It’s a Bug’s Life
The insects are the hors d’oeuvres for the birds and rodents and small mammals, which larger creatures then prey on.
Eddie Dunbar Loves Creepy Crawlies and Wants You To, Too
The funnest afternoon I ever spent with my grandsons involved tadpoles. The boys live in a rural coastal village in South Africa. It was summer and it had been raining. Where they live there’s more bush than houses along the single-lane winding roads, which are flanked by narrow storm-water drains. When one of the boys stopped to see how far a big flat leaf would float, he noticed the tiny black dots with tails darting about. Next thing, the three of us were on hands and knees, peering close, getting wet, laughing and then working out how we could retrieve some of the tadpoles to take home to show their parents and — optimistically — keep as pets.
“No, I wouldn’t classify tadpoles as bugs,” laughs Eddie Dunbar when I tell him the story. “But yes, most children at some point develop a fascination for bugs and start a collection.” Dunbar has been told by family members that his fascination with insects — catching them and collecting them — began as soon as he learned to crawl.
Of my involvement with the tadpoles, he says, “when adults bring children on bug hunts and to the bug club, you quickly see that very often it’s because they — the adults — are the interested parties, although they usually won’t admit it.”
The bug hunts and the bug club are activities of the Insect Sciences Museum of California, or ISMC, a nonprofit Dunbar founded as part of his mission to study the effects of humans, including global warming, on California biodiversity and to educate the world about insects and their value. He does this with authority and also in fun and creative ways. For example, while we talk bugs at the Rotary Nature Center at Lake Merritt, where he has a permanent display and holds bug club meetings, he shows me several vials containing live insects that originated at Shoreline Park in Alameda. “This whole area is rich in critters,” he
He points to some small winged creatures in one of the vials. “Little bags of protein,” he calls them, “that in nature are placed strategically around for small birds and other small creatures to feed on.” He also talks about bugs in cocktail party terms. “If you have no hors d’oeuvres, no one wants to come to the party,” he says. “The insects are the hors d’oeuvres for the birds and rodents and small mammals, which larger creatures then prey on.” He points to a stuffed cougar in the nature center. “Without insects, the chain would break down, there would be no food source for animals like that, and they’d disappear.”
Dunbar’s “real” job is in IT — computers — with the city of Oakland. Insects are his passion. The two fields dovetail in that part of Dunbar’s city work is creating maps of parks that will, among other things, point people to insect clusters.
His bug museum is currently online (www.bugpeople.org). Not having a physical home he sees as just temporary. On the plus side, creating it online, he has been able to, as he puts it, “stop chasing after people to try and get them to look at bugs and instead, get the bugs in their face.”
Dunbar, who develops a merry glint in his nutty brown eyes each time there is mention of anything that creeps or crawls, was born in Japan. His dad, in the U.S. Navy at the time, met and married Dunbar’s Japanese mom there.
From Japan, the family moved for a time to Kentucky. Then, in 1964, they moved to Alameda. “I grew up on Eagle Street (near the Webster tunnel). When I was young, there was a drive-in theater nearby. That was one place I’d go to find bugs.”
When he was about 12, the family moved from Alameda to near Oakland’s Arroyo Viejo Park. “In those days, we thought it was OK to walk into every backyard in the neighborhood to collect bugs,” he laughs.
Dunbar went to Cal to study entomology but while there, the self-proclaimed high school “nerd” with the insect obsession got “distracted,” fascinated by history, sociology and “people.” He subsequently got himself an MBA, by which time his insect passion was back. Dunbar’s wife, Julie, helps with the insects. Soon as his son left home, Dunbar converted the bedroom into a room for his insects where, among other things, he keeps his Chilean rose hair, a huge and hairy tarantula, and also an emperor scorpion, among many other creeping, crawling and squirming critters.
One of the best things you can do, in Dunbar’s view, is bring in a live insect for identification and leave it with him as a museum donation.
To add to the body of research being done in the fields of global warming and biodiversity, Dunbar and his team of volunteers at ISMC have begun organizing “a cadre of professional and amateur entomologists and other biologists.
“We want to scale this up and have a full-fledged museum interns program where Oaklanders, Alamedans and others will be trained in the tools and techniques scientists use to collect, identify and record scientific data about insects,” says Dunbar.
He also has a personal vision for his Insect Sciences Museum and it’s not small. “We need a venue, and my vision is maybe an entire city block with different habitats, areas for research, a small woodland, an aquatic area for riparian plants, a treehouse study area, plots for people to plant gardens,” and lots more.
Back to the tadpoles experience with my grandkids. Bugs or not, as a resource for watching nature in action, they met with Dunbar’s approval. “It’s easy to keep tadpoles,” he says. “You keep them in water, feed them a diet of shredded lettuce, and you can watch the whole lifecycle as they transform into frogs.” Pity for us and for those wannabe frogs that weren’t; we
didn’t know to feed them shredded lettuce at the time.
To find out more about the Bug Club, bug hunts and the Insect Science Museum of California (ISMC), call Eddie Dunbar at (510) 506-2837 or visit the website at www.bugpeople.org.