Archive for Monday, November 18, 1991


November 18, 1991


`If you talk to my wife, I'm a part-time dentist and a full-time entomologist," said David Brzoska, a rural Lawrence resident who manages to combine dentistry and entomology in a lifestyle that takes him to the far corners of the United States and beyond.

In a recent interview, Brzoska explained he took up dentistry as a way to earn a living but never had been able to deny his childhood love of entomology.

"I think I was born with an instinctive interest in insects and I kind of gravitated toward beetles.

"It's something you gradually grow into."

After Brzoska earned his undergraduate biology degree from Marquette University, he began graduate studies in entomology at Ohio State University and soon enrolled in the school of dentistry there.

In 1976, he received both his master's in entomology and his dentistry degree from Ohio State.

He and his wife, Judy, decided to settle in Lawrence because the city offered a central location from which to launch his beetle-collecting expeditions, which run only a week to 10 days at a time to avoid hardship on patients.

"Dentistry," Brzoska explained, "is the kind of occupation where you can more or less set up your own hours."

In the world of beetles, Brzoska said, specializing is imperative, so for most of the past 20 years, he has been studying a single family of tiger beetles called Cicindelidae.

Beetles as a whole are scientifically termed Coleoptera.

To date, Brzoska has collected 130,000 tiger beetles, including some subspecies he is describing for the first time to the scientific community.

Noting he collects about 10,000 specimens each year, he said his goal is "to do as much collecting as I can while I am healthy."

Affiliated with Snow Hall at KU, which eventually will receive his beetle collection, Brzoska said he also brings the faculty there any serendipitous field finds, especially bees, that fit their research interests.

He travels with tiger beetle colleagues or with Mrs. Brzoska, who is a nature photographer as well as his hygienist at the dental office.

"We plan two years ahead," she explained. "He knows where he wants to be."

Instead of pocketing his field finds like he did as a child, though, Brzoska kills them quickly in ethyl acetate fumes and plops them into carefully labeled brown viles filled with alcohol and topped with polyseal caps.

Back home, he painstakingly processes, or curates, the beetles to preserve and properly identify them, working from four to six hours most evenings.

The preservation process involves putting beetles through several baths of ether to remove the fats in their bodies, which if left in place eventually would rise to their topsides, form a greasy film and discolor markings.

Then, they are carefully pinned with their identification tags in curatorial cases, which are fumigated regularly to keep other beetles from turning the processed specimens to dust.

Brzoska also keeps another 30,000 adult tiger beetles, as well as some of their larva, in the alcohol viles for research purposes. A few live larvae from south Texas live in large, dirt-filled pop bottles and one live mature tiger beetle a nocturnal Amblychila that measures about 35 to 40 millimeters in length lives in a box.

Brzoska noted Francis Snow, one of Kansas University's early chancellors, first discovered Amblychila in large numbers in western Kansas, and captured and traded them to other universities as a means of building KU's insect collection.

Just finishing his 1990 curating work, with the 1992 collecting season due to begin in February, Brzoska advised his endeavor is "a never-ending process. . . .

"What I'm doing is I'm basically building up a research collection. . . . These beetles are little bits of evolution."

He tries to collect 40 to 50 individuals of each species, he said, because there is so much variation in color and "maculation" the detailing on outer wings called "elytra" that form the beetles' hard shell.

Some specimens shine iridescent blue or green while others are colored like sand or charcoal; detailing on some looks like inkblot patterns.

When people ask why he keeps so many of the insects, Brzoska said, he explains his strategy with an analogy in question form If a spaceman came to earth for a specimen of the human species, who would he take?

Beetles, Brzoska explained, comprise a fourth of all animal species "from protozoa up to man." Protozoa are primitive, single-celled animals.

Among the beetles alone, Brzoska said, there are 140 different families, and probably 800 to 1,000 new species are described every year "and the tropics haven't even been tapped."

He added that probably no more than 15 scientists across the country, including himself, qualify as tiger beetle experts.

Such beetles are predacious and very active, he said, and are mostly caught with a net while in flight, making them quite a challenge to collect. Some are no more than eight millimeters in length and look more like flies than beetles to casual observers.

Others, like the Amblychila, grow into huge insects 40 millimeters is more than 1 inches.

In general, tiger beetles are considered a good indicator of the health of their environment, Brzoska said, noting he had done some survey work on them for the Nature Conservancy because of that characteristic.

Brzoska said he has collected specimens over most of the United States and Canada, and now is concentrating on more southern parts of the hemisphere, particularly Mexico, Ecuador and Trinidad.

"There are different species there than here," he said.

Along with three colleagues a New York dentist, a Boston lawyer and a Kansas City railroad man Brzoska is involved in a comprehensive study of tiger beetles in Mexico. They already have made several collecting trips to that country, he said, and plan at least five or six more in a systematic attempt to complete the project.

Many entomologists like Brzoska do not make their livings from scientific endeavors, he said. Most paid entomologists work for chemical companies that aim to kill insects or they are university professors who also teach and as a consequence are severely restricted in their field work.

Different species of beetles emerge at different times of year and according to weather conditions, he explained, and they do not live for long periods of time.

"You need flexibility," he said, "to be in the field when the beetles are out."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.