Author, teacher and bioregionalist, Stephanie Mills offers readers another in her series of essays on natural resource experts and their work in Northern Michigan. In this engaging profile, Nature Change readers get to know entomologist, Erwin “Duke” Elsner. (Thanks to Crystal Dailey for this story’s feature image.).
It was a fine May day at the Leelanau Conservancy’s De Young Natural Area when I arrived to meet star entomologist Erwin “Duke” Elsner for a ramble. At home in agricultural as well as natural landscapes, the affable Elsner, just retired from the Michigan State University Extension, wears his expertise comfortably. He’s a born bugmeister, consulting, teaching college entomology, doing research, leading walks, writing newspaper articles, contributing to professional journals, and giving countless informal talks. Getting people interested in and knowledgeable about insect life is now a critical mission. Science is telling us that between ten and forty percent of the world’s insect species may go extinct over the next few decades. Agricultural intensification, insecticide use, and habitat destruction drive these extinctions.
Elsner has a specialty in the easy-to-love Lepidoptera—butterflies and moths. He’s also conversant with the slightly less lovable Coleoptera and will teach “Meet the Beetles Up Close” this fall, a class for NMC’s Northern Naturalist program. That spring day beetles were our quarry.
As an MSU Extension small fruit and consumer horticulture educator who taught Integrated Pest Management, Elsner spent some time instructing farmers in the correct application of pesticides. He also spent decades encouraging gardeners and homeowners to plant for pollinators. Tirelessly he coaxes the general public, from kindergarteners to service club members, to understand and marvel at, if not love insects.
Elsner’s own fascination with insects began when he was a toddler investigating beetles in the sandbox. Hailing from Stevensville, Michigan, he did farm work as a boy, and was a teenage technician in the Entomology Department at MSU, where he subsequently got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. With a doctorate from Penn State, Elsner’s early career took him to New Jersey and Washington state before landing him here in 1990. Out of harness, he’s got a slew of scientific endeavors on his post-retirement agenda, among them some entomological surveys in regional nature preserves. Such work, he said, is “more fun than I should be allowed to have and still do something good for someone.”
The Arthropod Phylum, everyone wearing some kind of outside skeleton, includes the Insect Class. Insecta is a vast class. Within it the Coleoptera are Earth’s largest single order of creatures. The British scientist J.B.S. Haldane famously, if apocryphally, remarked that what could be inferred about the Creator from a study of His works was “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”
About four hundred thousand beetle species are known; doubtless thousands of nondescript others await study. Three hundred million years ago ancestral beetles developed a durable form. “Life in armor,” says one author, “is a basic attribute of Coleoptera.” With two sets of wings, hard outer elytra shielding a delicately veined and folded inner pair, beetles may not be great fliers, but are mobile enough to escape or disperse. With chewing mouthparts that in many species are strong enough to break down tough substances like bark or carcasses, Coleoptera find niches and render ecosystem services in all terrains.
“Beetles will be everywhere, but cryptic,” Elsner said as we hit the asphalt trail. Since, like most insects, beetles go through metamorphosis, their grubs or pupae can be almost anywhere there’s organic matter to feed or shelter them. Shovelfuls of soil can harbor hundreds of them and other arthropods feeding on yet other life forms. They’re ubiquitous creatures, but can be difficult to find. Quite a few beetles are nocturnal. At the outset of our walk, we did meet a scarabeid, a beautiful little relative of the June beetle, in an iridescent velour coat but his kindred weren’t exactly besieging us.
By a beetle-killed ash Elsner paused, saying there could be one kind of beetle feeding on its roots, another on the bark, another on the twigs, and another munching on fungus in the crumbling heartwood. That’s a lot of biodiversity, life coming out of death, as it will. Then a wild grapevine with a little swelling around part of its stem caught his eye. It might house a Grape Cane Gall Maker beetle larva. Looking closely, we saw a partly healed exit hole. Whatever critter had matured in the grape stem had chewed its way out and gone on. But someone, a chickadee perhaps, had stashed a sunflower seed in the tiny crevice.
Some beetles like the Plum Curculio Beetle, a weevil, are agricultural pests, taking advantage of monocultural plantations to damage fruit crops. Others, like the exotic Emerald Ash Borer and the dread Asian Longhorn Beetle have decimated or threaten the region’s forests. Elsner’s Nature Change article “The Emerald Ash Borer Took More Than Shade” (May 16, 2016) reckons up some of the losses. “A chain of events comes along with a thing like that,” he said.
The vast majority of insects don’t impinge on human purposes. “Only tiny fractions are significant problems,” said Elsner. As for the rest, it’s probable that “somebody eats it and somebody might be relying on it. We need healthy populations to keep the ecosystem going.” Many beetles are helpful predators. The Twice-Stabbed Lady Beetle, for instance, likes to prey on scale insects. Alas, it’s got a more than it can eat buffet in the scale insect that’s opening beech trees to a killing fungal infection.
Elsner spotted a firefly, which is a beetle. But since the Coleoptera weren’t parading themselves, he swept his net through the trailside underbrush, bagging a flea beetle and a click beetle. Though minuscule, the flea beetle has brawny hind legs, on which it promptly sprung away. The click beetle belongs to a family that’s evolved a body structure to flip themselves off their backs with an audible click. despite some dexterous prodding ours refuses to perform this trick.
A little blue butterfly flitted past. A northern spring azure? It might also be a cherry gall azure butterfly, so named for its food preference. Identification can turn on precise details of observation and accuracy matters, but not to put too fine a point on it, said Elsner “They’re pretty, that’s what they are.”
From the Twice-Stabbed Lady Beetle to the firefly and all the other members of that vast and varied phylum, “Nature pretty much revolves around arthropods,” Elsner says, “as well as plants.” They’ve had eons of coevolution, and we civilized latecomers to the landscape would do well to take a friendly interest in their fate, inseparable from our own. The recent UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services points to accelerating, unprecedented extinction rates as a direct threat to human well-being in all parts of the world. To arrest this downward spiral, says the UN, “transformational change”—a metamorphosis of civilization—is needed.
Back at the parking lot near the old barn, sparrows in the shrubs were trilling, and swallows were scything around overhead. Those birds need to catch hundreds of insects a day to feed their young, said Elsner. At places like the De Young Natural Area where preserving, protecting, connecting, and regenerating areas of wild and open land, and shifting towards agroecological food production all are modeled, there’s a metamorphosis beginning, and insects are integral.