Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Beetlemania November 24, 2008 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 11/24/08

Michael Ivie is to beetles what Indiana Jones is to relics

A North American carrion beetle checks the air for hints of food. Beetles such as this one perform many ecosystem functions we take for granted. Photo by Derek Sikes
A North American carrion beetle checks the air for hints of food. Beetles such as this one perform many ecosystem functions we take for granted. Photo by Derek Sikes


Back from 10 days in the Caribbean, Michael Ivie's right knee barely works, and his feet are having their troubles.

The Montana State University entomologist who hiked across the Caribbean islands of Statia and Saba to collect insects groans as he rolls bags full of beetles down a university hallway. He moans as he opens the door to his laboratory.

"Hello, anybody home?" Ivie calls to two graduate students he knows must be there somewhere.

Hidden by metal cabinets, Crystal Maier and Katie Hopp are busy at their desks. Hopp, from Iowa, is revising a genus of West Indian beetles to include some 20 new species and deal with a dozen species that were described previously. Maier, from New Jersey, is studying a metallic wood-boring beetle that some hope will control rush skeletonweed,
a noxious weed.

"How was the trip?" Maier finally asks, joking later, "You should take young graduate students with you who don't get hurt

It's all about beetles

A world-renowned entomologist who specializes in beetles, Ivie, 54, came to MSU in 1985 and now works in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. Besides conducting his own research, he prepares the next generation of entomologists by teaching them how to identify and classify insects, involving them in research and including them on international excursions to collect beetles. Within two weeks of returning from the Caribbean, for example, Ivie would leave with Maier for Armenia and Turkey to look for a group of beetles that feed on rush skeletonwood. Ivie says all but one of his former graduate students are involved with insects, most professionally. Two are in faculty positions.

MSU houses two major entomological collections: the Montana Entomology Collection and Mike Ivie's West Indian beetle collection, which he started building as a young entomologist. Both are studied by scientists from around the globe because they reflect the rich biodiversity of their target regions.

Ivie is also curator of the Montana Entomology Collection, which is the largest and most diverse natural history museum in Montana. When it moved from Lewis Hall to Marsh Lab in 2004, the collection filled 3,000 drawers and contained more than 2 million specimens that had been curated and an equal number that waited to be mounted, identified and organized. It contains insects from every continent except Antarctica.

Six years before the move, Ivie and his wife Donna organized the popular "Insectennial" to celebrate 100 years of MSU entomology. They followed it two years later with Bug Fest 2000.

In a larger arena, Ivie is a fellow in the Royal Entomological Society of London. He has been president of both the Entomological Society of America and the Coleopterists Society, an international group devoted to beetles. He has raced around the world with treasure maps and clues to search for the "rarest of the rare to fill in gaps in the beetle tree of life. He has collected beetles in half the 25 areas that Conservation International has classified as global biodiversity hotspots. Much of his work has focused on one of those areas -- the West Indian islands in the Caribbean Sea.

"Why do all this travel?" he asks. "It's all about the beetles, just like Indiana Jones is all about the relics."


Lifting his luggage onto a counter and unzipping its compartments, Ivie pulls out a dirty net and a giant Ziploc bag. Inside the bag are plastic container after plastic container. Inside each are bags full of beetles floating in preservative. They, like Ivie, left St. Maarten at 7 a.m. the day before and landed at midnight at the Gallatin Field Airport. After the specimens are examined at MSU, many will become part of Ivie's West Indian collection. It's the world's largest beetle collection from the West Indian region and available to researchers from all over the globe who want to study its specimens. The collection, located in Ivie's laboratory, is different from the Montana Entomology Collection. "The islandic nature of this area makes an incredible evolutionary laboratory," Ivie said.

Ivie has worked in the Rocky Mountains for years. He has investigated the role of beetles after fires in Glacier National Park. He has determined which insects eat
Montanans' crops and which ones eat weeds. His work in the West Indies and around the world benefits Montanans, too, by providing basic scientific knowledge that lays
the foundation for discoveries in other fields. Beetles reflect the health of an ecosystem, and ultimately, the world, he says.

World-renowned beetleman



Ivie collects insects from vegetation using a beating sheet and aspirator. Photo by Derek Sikes.
Ivie collects insects from vegetation using a beating sheet and aspirator. Photo by Derek Sikes.

Ivie was one of four scientists invited by Conservation International, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia devoted to preserving biological diversity, to travel to the northeast part of the Caribbean in May to document the insects on the island of Saba. Another team member was David L. Wagner from the University of Connecticut. Wagner said Ivie is a highly recognized authority on Caribbean biogeography and Caribbean entomology; in fact he is a linchpin of knowledge about that region.

"Beetles are difficult to collect," Wagner said. "Many occur in really specialized habitats and in low numbers."

"Hello, anybody home?" Ivie calls to two graduate students he knows must be there somewhere.

Saba and Statia, also known as St. Eustatius, were the last two volcanic islands remaining for him to visit in the Leeward Islands, Ivie said. They're only 11 minutes apart by airplane, but that's far enough to give them separate ecosystems, he added. After traveling to Saba, Ivie traveled by himself to collect beetles on Statia.

While both are island paradises that attract tourists and adventurers, Ivie and his teammates bypassed the diving and museums on this trip, instead searching day and night for insects. They beat bushes, overturned rocks, peeled bark, examined fungus inside hiking huts and gingerly climbed up and down algae-covered steps.

"The glamour of going all these places is much overrated," Ivie said. "I went to the Caribbean for 10 days and never got into the sea. I spent most of the time filthy dirty, getting rashes, getting poked, falling down, sunburned."

