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Longhorn beetles may deserve love, but won't get mine

By Jackie Cummings
Journal & Courier
February 19, 2007

Entomologist Jeff Holland shows Journal & Courier reporter Jackie Cummings a Longhorn beetle found in Indiana, in Smith Hall at Purdue University.

Despite my rather tomboyish attitude and character, there are some things about me that I would say are quite girly. I prefer skirts to jeans, I don't particularly like to sweat, and I loathe, I mean, despise, bugs.

Pretty much anything with more than four legs and nearly anything with antennae carries a major "ick" factor in my book.

Although I do enjoy outdoor activities, such as camping and hiking, I have to say I have always preferred to partake in these activities in the early spring, before bug season sets in.

Part of what I love about this column is that it gives me the opportunity to understand, and sometimes even appreciate, that which I fear or dislike. Jeffrey Holland, an entomology professor at Purdue University, seemed like just the guy to cure me of my phobia, so I headed on over to his laboratory for a crash course in all things insect.

Holland, a Canadian native, has been an assistant professor at Purdue since August 2004. As a boy, Holland enjoyed wandering in the woods, where he discovered an interest in ecology. He went on to study environmental science at the University of Ottawa, where he discovered a passion for entomology, the study of insects.

"I was quite interested by the diversity of insects, their different lifestyles and interaction with the environment," Holland said.

More specifically, Holland began to focus on the study of cerambycidae, or the longhorn beetle. Holland has spent the past three summers traipsing all over Indiana in an effort to learn more about them.

"These beetles have pretty complicated behavior patterns," he said.

"I find them fascinating."

Using digital mapping, Holland's goal is to learn how large-scale landscape patterns influence insect populations, so as to learn more about how an insect gets to where it's going and why certain landscapes are more suitable for their species.

He said most insects, contrary to what many believe, are either neutral or doing good things for the environment as opposed to being pests.

"Unfortunately, though, the insects that are pests are the ones most people come into contact with."

Most insects are actually doing ecosytems a service, he said.

Of the more than 100 species of longhorn beetles that Holland believes are native to Indiana, he has more than 80 species in his laboratory. Of those species, only about 20 percent would be considered pests.

"Most of them are hard at work doing good things."

As we looked at a few under the microscope, I couldn't help but shudder. The mere look of these things magnified was enough to give me nightmares of the Killer Beetle variety.

Holland said that when teaching someone with an aversion to insects, getting a closer look at their individuality often helps to spark an interest.

"You have to take a closer look," he said.

"These beetles are actually very good-looking."

I tried to keep an open mind, so I looked at a few more under the microscope, only to find my mind was made up.

They were icky.

But to Holland, these creatures seem to represent something else. His passion and determination at understanding the beetles can best be described as a love affair, and as we all know, some love affairs will never be understood.

I can definitely appreciate anyone who follows their heart to pursue their dreams, and for Holland, a true love of nature seems to be the driving force behind his life's work.

And as for his love of insects, it's good to remember that all living things need to be loved.