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The Sultan of Splat

By Mark Wheeler
Mar 1, 1997 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:04 AM


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We are standing inside the small and somewhat seedy brick and cement bus depot in Gainesville, Florida, waiting for the 3:10 Greyhound to roll in from wherever it’s rolling in from, and Mark Hostetler is telling me how all entomologists are weird. This, coming from a man who uses tweezers to pick dead bugs off the windshields of buses.

Anyway, it seems Hostetler, a 31-year-old Ph.D. candidate in zoology at the University of Florida, used to live with a bunch of zoologists, all of whom kept various oddball research specimens stored in jars in the communal refrigerator.

So when I was dating, says Hostetler, one of the indicators of how long a relationship was going to last was the reaction the woman would have when she opened the refrigerator door.

The 3:10 pulls in with a whoosh of air brakes. Across the room, a guy behind a counter makes a now boarding announcement over the pa and then rattles off a list of indistinguishable sounds that I assume is intended to inform the six or so people waiting inside the depot where the bus is going.

Hostetler peers at the guy. That sounds like Buford, he says. No, it’s not. I thought it might be Buford. I came here twice a week in the summer of ’92. While I was waiting, we used to talk.

Buford? I ask, eyebrows arching involuntarily.

Hostetler shrugs. Hey, it’s the South.

As we walk out a set of glass doors to the bus, he tells me about a roommate of his who used to make a few bucks by going into the woods at night to collect banana spiders, which are pretty Neotropical arachnids with an elongated yellowish abdomen. The spider’s web is made of thread so strong it was used for sutures by nineteenth-century surgeons. He was selling them to a local research lab that wanted to know more.

This guy’s a real techie, says Hostetler. We are standing in front of the bus; Hostetler is closely eyeballing its very tall metallic front end. Two elderly ladies, sitting on a bench nearby, are closely eyeballing us. So he designed this huge flood lamp that he strapped to his forehead; I went with him sometimes to look, and this lamp would light up half the forest. Talk about overkill. Ah, there’s one, he says, pointing up to a yellow smear in one corner of the windshield. Butterfly.

I nod appreciatively, pointing to another tiny smear. The driver gets off the bus, heading inside, and glances back at the two of us. Hey, you gonna wash that up for me? he tosses off, deadpan. Hostetler ignores him and looks at the smear. Dunno; maybe a fly. Hard to tell. It’s pretty small.

Out of the corner of my eye I see the ladies talking quietly; one’s pointing in our direction.

I indicate another round spot that’s resting inside the G that forms the word Greyhound. That? Hostetler says, scratching at the mark with one fingernail. Paint chip.

I sigh, bugged. Here I am seeking the skinny on insect innards, and all in all, the front end of this bus is as clean as the proverbial whistle, despite Hostetler’s previous assurances. I’ve come to Gainesville to meet with him, ostensibly to learn about what could safely be described as one of his narrow, specialized, esoteric research niches: identifying the splayed splat of those unfortunate winged arthropods that smack, whop, and ping off your windshield. He’s even written a book about this technicolored bug goo: That Gunk on Your Car (1996, Brazen Cockroaches).

Besides asking the obvious Why on Earth . . . ? question, I also wanted to check the wacko factor here; after all, Ph.D. candidates are usually nose-to-the-grindstone types who spend what little free time they have being bitter about dwindling research funds and the scarcity of postdoc opportunities. Was this one graduate student whose synapses had simply run amok?

Hostetler admits his fascination with smooshed bug guts has delayed the crafting of his dissertation. His thesis has nothing to do with bug evisceration. Instead he’s writing about the effects of encroaching suburban habitats on avian communities. But he couldn’t let go of his veneration for viscera, so he published his book using his own money.

Boy, the runaround I got in trying to get this published is worth another book itself, Hostetler says, shaking his head as we abandon the bus, much to the relief, no doubt, of the two elderly ladies. Hearing this, I’m tempted to ask, What the hell did you expect?! but that would be rude; after all, I’m his guest, and Hostetler is a gentleman.

He’s also a scientist who cares about teaching the subject of insects to the rest of us, and his book is an attempt to share what he knows. I wanted to rope people in and get them intrigued by science, he says. We are heading toward his house; Hostetler wants to show me his lawn. I mean, I could have written Insects of North America, but who would’ve read it besides a few other entomologists?

Besides the bug-challenged, Hostetler’s market includes teachers, who have bought quite a few of his books. (Hostetler originally printed 800 copies, and he’s just printed another 2,000.) Hostetler enjoys talking to elementary school children about ecology and entomology. He takes them outside to look for bugs. In return he gets letters of thanks from the kids. When you told me to pick up that cockroach! Yuck! wrote one. It was fun to go outside instead of working, wrote another. And this odd missive: I liked it because all those things you taut us I did not know ah-oh I have to go so thanks an good-bye [sic].

