Employee Q&A: 'Bug Man' Carl Olson

Employee Q&A: 'Bug Man' Carl Olson

By Alexis BlueUniversity Communications
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Carl Olson was bitten by bug love when he was knee-high to a grasshopper.
Carl Olson was bitten by bug love when he was knee-high to a grasshopper.
The occasional insect bite is just part of the job for Olson. A tarantula hawk like this one stung him when he got too close. (Photo courtesy of Olson)
The occasional insect bite is just part of the job for Olson. A tarantula hawk like this one stung him when he got too close. (Photo courtesy of Olson)

Carl Olson

Associate curator, assistant in extension and lecturer, department of entomology 

Number of years at the UA

Favorite part about working at the UA
"It's a lot of freedom to share a lot of neat knowledge with people."

To some, bugs are simply a source of the heebie-jeebies. But for Carl Olson, the creepy crawlies of the insect world are things to be respected and admired.

Dubbed the "Bug Man," Olson is curator of The University of Arizona entomology department's research insect collection, which has about 1 million specimens, representing thousands of species from Arizona and beyond.

As an assistant in extension, Olson works to educate the public on the benefits of bugs. He also fields thousands of insect inquiries every year from people trying to identify what's been bugging them.

A true insect advocate, Olson had a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face as he talked with Lo Que Pasa about his work with critters that make many people's skin crawl.

What does your job as curator of the insect research collection entail?
The curator is the one who maintains the collection (and does) upkeep. I work with all kinds of researchers that want to borrow things, so I will pull out material to let them use. I add to the collection, so part of the job is going into the field. ... So you got all these bugs and so you have to take care of them ... you have to identify different things, put them into the collection, organize it, updating the nomenclature. It's a never-ending job, really, because people keep studying and learning a little bit more.

How many insects are in the collection?
More than I have ever counted. We just say probably a million and a half, plus or minus. It's not like having a mammal collection or a bird collection where it's a finite thing. Insect populations are astronomical. ... I've got, within one unit tray sometimes, 150 (bugs).

What's the oldest bug in the collection?
Probably (from) the 1890s. We don't have a lot of old material, but there are a few. Probably most of our stuff is anywhere from the 1920s on, but the vast majority are probably (from) the 1950s.

Where do the bugs in the collection come from?
The vast majority of our stuff is (from) Arizona but we've had contributions and there've been people associated with the collection that collected in different parts of the United States and we've got things from Mexico. ... It was started as essentially learning about everything we've got in Arizona, insect-wise. My predecessor, Floyd Werner, was hired in the '50s to learn the insect fauna of Arizona and then in the early '70s ... I got hired as the staff assistant. So I came and started working and then the job just grew into what it's become today.

Is Arizona a "buggy" state?
Best place in the continental U.S. We've got every life zone, plus we get influence from the tropics in Mexico; we get Rocky Mountain influence. ... We have of course the Colorado Desert, we have the Sonoran ... so it's just masses of different habitats. In our collection we've probably got 15,000 (insect species) from Arizona, and most of our collecting has been done south of the (Mogollon) Rim, so there is a vast amount. I bet we don't even have half the (state's) species.

When did you first become interested in bugs?
When I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I really have always been interested in them. Most of us start out probably collecting butterflies, so as a little kid we lived out in the country in Ohio, and my brother was 10 years older and he was interested in it, so we'd go out and collect butterflies. ... I got into understanding metamorphosis, the growth and change that goes on, and I started finding the big silk moths. I'd find the caterpillars, and the caterpillars were just bizarre as all get-out. You rear them and then they spin cocoons and later out would come these fantastic moths. That one just stuck in (me) the miracle of nature. There are all kinds of different things that turn us on, but that one got me. Then in high school we had a biology teacher that had six weeks of biology just on insects, and I was like, "Wow, this is cool." And then we became competitive: Who could have the best collection? Then I just progressed on through college.

So I'm guessing you're not a bug spray guy?
Never use the stuff. Don't need to. The reality is even though we have the best place in the country for insect life, we really have so few insects that present any kind of problem that there's no reason for this (idea that) we have to have our house treated every month. ... The reality is, if we did the right maintenance on our buildings we wouldn't have all these problems. And now there's so much resistance in the insect world, the pesticides probably affect us worse than they do the bugs. ... I fight it every day because people want to kill everything instead of seeing what we can do to manage. So the biggest bug problem is people behavior. We try to educate the public and get away from the old idea that the only good bug is a dead bug. That's not right because insects are the building blocks for the rest of the world. If you get rid of the bugs, the world collapses.

Have you gotten any nasty bites or stings working with bugs?
Oh, I've been stung by scorpions; I've probably been bitten by kissing bugs, but I don't really respond to them; I've been bitten by some of the assassin bugs because of doing stupid things. When you're not paying attention, that's when you get in trouble. ... I've been stung by a tarantula hawk, those big orange-winged wasps that you may see flying around. They sound like a B-52 going over your head. Only because I was at a party with a bunch of other biologists and they caught one between two cups and they said, "Is this a male or a female?" And I'm looking and I can't see the things that I need to, and I'm holding the cup and all of a sudden I said, "It's a female," because she put her stinger out between the two cups and into my thumb. Luckily there was beer there to, first, dip my thumb in, and then to drink.

What's involved in the extension part of your job?
I give all kinds of talks ... teaching people more about insects and the benefits that they provide us, not the negatives. I do a lot with Master Gardeners (volunteer educators) around the state. ... I train a lot of different docents – Desert Museum, Tohono Chul, Saguaro National Park, Tucson Botanical Gardens, Audubon Society. Whoever does nature tends to want to do something about insects. 

You also do insect identification?
Right. I came (here) in '75 and one of the things we always talked about is that this is a public institution, the land-grant university. We should be sharing our knowledge and what we gain with the public. People would call, and I just started answering questions and we set up what we called the Insect ID Clinic, and then it became mine. I get all kinds of people that call with problems and to try to identify stuff. ... It just continues to grow each year. We get 3,500, 4,000 inquiries in a year and then with e-mail now, and digital cameras, people are always takings pictures and sending them in, (asking) "What is this?"

What courses do you teach?
I teach a taxonomy lab, so I teach people how to identify stuff; (it's) sort of tied in with the insect biology course. ... But most of my teaching gets done outside of formal courses.

Who gave you the name Bug Man?

Oh, I did that myself. I said, "Hey, you know everybody's doing these e-mail addresses that are just bah humbug, so I'll just be the ‘Bug Man.' " (Olson's e-mail address is bugman@ag.arizona.edu.)

Do you have a personal favorite bug?
No, I can't. There's too many neat things; there's so many great stories out there. People always want to know, but I can't have a favorite because they're all too cool, even the ones that bite, even the ones that sting. There's not a bad bug. So my mantra is, "There are no bad bugs, and there's no evil in nature."

Do you have a bug you want identified? Contact Olson at bugman@ag.arizona.edu or 621-5925 or 621-4137. It may be necessary to provide a sample in order to get an accurate identification.

Do you know someone who has an interesting job at the UA? Send his or her name and contact information to lqp@email.arizona.edu for consideration for a future Employee Q&A.

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