BOZEMAN – Searching for the longhorn beetles of Montana has transformed Charles Hart into a night stalker who pursues his prey with nets, traps and a crowbar.
The 33,000-mile quest over three summers has also turned the Montana State University graduate student into a published author and demonstrated that undergraduate research can foster success, said MSU entomologist Michael Ivie.
Hart was an MSU undergraduate in biology when he joined the Montana Wood-Boring Insect Survey, a joint effort of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, Montana Department of Agriculture and USDA-APHIS. Now working on his master’s degree in entomology, Hart recently published two papers about his findings in the scientific journal “Coleopterists Bulletin.”
“It’s always exciting publishing for the first time,” Hart said.
Hart continues to search for longhorn beetles and will soon be assisted by five 4-H’ers and other interested Montanans who can refer and report to a new website being developed by James Beck, a 2012 MSU graduate in computer science. The 4-H’ers, all working on entomology projects in their clubs, live in Custer, Fergus, Lewis and Clark, and Petroleum counties.
“I started out in 4-H entomology, so it’s kind of come full circle,” Ivie said.
Hart’s work has also spawned a similar project on the metallic wood-boring beetles of Montana. Kayla Arend of Rochester, Minn. -- an MSU senior minoring in entomology -- said she should be ready later this summer to submit her findings for publication.
Longhorn beetles and metallic wood-boring beetles are two types of wood-boring beetles that live in Montana, Ivie said. Wood-boring beetles include both native Montanans who grew up in rotten logs and outsiders who arrived in wood pallets or firewood, and they all eat wood. The emerald ash borer, for example, is a metallic wood-boring beetle that eats ash trees that have been introduced from Asia to the U.S. Midwest. If an infestation occurs in Montana, the borer could destroy the look and feel of Montana towns where most of the shade is provided by native ash. Bozeman’s “forest” is 60 to 80 percent ash.
Wood-boring beetles kill trees by eating the cambium layer between the bark and the wood, thus preventing water and nutrients from reaching the leaves.
The goal of Hart’s work is to identify the longhorn beetles that are now present in Montana, making it easier to spot invasive species and take early action, Ivie said. Hart has documented 151 species so far, including the first report of an invasive that is newly arrived in the state. That’s 55 more than recorded previously, but information from a statistical analysis of the data indicates that Montana could still have another 29 species that haven’t been documented.
Longhorn beetles are relatively well-known throughout North America, but gaps of knowledge exist in areas that have been poorly collected, Ivie said. He added that no one else has conducted the comprehensive survey of Montana that Hart is.
“It’s a matter of boots on the ground,” Ivie said.
Noting that Montana is still a frontier when it comes to documenting some of its fauna, Hart said he has been interested in bugs since he was a boy growing up in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He didn’t become serious about them until he took an introductory course from MSU entomologist Kevin O’Neill, however. He then decided to minor in entomology and started working for Ivie. He eventually obtained funding from MSU’s Undergraduate Scholars Program to conduct research under Ivie’s supervision.
Hart’s project has taken him into the Montana Entomology Collection, which is housed at MSU and curated by Ivie, and the private collection of James Cope of Ennis, Hart said. That alone gave him 8,631 Montana specimens. The project has also taken him on back roads, through forests and into every county of Montana.
Sometimes working alone, sometimes with a partner, Hart has an assortment of traps that let him capture beetles whether they crawl on the ground, fly high or aim for the middle. He sometimes catches beetles with a net. Other times, he finds them by using his crowbar to pry the bark off of rotting logs.
“It’s a lot of running around woods at night,” Hart commented.
Arend’s project – also funded by the Undergraduate Scholars Program – has her making a checklist of all the metallic wood-boring beetles in Montana. For that, she is identifying and double-checking identifications of beetles from the Montana Wood-Boring Beetle project in the Montana Entomology Collection, as well as three private and several other museum collections that were loaned to the researchers.
She, too, has been fascinated by insects ever since she was little, Arend said. In fact, she often had bruised fingers, smashed hands and missing fingernails from lifting and dropping the heavy rocks that hid the biggest bugs. Still intrigued today, she said, “Insects are fascinating because they are alien-like creatures.”
Arend and Hart both said they enjoy research.
“It’s kind of like a puzzle,” Arend said. “I really like that aspect of being able to figure things out.”
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org