In truth, the book has a certain . . . charm, if that’s the right word, once you’ve accepted the icky factor. It consists of 104 clever pages crammed with facts about insects in general, with chapters on those common insects--mosquitoes, moths, midges, and more--to which we normally don’t give a second thought. Except, that is, when we’re viciously wielding some implement of death to crush them, whether it’s a flyswatter or a ton of molded steel hurtling down a highway.

There are chapters on 24 insects, with 24 color illustrations of the bugs before and after--very after--death. The book, a paperback, is sized to fit into your glove compartment, and the idea is to whip it out when a splat opportunity presents itself, flip to the color pictures, and match innards. For example, the entry for the common mosquito gives its Latin name (Aedes canadensis) under a true-to-life rendering; inset into that is a true-to-death rendering of the splat, along with a description appropriately entitled The Splat: Normally is a small (1 to 2 millimeter), black-grayish, dry dot. If you hit a female full of blood, the splat will have a touch of red. See? Charming.

Having identified your splat, no doubt your appetite will be whetted to know more about the demised bug. You must thumb to page 86, where Hostetler ropes you in with the science. Did you know, for example, that only female mosquitoes bite? Okay, but do you know why? No, it’s not because they are evil little blood-lusting vectors of disease that dedicate their miserable few weeks of life to sucking up blood that they’ve diluted with their own saliva to make it easier to withdraw, all in order to torment humans and other animals. (By the by, it’s the mosquito saliva that makes us itch.)

Madame mosquito will actively search for a blood meal, as Hostetler puts it, because she needs the protein in animal blood to produce the yolk for her fertilized eggs. In turn, the yolk provides the nutrients for her young.

Ah yes, you might wonder, but how does an egg become fertilized? Read on, while avoiding weaving from lane to lane in your aforementioned machine of death. Certain anatomical characteristics, Hostetler writes, allow us to distinguish between a human male and female. (Clearly, this is a man who needs to get out of Gainesville and travel to the big burg more often.) But a male mosquito . . . locates a female primarily by the sound of her wings. In flight, females produce sounds that range between 300 and 800 vibrations per second. Males, he writes, will be lured by any source that produces this range of sound, including a tuning fork, which clearly sounds like opportunity knocking for the guy with the floodlight on his forehead.

But that’s not all. Gunk also offers tips for collecting and mounting insects, includes a robust reference section for further reading, and suggests games bored children can play during those long road trips. There’s Hangfly, which is played just like Hangman, except you draw a fly’s head, thorax, abdomen, three pairs of legs, and so forth. There’s Collection Inspection, in which you stick a small net out the window to see who can catch what (Hey look! I caught a yellow jacket! And it’s still alive!). And--no doubt a favorite with Mom and Dad--there’s Insect Art, in which the kiddies place a small piece of Saran Wrap across the windshield (extending the wrap below the surface of the hood so it won’t blow off) that, when carefully peeled off at the end of the trip, provides a collection of bug splats (Art at its finest! the author writes).

My idea had been to drive around with Hostetler to sample in a day what took him two summers to research. In addition to the time he spent with Buford at the bus station, Hostetler drove 12,000 miles around the country sampling splats in 1994. He attached a net to the roof of his 1984 Honda Accord to catch the bugs that ricocheted off his windshield.

I also wanted to wait for a bug to annihilate itself on my rental car’s windshield and then play Stump the Splatologist. But I visited Hostetler in December, which of course is not prime time for bugs. Hostetler’s initial response to my query, though, was, Hey, this is Florida. There’s always bugs. What neither of us had counted on was a Florida cold snap. It rained hard the day before I arrived, and nighttime temperatures were in the high 30s. Cold weather, in addition to slowing some bugs down, kills others, and it takes at least a day before the eggs left behind hatch.

I knew this idea was in trouble during the two-hour nighttime drive from the Orlando airport to Gainesville. When I pulled into a roadside stop, I inspected the windshield. All I could see were two or three disappointingly tiny spots, possibly midges (The Splat: Small clear spots, 2 to 5 millimeters in diameter, with specks of black).

One small victory: Kneeling to inspect the car’s front end, I discovered a gnarly yellowish substance with what appeared to be little appendages sticking out. The closest match Gunk offered was mole cricket, a two-inch-long East Coast pest that eats plant roots. Its claim to fame is that it burrows into the ground to build a chamber that amplifies its mating call. The Splat: These insects are splattered on the bumper and grill of automobiles. Occasionally they will hit the windshield, accompanied with a loud whack! The splat is rather large (20 to 30 millimeters in length), whitish in color, and usually contains parts of the insect that are recognizable (for example, the head). Recognizable to a splat aficionado, perhaps, but not to this reporter. I made a note to show it to Hostetler when I met him, but of course I forgot.

It’s just as well I didn’t try to stump Hostetler. Turns out a local Gainesville radio station tried the same thing, except--you know those crazy disc jockeys--they smashed a Junior Mint into the car’s grill. Hostetler guessed marshmallow. It was easy, he says modestly. It was too white and sugary-looking.

