By Fred Dickey Published January 28, 2012
It’s a good day when you can talk to a fellow who knows a lot about that which you know nothing, but always wanted to know something. Take insects, about which my ignorance is unchallenged — and chances are, yours is, too. That makes Dave Dyer a go-to guy.
Dyer knows as much about bugs as your nosiest neighbor knows about you. He knows when they go to bed and when they wake up. He knows what they eat and when. He knows how they treat their partners and the behavior of their offspring. And he knows as much about their sex lives as that snoop next door can only speculate about yours.
When you’re called “bug man,” the title may not cause envy to erupt, but it does suggest a certain cachet that gives weight to your opinion about crawly things.
Dave Dyer, 90, is a retired entomologist with a twinkle in eyes that are starting to fail him and a sense of humor that sneaks up and tickles you. As one who has spent many hours peering at the underside of leaves, he is at the opposite end of the personality alphabet from Type A.
Dyer lost his wife of 62 years in 2007 to a heart attack, and now he spends time in his Carlsbad condo with family pictures, books, memories that stir in the evening and a willingness to make others more aware of the small world that scatters at their feet, scales the trees and buzzes around their heads.
Dyer smiles with satisfaction as he watches a child gingerly pick up a squirmy insect from the trail and proudly thrust it toward him. The bug had escaped his cloudy gaze, but now Dyer looks at it expertly under his magnifying glass. It is beautifully colored in reds and blues that make the brightly spotted ladybug look like a wallflower at a beetle dance. He touches the insect and identifies it as a harlequin bug.
He tells the child that the bug’s bright colors say to birds: “If you eat me, you’re going to get a stomachache.” He also tells the youngster that the bug won’t bite because it sucks its food, especially from garden vegetables to which it can do more damage than a wrecking ball in a shopping center.
Volunteering to lead groups at Carlsbad’s Batiquitos Lagoon and other nature centers brings Dyer into contact with schoolchildren, who help keep him young.
Russ Whitman is a volunteer leader at the Batiquitos Nature Center. He’s known Dyer for more than 10 years and has watched him interact with visitors young and old. “There’s no better guy to explain nature and pass on what he knows. He’s so patient with kids. He makes them comfortable with him and the surroundings. He makes everyone aware of things in nature that they’d never see.”
Dyer traces his interest in entomology back to his beginnings. “My kindergarten teacher had us take caterpillars and feed them and watch them turn into butterflies. And I’ve been doing it ever since. (Naturalist) Rachel Carson said people who study the mysteries and marvels of nature are never bored or despondent.”
He took a degree in entomology at UC Berkeley after World War II Navy service, then joined the agriculture department of Los Angeles County from which he eventually retired as deputy commissioner.
He has nurtured friendly relations with leggy friends that you and I would never pick up, but for which we have a fascination.
Dyer loves to talk about ants, and he begins by quoting an Ogden Nash couplet — The ant has made himself illustrious / Through constant industry industrious — that I’m sure hundreds of North County schoolchildren have heard during nature walks with him.
He first talks about the velvet ant, which would give other ants a bad name except it isn’t one. The female is a crawling member of the wasp family, with such a nasty sting that other wasps probably avoid her company and worry about their own reputation.
“If the velvet ant stings you,” Dyer says, “you won’t die, but you might wish you did for a while.
Dyer says he’s discovered three of the flying and harmless male species of velvet ants that were new to science.
He is also sort of a war correspondent of the battle between the small, black Argentine ant and the larger red harvester ant, which isn’t a battle at all. “When I was a kid in the ’30s, my brother and I would go out to watch the ant wars. Man, the little black ants would be all over the big red ones.”
The result is that the harvester ant has virtually disappeared from coastal areas. The Argentine ant is a foreign intruder from more than a century ago that has taken over wherever it has dug in. They aren’t hard to find, Dyer says, because they’re the ones who invite themselves to your picnic and kitchen.
I ask what might be a stupid question, but that’s never bothered me. “Do insects think?”
It’s not stupid to Dyer. “That would be debatable. In general, no. They’re tiny computers. Data is fed to them, and they react accordingly. They don’t need to figure it out: They smell a host and they react. I think they’re little robots.”
Some know danger, he says. The honeybee, for instance, emits an alarm hormone. If you start flailing around, the bee gets frightened, it emits the hormone and the rest of the bees will make you regret it.
I tell him I once saw a cockroach dropped into a large container with a tarantula. Even though they were two feet apart, and out of sight of each other, you could see the cockroach react in panic. Somehow, the cockroach knew it was in deep doo-doo. And it turned out that he wasn’t wrong.
“All insects receive data somehow,” Dyer says. “Antennae are one of the main ways of getting information to the insect. I don’t know how a butterfly finds a host plant, for example. A butterfly flies over a citrus tree, and somehow, something emitted from that plant tells it to ‘stop here.’ ”
Why do people view insects negatively? “Well, we don’t often see the good they do, and they’re sometimes a problem to people,” Dyer says. “If you have lice or are bitten by fleas or ticks, pretty soon you get to where you’re leery of them. … In general, people assume that (unfamiliar) insects are going to be harmful. In reality, very few of them are.”
You can couple good people with almost any subject, and if they want to serve others with the knowledge they’ve gained, they’ll find a way. And if the subject is the insects that surround and actually dominate our world, well, then, Dave Dyer is your bug man.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]
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