WASHINGTON – By day, Gary Hevel is a mild-mannered entomologist toiling in an office at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
But when evening falls or the weekend comes, he becomes a zealous bug hunter, combing his two-acre Silver Spring backyard for all the bugs he can find.
“There are more tiny insects than I ever imagined,” said Hevel, who was inspired by a 1941 book, “A Lot of Insects,” Frank Lutz’s account of the four years he spent amassing 1,402 insect species from his yard in New York.
In a little over three years, Hevel has found more than 4,000 species in his yard — and he does not plan to hang it up for another eight months.
“It’s very surprising even to an entomologist like myself who thought he had already seen everything,” said Hevel, who originally planned to stop after two years. But when he found more bugs than he thought possible, Hevel stretched his study to this Dec. 31.
“For one person, one time, one place, I guess I’ve set the record,” he said. “It’s becoming a little famous.”
The secrets to bug hunting, Hevel said, are insatiable curiosity and patience. In a demonstration of both, he recently stood in front of a dying plum tree in his backyard for more than an hour, waiting for new insects that he thought would be drawn to the scent of the dying tree.
It paid off: Hevel found a bunch of tiny wasps that, under the microscope, turned out to be a species he had never seen before. His colleagues were equally thrilled, and some are studying the wasps right now to see if Hevel discovered a new species.
It would not be his first. On research trips around the world, Hevel said he has found 12 new species that are now named after him — the first being a leafhopper from Costa Rica in 1973, pseudophera heveli.
“A lot of these things are common as dirt but nobody ever sees them,” said Eric Grissell, a Smithsonian colleague who is helping research a Chinese species of wasp Hevel found on the plum tree.
“He sort of does prove that there’s a heck of a lot more diversity in our gardens than most people realize . . . even most entomologists for that matter,” Grissell said.
Hevel’s backyard has yielded bugs from as far away as Asia and Europe. One moth that he thought might be a new species turned out to be the European noctua pronuba, or “nighttime bridesmaid.” No one had ever seen the orange, tiger-spotted moth in the United States before.
After Hevel’s sighting others began spotting it across the country. It took just 1.5 years to reach California, he said, making the fastest cross-country trip of any foreign species on record.
At the natural history museum’s mausoleum-like storage chamber, Hevel’s specimens get two full columns of drawers for themselves. They are mounted with pins in boxes arranged by family, genus and species. The moths are mounted with their wings splayed in an array of patterns and colors ranging from black and white to pink and purple.
“Moths are thought of as brown or white, but as you can see they come in a variety of colors,” Hevel said.
He describes the beetles as “jelly beans, black jelly beans.”
“Once you get some experience you recognize the bigger ones from a mile away,” he said of the beetles, which are the largest part of his collection.
But there are so many subtleties differentiating smaller species that Hevel may take days comparing pictures in books to what he sees through the microscope before he knows what he has. Hevel has yet to specify 1,500 insects in his collection.
While some entomologists focus on the differences between species in one bug family, Hevel decided instead to identify the entire population of his backyard.
“I’m such a fool trying to catch all the insects instead of just concentrating on one type,” he said. “But I said, hey, why not try the whole thing?”
But the hunt is rewarding, and Hevel has a number of tricks.
He fills old milk jugs with ethyl alcohol, a toxin that mimics the scent of a dying tree. Hungry bugs fly in, and Hevel just picks the dead ones floating on top. Or at night he puts a black light between two white sheets, where he picks off bugs as they land.
“It’s really exciting when you see something that you absolutely know that you haven’t seen before,” he said.
Hevel’s zest for bug hunting has had a great impact on his 17-year-old daughter, Amanda. She sometimes finds boxes full of beetles, or jars of alcohol with bugs floating inside, in the living room.
Amanda recalls family trips around the country, during which her father could hardly get through the drive without stopping to catch bugs.
“He’d see one flying across the road and he’d always be like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and jump out to catch it,” she said.
And while other kids cuddled teddy bears, Amanda said she “used to chew on a big plastic cricket. It was one of my favorite toys.”
“I think the bugs are gross, but I’m proud of what he does,” Amanda said. Even though she plans to steer clear of entomology herself, she said her father’s obsession has sparked her interest in biology and chemistry.
“I’m fascinated by these bugs. It makes me want to explore the world,” she said.
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