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 University of Costa Rica?” my boss said to me. I suggested asking him to come down to the paper for an interview. I figured that way I would not have to look at all the bugs which I was sure covered his house from the top floor to the basement. “Well,” she tactfully pointed out, “We want the whole story and to get some pictures of the bugs.”

   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 BUGS!

   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 Louisiana, where his father was a biologist and his mother a teacher, Richard Whitten was surrounded by science. He said his home was like a “lab,” and he always had telescopes, microscopes, and chemistry equipment around him. He grew up drawing the positions of stars and thought it was normal to learn about bugs.

   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).

Richard Whitten, noted Biologist from Orofino (on the right) with his mentor and friend Dr. Edward O. Wilson, Professor-Emeritus from Harvard University (left).   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 Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua, largely “filming spiders the size of fleas and turning them into pictures the size of cows,” as he puts it. Richard encourages people to film rather than collect bugs unless it’s for scientific reasons. (I heartily agree with that philosophy.)

   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 Scotland. They were married on Halloween in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He jokingly said if one is to marry an alien (her residency status), it should be on Halloween.

   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 Boise, and another daughter, April, in Sonoma, CA.

Richard Whitten displaying the honorary award presented to him by the University of Costa Rica in San Jose, Costa Rica for his generous donation of the world’s largest privately owned collection of arthropods which he has been collecting since the age of five.   The Whittens moved to Costa Rica at the invitation of Dr. David Roubik, a scientist with The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He is the world’s foremost expert on bees (another job I would decline). They recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica where they visited their two museums which house much of his collection. While there, they decided to donate Richard’s favorite specimens to the University of Costa Rica which has promised to build a building especially to house them.

   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 University of Costa Rica will loan some of the more spectacular specimens so that Richard has access to them to give educational talks and show others some of his remarkable collection. 

   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 Harvard University (see photo). Richard said one will find this man’s name in most any article written along this subject. His most noted work is a book on ants.  I asked what the title of the book was, and Richard said, Ants. (Why didn’t I think of that?)

   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 Jurassic Park.”  He told of giant elephant beetles (Megsoma Elephas) that Costa Rican children play with as toys. They tie a piece of string around one and fly it like a model airplane, and it will stay airborne as long as one holds onto the string. The bug also makes a loud buzzing sound like a model airplane. (Sounded kinda fun, if I do say so myself.)  He warned that “batteries are not included.” 

   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 Panama using several fire beetles in a jar. (Sign me up for that!)

   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 Costa Rica, or visit your local Entomologist, Richard Whitten, to hear and see one of his informative presentations. He said he could easily take all day to tell other stories about his fascinating bugs.

   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: 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.