Every Monsoon Season, Bug Enthusiasts Take Arizona By Storm

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Monday, October 12, 2015 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, July 27, 2018 - 3:19pm
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(Photo courtesy of Margarethe Brummermann)
A tree cricket in the Santa Rita Mountains.
(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
A small part of Brummermann's beetle collection.

Two black lights and a white sheet set the stage for dozens of iridescent, multi-colored bodies flying and crashing into each other.

This isn’t a performance by ballet dancers, or a modern art installation. This is all happening on the micro level.

The scene is directed by Margarethe Brummermann, an entomologist and beetle collector who moved to Tucson from Germany some years ago. Now, she leads bug tours around the Southwest where she goes in depth on what kinds of bugs end up on the white sheet.  

She points out different species, including bombardier beetles and a wasp the size of a palm that has one of the most painful stings in the world.

“In America a lot of people are grossed out by beetles or by bugs in general, and we are trying to change that,” she said.

Brummermann is part of a growing group of bug enthusiasts who take Arizona by storm when the monsoon season hits, mostly because of the diversity of bugs in the state.

Arizona, she said, is a mecca for bug collectors.

“We have, geologically, like a scrambled area,” she said. “We have limestone; we have sandstone, so we have sediment; we have volcanic stuff, and everything is very close to each other. Every soil, when it erodes, becomes a different habitat, basically, with different plants and then, of course, different insects.”

The monsoon brings the rain; the rain brings the bugs, and the bugs bring the bug collectors who, Brummermann said, are livelier than you might think bug people would be.

“We may seem a little weird even, but among each other we are very social,” she said.

Social to the point of even holding bug-themed parties. 

“We have one at the beginning of the monsoon — 'The Beetle Bash,' and another one in the middle of the monsoon, called 'Infestation,'” Brummermann said, laughing.

Arizona Bug Collecting Is Like 'Auditory Birdwatching'

One well-known name in the bug-partying crowd is Justin Schmidt, an entomologist at the University of Arizona.

“We have this great migration, you know some people think, ‘Oh it’s a good time to migrate out of Arizona,’ oh no, not for entomologists,” he said.

He created his own sting index and coming in at the top of the charts is the enormous wasp Brummermann saw earlier: the tarantula hawk.

It has a ferocious, time-stopping sting.

“I call it analogous to standing underneath a high voltage power line during a wind storm and the wind breaks the line and it comes cascading down and lands on you, it’s just an electrifying, absolutely debilitating, shocking experience," Schmidt said. 

Schmidt’s and his colleagues’ experiences with bug watching in Arizona aren’t always so painful, though.

“But it’s really quite fun,” he said. “It’s like getting together with your old cousins that you haven’t seen in a while. You just get to tell stories and adventures of what we’ve done out in the field and what we’re looking for, like ’oh wow, did you see that? Look at that thing that flew by!’ It’s a really wonderful time.” 

Insects like the tree crickets that sang for Brummermann one night in the Santa Rita Mountains, accompanied by the trilling of katydids and beating wings of moths.

“You can hear … not so loud, but there are little things, little tree crickets, and the more you get out there it’s kind of auditory bird-watching, so to speak,” Schmidt said. “You can listen and try to figure out who they are. Is that a katydid, is that a tree cricket or a regular cricket?”

The auditory bird-watching, as Schmidt calls it, brings people together from all parts of the world.

“Usually everyone has their different interests. One person may be really into beetles, another may be into moths or maybe into cicadas,” Schmidt said.

El Niño Means Bugs Could Stick Around  

This year, the cicadas and moths may stick around a little longer because of an active El Niño, which brings warm, wet weather to the southwest. University of Arizona climatologist Mike Crimmins said this powerful El Niño is going to mean a lot more rainy days this winter.

“We’re going to see more humidity, probably even starting as early as November and persisting all the way through April,” he said.

Crimmins said this type of weather could mean a longer bug season to look forward to.

“So not having that cool down or those cool nights coming here in October may just extend the opportunity for some of the bugs to continue to sort of hang out and not get killed off by some cooler temperatures,” Crimmins said.

And while that may not excite most, that just means more opportunities for bug-lovers to go out to the desert canyons to find that one bug or spider his or her collection is missing.

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