University of Vermont

University Communications

The Beetles Fan Club

Release Date: 06-21-2010

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Email: joshua.brown@uvm.edu
Phone: 802/656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Ross and Joyce Bell

Emeritus professors of biology Ross and Joyce Bell greet academic admirers while identifying beetles from the day's collection at Colchester Bog. (Photo: Joshua Brown)

Those who labor in the earth are, well, mostly beetles. OK, this may be an exaggeration, but it is true that beetles make a living all over the planet -- every nook, niche and dung pile -- except the poles and oceans. There are more than 350,000 named species, with some 5,000 in Vermont.

And, for decades, Ross and Joyce Bell, emeritus professors of biology at the University of Vermont, have been hunting for them from the deserts of Mexico to the rotting logs of New Guinea. Especially the rotting logs.

"Ross Bell is the world's leading authority on rhysodine beetles," says John Spence one of the Bell's former students (MS in zoology '74) and now professor of entomology at the University of Alberta. The rhysodines, known by the common name wrinkled bark beetles, live their whole lives in dead wood.

"Until he started working on the rhysodines, a few species had been described but almost nothing was known about them," says Spence. "These things are hard to find. Ross and Joyce brought them to the light and found many new species."

To celebrate the Bell's fifty-five years of insect study at UVM -- and their international renown as beetle taxonomists and collectors -- Spence organized a four-day symposium, BellFest, June 12-15, 2010. The event brought more than fifty of Bell's former students, carabidological colleagues, and fellow beetle lovers to UVM from across the continent.

"It's called a festschrift; it's what you do for people when they get to be eighty," says Spence, "but only for people greatly revered in their fields." Curators and beetle experts from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Museum, Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, Oregon State, and elsewhere were in attendance to deliver papers -- and raise a glass in honor of the Bells.

Unto the fourth generation

Or present a collecting box over lunch. Sitting in the fierce sun near Colchester Bog after the Bellfest's concluding field trip for collecting specimens, the Bells try to get a tooth in edgewise on the sandwiches while grey-headed professors and long-haired post-docs gather around to ask questions. Some snap photos like bug-crazy paparazzi while the Bells examine a series of glittering jade-colored beetles, run through on black pins attached to tiny paper labels. In a quiet, nearly impassive manner, Ross and Joyce Bell lean over the collection. An inaudible comment to each other and then a brief remark, "an invasive," -- and it's back to the sandwiches. The Bell's enthusiasm for the ways of the naturalist is not the bubbly variety.

But their love of natural history and teaching are profound -- and have shaped students since Ross Bell arrived at UVM in 1955. "There are four generations of insect people here," says Jessica Rykken G '93, a research scientist at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, who took Ross Bell's legendary invertebrate zoology course when she was in UVM's Field Naturalist Program, "There's Ross and Joyce and their students and their students and even some of their students."

At the end of the day

"I contacted Ross when I was I in high school; wrote to him in 1960," says Henri Goulet, a research entomologist for the Canadian government. "He's been helpful all along and really instills in people the importance of natural history. He gets them in the field so they see insects and bugs -- alive. That's very different than seeing them dead in a collection."

Rykken agrees. "I coordinate this biodiversity inventory on the Boston Harbor Islands," she says, "there is a growing awareness in communities like the Park Service that taxonomists are becoming a rare resource. People like the Bells that can actually take your insects and identify them -- there's not too many of them around anymore. Many people who do the molecular work, you hand them the actual insect that you collected in the field and they don't know what it is."

For Goulet, our profound ignorance of the "little things" is a strange fact in a culture that prides itself on its vast production of knowledge. "We know almost nothing about insects even though our agriculture -- our lives -- depend on them," he says.

"We know more about a square foot of soil on the moon than our backyards," he says, "This lawn you stand on: there are several thousand species of insects and mites just inside ten feet of you. Most of them don't have names, and we haven't a clue what they do or eat."

"At the end of the day," says Spence, nobody cares about DNA. "What they care about is plants and animals and nature and rivers and lakes and ponds and fish," he says. "Molecular biology is important, very important, to our understanding. But you have to be able to bring it back to the world. We have to look closely at the world we live in. That what's what the Bells have been doing for many, many years."