We arrive at Hostetler’s house to seek the feral bug, but also so Hostetler can show me his lawn. This is another of his pet projects, one that actually has a tie-in to his doctoral work. To the uninitiated, it’s a lawn badly in need of a mowing; to a biologist, it’s a native ecosystem. My idea is to get people to eliminate their lawns. To most animal species, cut grass is like concrete; there’s nothing there for them.

Urban-suburban landscapes are becoming dominant in North America, says Hostetler, and that’s only going to continue as the baby boomers retire and move out of the cities. People also plant exotics, which can spread and drive out native plants. For wildlife to survive, it’s going to need patches of natural vegetation such as this. He shows me some of the plants native to Florida that have returned on their own to this uncultivated patch. There’s switch cane, beauty-berry, and hedge nettle, but, except for one lone mosquito and a very large banana spider, there are no bugs in sight.

I ask how Hostetler’s neighbors took to this natural state. Badly, he admits. At least initially. But once I introduced myself and explained what I was doing, they came around. Silently I look at the yards around Hostetler’s house; they all have carefully groomed lawns. Hostetler shrugs. Most of them are retired. I don’t think they have that much to do except take care of their lawns.

We spend the afternoon driving to a couple of places known to Hostetler as bug havens. Of course there’s barely a bug in sight. At a state reserve just outside town, we do spy a cute, hairy little caterpillar inching along. The fuzz is probably a defensive mechanism against predators, Hostetler tells me. It may irritate the stomach lining of birds. We also see a swarm of midges, or gnats. Much the way guys do at singles bars, they swarm to attract females, Hostetler says.

Back in town, along the shore of a lake on the uf campus, we see a lone dragonfly (at this point, though, we’ve actually given up on bugs and are looking for alligators, which live free on campus; we don’t see them either). I’ve decided the dragonfly is my favorite bug--it’s the F16 of the insect set. It swoops and darts, vigorously patrolling a self- defined territory. It uses a sneak attack, as Hostetler describes it, to fly underneath its unsuspecting prey (bees, horseflies, mosquitoes) and then dart upward to snatch them out of the air. Its eyeballs are huge and goggle-like, Hostetler says in Gunk; they swivel back and forth and up and down.

Best of all, though, is the dragonfly’s larval stage. The larvae live in water and breathe using gills located--are you ready for this?--in the anus. That’s right, the anus. Icky, oddball evolution, you say? Nonsense. It’s double-duty evolution. Dragonfly larvae can blast water out of that sturdy orifice, achieving jetlike acceleration to escape predators.

Finally, Hostetler offers to take me to a place outside town where it’s pitch dark at night except for the bright lights shining from a 24-hour convenience store. If there’s bugs anywhere in Alachua County, they’ll be there, he promises.

Around 10 p.m., we drive south about 11 miles on Highway 441 to the outskirts of the hamlet of Micanopy. Indeed, there in a bath of light surrounded by dark is the Lil’ Champ Food Store.

We exit the car, our breaths fogging in the chill, and stroll to a flood lamp high on the sidewall. Two moths--two--perch next to the lamp, shivering to death. Moths are cold-blooded, Hostetler points out, so when they’re cold, they shiver to elevate their body temperature to build up energy for flight.

As we stand, also shivering, Hostetler points out numerous batches of moth eggs attached to the Lil’ Champ’s concrete block walls. Before she dies, he says, a female moth will spew out as many eggs as she can. It’s another way to insure the perpetuation of her offspring.

I always thought of moths as stupid for slamming their little heads into lightbulbs. It turns out, though, that moths navigate by the uv rays emitted in moonlight. Because the moon is so far away, explains Hostetler, all moonlight rays are virtually parallel. The moths travel at a constant angle to these rays, which allows them to fly in a straight line. (If you’re wondering what they do on moonless or cloudy nights, biologists don’t know, says Hostetler, although there may be enough diffuse light by which to navigate.) It’s been hypothesized that flying straight is a more efficient way to locate females (I’m sensing a trend here). So when thoughtless humans came along with headlights, streetlamps, and forehead floodlights, confusion reigned because moths alter their flight pattern to keep a constant angle to each radiating ray of light. Since moths generally fly at an angle of less than 90 degrees to light rays, Hostetler says in Gunk, they end up circling a light source, spinning closer and closer until they smash themselves into it.

For me, spending the day with Hostetler reinforced a couple of notions. First off, insects have evolved an array of evolutionary strategies to survive, but I’m reminded that in the end, all bugs basically want to do is eat and reproduce. Which, when you think about it, isn’t all that different from people. Second, in my efforts to view bug gunk, I found that, once again, you can’t dictate to Mother Nature; she does what she wants, when she wants. In dealing with her, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Or, as the singer Mary Chapin Carpenter put it, in life sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.

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