Trying to spread the love for bugs

A UM entomologist is known for his insect lore.

August 13, 2005|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Professor Mike Raupp is close to his subject of scholarly study. Very close. When a fiercely buzzing bee lands on a flower beside him, he leans over to pet it.

"A sweet bumblebee," he says, stretching out a finger to stroke its fuzzy yellow back.

The bee, fortunately, doesn't seem to mind. Then again, Raupp doesn't have an ordinary mortal's fear of getting stung. He's a fan of spiders. He collects strange beetles. He lets mosquitoes bite him. He considers bumblebees "docile" and likes to play with a scary-looking "assassin bug" on his office desk.

Raupp, 53, is not your typical academic at the University of Maryland. He's the "Bug Guy."

A respected entomologist, with more than 25 years of research to his credit and three major studies under way in his university lab, Raupp has chaired the department, won teaching awards and served on lots of faculty committees.

The scientist, though, is better known as a witty raconteur of insect lore.

Ever since last summer's cicada invasion, when he donned a "Brood X" T-shirt and gave almost 100 newspaper, radio and television interviews, Raupp has wowed audiences.

He appears regularly on national television networks. This summer, he made the rounds to talk about mosquitoes and ticks; in July, CNN filmed a segment in which he demonstrated how to ward off biting insects with nonchemical repellants.

Eager to popularize his passion, Raupp also recently started a "Bug of the Week" column on the university's Web site. (This week's is the monarch butterfly.) The site has seen a tenfold increase in hits since his column went up in May, he says.

"You can watch somebody on television chase big animals in exotic places," Raupp says. "Insects provide the same thing."

"They give the average citizen, the average parent and child, a reason to go out and enjoy nature in their backyard," he adds. "They can see all of it: hunting, stalking, predator-prey relationships, evolutionary relationships, the danger of stinging insects. ... It's an extravaganza."

Raupp is full of anecdotes about the good, bad and ugly of the bug world. Take the elegant praying mantis. The female hooks up with a male partner, and then bites off his head.

Or the six-spotted green tiger beetle, which Raupp featured in his inaugural column. Sure, the beetle has a striking emerald mantle. But she's a killer, stalking small flies and spiders, and then tearing apart their limbs.

Even the ladybug, so popular with children, can be cruel. The shiny red beetle protects plants by crunching struggling aphids for lunch. Watching it, Raupp says, is not pretty. In fact, it's a good test to see whether a hopeful student has the stomach to be an entomologist.

His fascination with insects, born during a carefree childhood in rural New Jersey, can be contagious, according to his colleagues and his wife, Paula Shrewsbury, a fellow entomologist at the university.

Shrewsbury describes her husband, a father of three who took up snowboarding a few years ago to keep up with his teenagers, as "a live wire." He calls a buggy summer "fantastic" and acknowledges that his stories are "so crazy, nobody knows if I'm kidding or not."

"He's very good at taking things about basic biology and making it fun," Shrewsbury says.

Part of Raupp's job is to educate not only tuition-paying students, but also the public.

Raupp is one of the university's extension agents, who give advice to farmers, botanists, arborists and landscape contractors. He is part of a team with Integrated Pest Management, which promotes diversified planting and other natural methods to control pests.

Chemicals are still used; as much as Raupp likes insects, he does help "people figure out clever ways to kill them" when necessary.

As a young professor, Raupp distinguished himself as a sought-after speaker, says Charlie Mitter, chairman of the entomology department. Entomologists can be seen as ivory tower elitists - butterfly collectors - or pest-control proponents who help farmers eradicate crop-eaters.

Raupp is part of a new generation that fits neither stereotype. He has "this little-boy wonder" about him, Mitter says, exhibiting the same boyish delight about his research - or last year's cicada emergence - as he did as a 9-year-old exploring the fields and woods outside his family home in Randolph, N.J.

As an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, Raupp thought he would become a molecular biologist. Later, at Rutgers University, Raupp wanted to be a veterinarian. He eventually chose bugs instead of dogs.

"Here were grown men in tennis shoes running around with bug nets. What could be better?" he says.

Perhaps his life's work was preordained by his German heritage: his last name is a derivative of raupe, or caterpillar. No matter the reason, his profession proved the right fit. He quickly earned a master's degree at Maryland and then wrote his dissertation on the rapacious but gorgeous willow-leaf beetle.

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