CLEARWATER TRIBUNE HOME
JUNE 10, 2010
Sawyer Burch, who will be in the second grade in Orofino and Benjamin Allbrett who will be in first grade in Boise, were delighted to meet Richard Whitten (l to r) in his home and hold elephant beetles, scorpions and other creepy-crawlies from Central and South America. Whitten frequently gives talks and presentations on his life’s work to children, civic groups, and schools.
I’m crazy about bugs, well almost
By Alannah Allbrett
“Alannah, will you do a story
on Richard Whitten; he is being honored for the large bug collection he has
donated to the
I told her if I had
nightmares in the middle of the night, after seeing “beetles big as coffee cups”
and other odd creatures he is reported to have, she was the person I was going
to call. I HATE
Richard Whitten graciously agreed to talk with me last week. (Darn! I was dreading it.) Saved by the bell; the election returns came in late, and we at the paper were frantically putting the results together in time to get them to press. Thank you voters!
But, Monday always comes. I took two grandkids with me for courage and as a buffer between me and the devil insects I was sure to see. I knew the kids would have real enthusiasm for the project, whereas I could generate none. We were invited into the Whitten home which was lovely – real art on the walls, normal furniture, and not a bug in sight. I introduced the boys, and Richard handed them some mounted bugs in glass frames. I stood at a distance as they happily handled beetles, scorpions and other critters. He said there wasn’t much he could show them, as most of his work is in his recently donated collection. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back on the sofa with the nearest threat – a Dachshund lounging on the back of the couch. ‘I can do this,’ I told myself.
As a kid in
Whitten majored in chemistry and biology in college, and he has been collecting bugs since he was five years old. I asked if he is offended by someone referring to his creatures as ‘bugs.’ (I’ve heard scientists can be touchy.) He good-naturedly said, “Not at all,” and went on to tell me about the differences between Arthropods (invertebrate animals with jointed appendages and hard exoskeletons), beetles (Coleoptera), butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera); flies (Diptera) – two winged creatures which may bite but won’t sting a person, and wasps, bees and some ants (Hymenoptera) – 4 winged which may sting if they’re in the mood. He pointed out that there is a class of bugs which are properly called bugs – such as the stink bug (Hemiptera).
My sympathies were with his wife, Margaret. I wondered how any sane woman
could live with seeing these things in her house each day. Turns out, she went
with him to all these tropical, jungle places as a partner and co-worker. And
she enjoyed it! With their three children grown, Richard and his wife Margaret
have spent 15 years together in places like
Richard can claim owning the world’s largest, private collection of arthropods which is a collection of over a million specimens. (That’s a lot of pins and bug cases!) Richard said that it is a good hobby for the very near-sighted, because one can take off one’s glasses, and study a bug really close up to examine it and be able to see it clearly. (I’m very nearsighted, but the thought has never occurred to me. Typically, I hit a spider with the work-end of a broom, turn my head to the side and deposit it outside if it cooperates in the mayhem.)
When I asked Richard how he
and his wife met, he told me that originally, Margaret came from
After 15 years of this bug
collecting and filming stuff, Richard said they missed having their family
around them. They came to Orofino in 2007 to be near their daughter, Loren
Whitten-Kaboth, in Pierce. They also have a son, Richard Jr., in
The Whittens moved to
The university has promised
the collection would be protected for all time – which requires a lot of upkeep,
and that it would be on public display for educational purposes, and for
everyone to enjoy. Working in conjunction with Lewis Clark State College, the
In his career studying
insects, Richard enjoyed meeting and knowing some of the most respected
biologists in the world. One of his most admired influences is Dr. Edward O.
Wilson, Professor Emeritus of
Richard almost made me want
to travel to a rainforest as he described the amazing beauty – of the brightly
colored, vivid flowers, of the lush greenery, of the Toucans and monkeys which
he said was “beyond imagining – like a real
Richard said, “Let me tell you about my favorite insect.” (I thought, ‘Oh boy, here it comes.’) It is the fire beetle (Pyrophorus) which, when turned upside down, has the power to right itself by flipping up in the air like all click beetles do. He said it exerts the most powerful G-force known in nature and flips several feet off of the ground. (That’s kinda cool, I thought.)
He went on to say it has two
green lights that look like eyes on the neck portion (thorax). The bug can turn
them on or off and up and down like a rheostat switch. Get this: by holding a
fire beetle in one’s hand, Richard said, one can read for several hours by the
light produced by the bug. (Okay, now I’m getting interested – as long as
someone else holds it for me.) Richard said that emergency surgery has been
performed, at night, in the jungles of
Need sutures after that surgery? They’ve got an insect for that too. [Don’t read further if you’re squeamish.] The large sharp mandibles, which look like ice tongs, of the male army ant can close down around a wound. They pull the bug away, ripping its head off, and the mandibles act as staples. They can suture a gaping would with several of these.
So, if seeing tropical birds,
rainforests and a few million leaf cutter ants with houses bigger than yours is
for you, get yourself down to
I viewed photographs of some of his butterflies and insect displays. I was surprised and delighted to see that the layouts were as visually intricate and beautiful in design as mandalas. Being a fan of graphic materials, I found the presentation as beautiful as the insects themselves. (Okay, I jumped up and and ran when he brought up the spiders.)
This interesting man, who was a curious boy with a microscope and telescope, says that rarely does a day go by without him looking through the lens of both of these instruments. He says it gives him perspective and keeps him in touch with his place in the universe. He has never lost his curiosity or his sense of wonder.
For more information about “bazaar, big, beautiful bugs,” visit Richard’s website: www.biophotos.com. He said it is not totally up-to-date, but it has many interesting bits including a story about his dog named Toby, who loved to sing the Costa Rican National Anthem accompanied by Richard on the accordion.