Grimaldi, is 755 pages of facts and photos that outline 410 million years of bug history and made Engel a prominent bug fossil scientist at only 31. At Cornell, where he took up bug research, he knew astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who was so engaging on TV’s “Cosmos” series that he got us all talking about astronomy. Engel sounds as happy talking bugs as Sagan was talking the universe.

“Bugs were the first beings to sing beautifully,” he said. “The first to dance. To create societies with divisions of labor, with queens, caste systems, workers, soldiers. Bugs created the first abstract language. The first to fly – and they flew 170 million years before the pterosaurs, 250 million years before birds, 350 million years before bats.

“We think we were the first to farm. Nope. Heck, leaf cutter ants? They have fungal farms. They go out, harvest little bits of leaves, develop and cultivate a garden and harvest it. And when they move to a new place, they take little inoculates of the fungus with them, so they can start the new farm in the new place,” Engel said.

We think we’re a big deal on this planet, he said. But if space alien scientists spent any time here studying all living biology and all evidence in the fossil records, “they would quickly conclude that this is really a planet for animals with six legs.”

Humans comprise one species. There are nearly a million species of bugs – and counting.

The aliens also would quickly conclude that the guys with six legs do more good for the planet than do those with two. The bugs help pollinate a third of our food. They turn over and fertilize our soil, turn our dead trees and garbage into soil nutrients.

“Our one measly species,” as Engel calls us, “is more of a parasite on this system, at least at this stage.”

There were bugs once as long as surfboards, as sinuous as millipedes. “You could stand on their backs and surf through the forest,” he said.

That’s one cool story, he said. But there’s an even better one southeast of Elmo in a Kansas cow pasture with a lens of 280 million-year-old limestone known as one of the holy grail sites of paleobug biology.

Scientists in the early 1900s found nearly 15,000 specimens there, containing 1,000 species. That alone rewrote much of biological history.

“Imagine coming home with 15,000 T. rex bones,” Engel said.

And what you could learn from that.

Dancing bees

After a honeybee finds a field of flowers, it goes back to the hive to dance.

Humans created complex communications – or so we thought. But honeybee scientists say the little guys preceded us by 30 million years.

The other bees watch the dancing bee moving, giving off vibrations. It takes only moments. And then it doesn’t matter whether the flowers are five miles away, over a hill, out of sight, behind a great line of trees or tucked around a bend in a little dell. It doesn’t matter that bees have tiny brains. After the dance, the other bees fly right to the flowers. The dance language, the bee people call it. Karl von Frisch, the Austrian who figured that out, is the only entomologist ever to win a Nobel Prize.

Honeybee populations have been collapsing worldwide for years, probably because of viruses plus man-made poisons. The populations of bumblebees have declined, too, in part because of destruction of habitat – and climate change.

Pollinators like bees help create one-third of our food, including most of the tasty bits, Engel said. We need to understand why they are dying and what those consequences are for us.

Bumblebees and sweat bees, two of the really big pollinators, are picky about how they live.

“Bumblebees are really temperature sensitive, so when temperatures go up even slightly, they struggle,” Engel said.

Sweat bees like to make nests only in certain kinds of soil, which are getting plowed up for farming or development. So their numbers are crashing.

Killing them off would be “a really big deal,” Engel said.

If that does happen, it could disrupt our economy, our food supplies, our health – and a lot of the beauty around us. The world got really beautiful millions of years ago, Engel said – but only after bugs and flowers got together and made a biological deal.

The bug from Elmo

If bug scientists ever capture the public imagination the way dinosaur hunters do, they’d no doubt start with the giant bug from Elmo.

Meganeuropsis permiana had a wingspan of 29 inches, nearly 3 feet . A thorax as thick as a football.

“The biggest insect in world history,” he said. “If it were alive today, it would probably be hovering around elementary schools at 3 o’clock. And mothers picking up their kids would be fending them off with bats.”

He wishes he could find a fossil of one of the babies, an “immature.” They might have lived in water, like dragonfly young.

“They probably were as big as schnauzers. And if you stepped there, if they behaved anything like dragonfly immatures, they’d go after you. Rip our legs off,” Engel said. “No wonder some vertebrates left the water and started walking on land. They were probably trying to get away from Meganeuropsis immatures .”

They hardly ever sting

On the Kyrgyzstan trip, Engel was held prisoner by a warlord not long after he got shot at. He was released after agreeing to surrender his food.

On collecting expeditions, he’s trudged for miles, has bought cheap ex-Soviet military transportation to cross Kyrgyzstan wastelands and has grown sick for weeks from tropical illnesses in Central and South America. He’s brought home bugs encased in ancient amber from India and the Baltic. From the Cape Verde Islands, he brought home a new species he described in 2012, a cuckoo bee named Thyreus schwarzi. It does what the cuckoo bird does – puts its eggs in somebody else’s nest and lets them raise its young. It has what look like little zebra stripes.

From Norway, he brought home a fossilized section of a fern. In the stone you can still see the cross-hatching seen in the bark of ferns today.

Sometimes when Engel collects bees, he slowly sticks his entire arm into a swarm until they all think his arm is a tree branch. Then he lifts his arm and drops the swarm in a bucket. He’s been stung only two or three times. Sometimes, to catch bees, he captures them with a long-handled net and then jams the net onto his own head and shoulders, reaches in with one arm and catches them. They hardly ever sting.

All species go extinct

One of the more sobering things Engel and Grimaldi found is that there may have been as many as 100 million insect species in the past that are all now extinct.

“Evolution happens, and so does extinction,” he said. “And you know the history of evolution, right? That all species eventually go extinct? Humans will go extinct. It’s only a matter of time.”

He says we should avoid speeding that process along. We’re not really creating climate change, which has happened in great, wide temperature fluctuations for millions of years. What we’re doing that’s scary, he said, is speeding up atmospheric changes so fast that the animals can’t keep up. That’s the danger.

Bugs may have tiny brains, he said, but they don’t endanger the planet.

They have endangered humans. About a third of all Europeans died during the Black Plague because of fleas. Malaria and yellow fever, carried by mosquitoes, killed tens of millions more. Bugs with venom kill people. Bugs destroy crops.

If you removed all the planet’s humans with their big brains, life would still flourish.

But if you killed off just three kinds of bugs – ants, termites and bees – terrestrial life would probably collapse.

No logs would rot properly. No soil would get turned over and properly fertilized.

The soil, no longer fertile enough to support plants, would wash away.

The forests, bereft of fertilizer, would die.

The atmosphere, lacking oxygen given off by plants, would turn toxic.

So who’s got the tiny brain now?

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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