A bug catcher’s life

Zac VanderLey—Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Zac VanderLey

It’s a sunny, Sunday afternoon and Eoghan Holdahl lowers his sweep net over an unsuspecting blue damselfly in the Dordt University prairie. The junior agriculture major, holding the net to the ground, then squeezes the top of the net and pushes the bottom into a Ziplock bag. The damselfly, commonly mistaken as a dragonfly because of its long, skinny body and two sets of wings, drops into its enclosure. 

“I don’t think I have one of these yet,” Holdahl said. 

After securing the damselfly, Holdahl treks through the prayer garden and other parts of the prairie. As he walks, grasshoppers jump from grass to brush and branch to branch.

“This is the best place to catch insects, mainly ground beetles,” Holdahl said of the lower brush section of the prairie. 

Holdahl marches through the shorter section of brush, swinging his sweep net back and forth on the ground in a sideways S motion. After avoiding a bee that flies up at him, he continues to move the net, nabbing different types of insects. Once he stops netting insects and unfortunate arachnids, he forces the now-caught creepy-crawlies into the bottom pocket of his net before returning to the entomology lab. 

“Wow, look at all the different types of insects,” Holdahl said, pointing at the insects he dumped into a larger Ziplock bag from his net. “I think that’s a cucumber beetle… and look, that’s a striped cucumber beetle.”

A variety of beetles, flies, small bees, and grasshoppers mill around in the large Ziplock bag, which Holdahl eventually places in a freezer.

“This might have been one of my best hunting days yet,” Holdahl said.

Holdahl, a rural South Dakotan, spends around one to two hours every Saturday hunting for insects to add to his collection, which now represents around 11 orders of insects and 70 individual specimens. His collection even features the pirate bug (also known as the no-see-um). While he enjoys hunting, the collection is required for his Entomology and Pest Control class. The class, taught by professor Jeremy Hummel, is highlighted by the insect collection assignment.

Holdahl, like the eight others in his class, began collecting over the summer. While working at a plastics factory in Hospers, IA, one of his co-workers, a 30-year-old ex-crack addict with missing teeth, called Holdahl into the bathroom. There, a cicada killer the size of a small finger rested on the wall.

“I’m going to kill it,” the coworker said.

“No, I need it for my insect collection,” Holdahl said.

“Fine, I’ll just knock it out.” 

The coworker hit the cicada killer with a mop, knocking it to the ground. Holdahl pounced on the insect and placed it in a bag.

For others in the class, like Joseph Kamstra, insect collecting has turned into an interstate enterprise. The senior environmental studies major received two praying mantises in the mail from his mom in California. A mantis must be gutted before it is pinned in the collection box.

“You can’t understand insects and their role ecologically if you don’t have some concept of the diversity of insects,” Hummel said.

Photo Credit: Zac VanderLey

An insect collector himself, Hummel fell in love with entomology after he took the same course years ago from former agriculture professor Christian Goedhart. After Hummel completed the class, he continued collecting, identifying, and pinning insects in his spare time. This hobby led him to the master’s program at the University of Alberta. 

“It is almost like a mini-internship,” Hummel said.

A large part of the course focuses on the skill of identifying insects. Around 5.5 million different insect species exist according to the 2017 annual review of entomology. Other experts estimate as many as 30 million unique species of insects exist. 

“[God] has an inordinate fondness for beetles,” J.B.S. Halldane, an early twentieth century British evolutionary scientist said. While Halldane, given his lack of religion, meant his comment as an attempt to critique the idea of a designer, the multiple layers of armor protecting beetles’ wings; the different colors, sizes, and shapes of beetles; and the vast number of unique beetle species lead Hummel to deem the quote “profoundly ironic.”

On Oct. 8, Holdahl had planned on completing homework, but instead opted for a bike ride. As he passed the clocktower, he screeched to a halt, noticing a thin creature out of the corner of his eye: a brown mantis. He didn’t have a bag on him, so he ran into the Campus Center. They didn’t have any extra trash bags, so Holdahl ran back out to the mantis, took off his shirt, and wrapped the insect in the piece of clothing. Shirtless, Holdahl rode to and walked through the Science Building. And, entering the entomology lab (which smells perpetually of moth balls), Holdahl inspected his recent catch: all in a day’s work.

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