Still, the results -- and the field that has fascinated him for the past four decades -- were worth it, Ivie said. In 24 hours alone, he figures he quadrupled the number of beetles known to live on Statia. During the rest of the trip, he saw the largest individual specimen he'd ever seen of one species. He learned that the evolutionary patterns among West Indian beetles are far more complex than he realized. He worked in environments that were unusual even for him.

An enormous crater in Statia, for example, holds a lush rainforest with trees taller than any he has seen in the West Indies, Ivie said. Protected from the hurricanes that seem to knock down trees elsewhere in the Caribbean every 50 years, the rainforest in the crater had time to grow a double canopy. The fertile soil that conceals its roots and beetles holds moisture even during the dry season.

Getting the bug for bugs

Ivie grew up far from the Caribbean, or Montana, in northern California, where his father taught seventh-graders, and his mother owned a variety store. At that time, Salida, Calif., was a small but diverse farming community in a county where Hershey made chocolate bars, Gallo turned grapes into wine, and farmers grew almonds and fruit. Ivie's wife of 34 years, Donna, grew up about six miles from him. It was in that environment that he got the bug for bugs, Ivie said. He was 12 years old and collecting insects for a 4-H project when he realized how intriguing they were. He decided to pursue bugs as a career after learning that people actually made a living studying insects.

"There's never a time when you don't have something more to learn. There's just such an endless variety of things," Ivie said of his field.

Derek Sikes, one of Ivie's former MSU graduate students who is now curator of insects at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks, and who was also on the Saba trip, said scientists have named more than 350,000 species of beetles, but the job is hardly finished. One out of every five species of organisms on Earth is a beetle, so there are "tons" left to describe. Beetles provide valuable insights into the health, age and complexity of an ecosystem, Sikes added.

Mike Ivie has raced around the world with treasure maps and clues to search for the "rarest of the rare" to fill in gaps in the beetle tree of life.

Ivie said basic research about beetles contributes to a variety of fields, such as agriculture, genetics, conservation, evolution and biodiversity.

"They are the intellectual high point of the universe, and all knowledge can be had via their study," Ivie said, tongue in cheek.

Ivie earned his bachelor's degree in entomology from the University of CaliforniaĂDavis in 1977, then worked for the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the University of California Cooperative Extension. In 1978, he moved to the West Indies to work two years as an Extension agent-in-charge and adjunct professor of agriculture at the College of the Virgin Islands, now the University of the Virgin Islands.

The islands and their beetles laid the foundation for the rest of his career, Ivie said. He had thought he would inventory all the insects in the Virgin Islands, but he quickly gave that up. A friend suggested he start with beetles, so he began with them and continued.

At the same time he was collecting insects, he learned the social skills he needed to work in the Caribbean. The islands may seem comfortably familiar to tourists, but the islanders have their own mores and culture, Ivie explained. In some ways, however, they remind him of his upbringing, when Salida had 600 people and his mom "had a set of eyes on every block."

Ivie left the West Indies in 1980 to attend graduate school at Ohio State University. He earned his master's degree in entomology there in 1982 and his doctoral degree in systematic entomology in 1985. He moved to Montana later that year and remains because he likes the state. "I have the perfect job for me," he said. "It's in the perfect place with perfect duties."

He also appreciates Montana's dry climate because it's good for preserving insects. He even appreciates Montana's winters.

"If you don't have winter, you don't have time to catch up," he said.

Ivie, who figures he has traveled to 50 countries so far, has had plenty of opportunities to return to the West Indies. He has been invited back next spring, for example, to continue collecting beetles. His research is funded by a variety of sources. The National Science Foundation is among those who fund his basic research. Conservation International pays him to study life in a particular location. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds projects that relate to invasive pests.

Entomology forever



The pine sawyer beetle is well-known to Montanans from forested regions. Photo by Derek Sikes.
The pine sawyer beetle is well-known to Montanans from forested regions. Photo by Derek Sikes.

A poisonous snake once bit Ivie in Russia. Ivie had a nasty fall in Malaysia. Injuries are so common that Donna routinely asks him for the latest report when he returns home, Ivie said. He has come to believe that past injuries will continue to bother him as he grows older.

But he has no plans to retire.

"You really don't know what you're doing in this field until you're 60," he explained.

Entomology is a field in which senior scientists are sought out and revered, even though he's not exactly comfortable with the thought of joining their ranks, Ivie said. Entomologists open their homes to entomologists they've never seen before. They can meet in one of the world's most remote places and feel like old friends.

"It's a dispersed community that's very tight," he said.

Scientists have named more than 350,000 species of beetles, but the job is hardly finished. One out of every five species of organisms on Earth is a beetle. Beetles provide valuable insights into the health, age and complexity of an ecosystem.

For that reason -- and because he continues to "find new things that are amazing, that nobody has seen before" -- he plans to keep traveling and continue seeking beetles, Ivie said. So far, Ivie said the research teams he has joined have found thousands of new species of beetles over the years. Wagner said the findings from Statia and Saba may end up in a virtual natural history museum. If Conservation International makes it happen, visitors won't go to a building, but they'll go to a Web site where they can see and examine specimens from around the world. As on Wikipedia, they'll be able to make comments and corrections to the site.

That will be an amazing accomplishment, but Ivie's longest legacy will be the actual specimens he has collected, Wagner said.

"I would hope Mike's specimens will be available to posterity for centuries," Wagner said. "They will be used almost like fossils."