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One of my early passions in entomology was beetles, especially tiger beetles and scarabs.  I even thought to earn my master's degree at Bowling Green because there was a major professor who wanted me there to study carabids (which include tiger beetles now), but instead I stayed at the University of Arizona, where I continued studying spiders.  Still even then I could easily be induced to go on a field trip with a beetle collecting buddy (who was German) and often visited a retired Hungarian psychiatrist in Green Valley, who was also a beetle collector. Unfortunately both are dead now, but Karl and I spent a lot of interesting times together in the back country of Arizona sifting through moss, digging into dead wood, catching buprestid beetles on the wing and blacklighting at Willcox Playa and other areas around southeastern Arizona.  Rudolf, the Green Valley psychiatrist, had the neatest huge collection of beetles I had ever seen.  The beetles were all arranged exactly the same, with the legs and antennae just so - meticulously mounted. He eventually acquired my collection when I moved to Florida, and all of his, along with my tiny contribution, went to the Smithsonian upon his death.

Beetle collecting was fun and I throughly enjoyed sifting through wet moss, leaf-litter, bark and rocks to discover obscure species.  Black lighting at night and chasing tiger beetles during some awfully hot days was exciting. Karl and I went on several trips to Willcox Playa to set up our car battery-driven fluorescent UV lights near pools.  After setting up we would often scour the nearby cow droppings for dung beetles, especially the beautiful green and copper Phaneus vindex.  After dark we would find several tiger beetles attracted to the light including Cicindela pimeriana, C. nigrocoerulea,  C. ocellata, C. lemniscata, and C. maruthra. Latter, when I ventured out alone to blacklight at the playa I always seemed to draw the attention of a local sheriff deputy, who asked me what I was doing and shook his head when I told him!

Karl and I often frequented Arivaca Creek, where we looked for dryopid beetles in the riffles, and I also recall sifting leaf litter with him at Bear Wallow in the Santa Catalina Mountains. One day we set out to blacklight in the San Rafael Valley, east of Patagonia.  The day started out promising.  At Patagonia we discovered a black-tailed rattlesnake crossing the road and stopped to make sure it got across alive.  It was not happy with us, but we got it moved.  We then proceeded across the hills to the lush valley on the other side. After we had set up, the weather deteriorated rapidly and in a driving rain we took down our lights and drove back to Tucson. The roads near the Canelo Hills were slick and it seemed like every rattlesnake in southeastern Arizona was out on the road, possibly because of flooding!  Karl was swerving all over the muddy tracks and I really wondered if we would make it back, but we did.  We also stripped bark from dead trees in Reddington Pass, looked for roosting buprestid beetles in Pima Canyon and blacklighted in Madera Canyon, where I met the darkling beetle specialist from Ohio State, Charles Triplehorn, who was also the co-author of the textbook "Introduction to the Study of Insects" in its later editions. The trips I made with Karl were glorious. Toward the end of my stay in Tucson Karl's time was taken up with his cancer-stricken wife and so our association ended on a sad note.

My association with Rudolf was also interesting, but in the end unhappy. After I had left Tucson I heard that he and his wife had died tragically at their home.  His beetle collection was magnificent, even given the loss of an earlier collection to the communist government of Hungary. He told me that he had been impressed to be the medical examiner for the Soviet Army during the Revolution, had finally escaped Hungary and settled in New York.  His beetle collection, of over 175,000 specimens filled a whole room of pristine wooden cabinets. Each and every beetle had been arranged exactly the same.  For a while Rudolf had lived in Cameroon and his walls were decorated with native art and preserved Gabon vipers. I knew that he had a heart condition and then his wife developed terminal cancer after I had left Tucson.   It was a tragic end.  The collection was sent to the Smithsonian and I later got an inquiry from Dr. Triplehorn about a tenebrionid beetle I had collected in Baja Sur years before that had been included.

Prior to my move to Tucson I did my beetle collecting alone.  As I did not yet have an automobile I biked up to Prison Hill on the north side of Yuma and searched for tiger beetles along the muddy Colorado River.  Under the looming presence of the gray walls and guard tower and below the prisoner's cemetery I used my aerial net to snare the elusive beetles. On another instance I hunted beetles just above San Luis Rio Colorado, while small groups of Mexicans moved up and down the nearly dry river bed between Sonora, Baja California Norte and Arizona.  There seemed to be no barriers at all in the 1960s!

As I wrote this I felt a flood of joy associated with those beautiful days in the wild areas of the Southwest, from the Colorado River to the Chiricahua Mountains. The glory of finding a brilliant scarab under a pile of dung or chasing a metallic tiger beetle over the muddy bank of a river.  I am not as interested in catching insects and spiders these days, having pretty much given up my net and beating sheet for a 105 mm macro on a Nikon digital camera, but I cannot help being nostalgic for the field trips into the wilderness with like-minded people or alone. It kept me sane during some otherwise difficult parts of my life, as astronomy had kept me sane in the teenage years.  In a sense I think my experience was similar to Jane Goodall's (except she did not have the insane parents) as she expressed about her rather personal relationship to trees in a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine (March 2013, pp. 74-84).  I tried to stick to a strictly scientific view and I was successful, but underneath I knew the truth that I had a deep and abiding love for and a kinship with all things wild.  It took me many years to actually admit that I was really a tree hugger, but I am and that is not going to change.

Beetle collecting was in many ways just an excuse to get out in the wild country.  I still have a feeling of peace when I think of those days and nights of sheer bliss as I explored the biodiversity of beetles in the back country of Arizona.      

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Mon Mar 25, 2013 at 04:45 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science and SciTech.

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