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The science of splat

This UF researcher scrapes together a world of bug knowledge from windshields and buses.

By TRACY SWARTZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2002


This UF researcher scrapes together a world of bug knowledge from windshields and buses.

GAINESVILLE -- He peers at the front of a Greyhound bus that just pulled up outside the dingy Gainesville station. Then he sees it: a greenish splat on the front of the windshield.

Eureka!

"That's a lacewing," proclaims Dr. Mark Hostetler, a University of Florida researcher. "It's left over from last night."

The front of the bus looks like most automobiles in Florida after a lengthy summer road trip. Innards and body parts of mosquitoes and the ever-present love bug cling to the bus, the telltale signs of summer bug season and the frequent afternoon showers and intense humidity.

"Summer is by far the best time for bugs," said the insect aficionado, who was slightly disappointed that rain washed away most of the Greyhound's bug ooze. "They reproduce more in the summer."

Examining bug splats is a "fun project" for the biologist. He frequents the Gainesville bus station, sometimes with a camera and sketch pad in hand, to jot down the color, size and shapes of the bug stains. If a smear really intrigues him, he extracts it with a razor blade and saves it for later.

On road trips, he sometimes puts plastic wrap on his own car windshield to save the bug remnants. He peels off the plastic wrap and places it in between pieces of plexiglass for display.

"I used to have a freezer full of film vials of smushed insects," Hostetler said.

Hostetler's love of bugs has landed him on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He has written a book and is working on another. As a child, Hostetler collected toads and watched birds. His master's thesis was on cockroaches.

He started studying bug splotches after a 1992 encounter at a gas station when a man with a bug-ridden automobile turned to him and asked, "What is this ... anyways?"

Hostetler explained that the man's car was covered with love bugs and proceeded to tell the traveler the natural history of the much-hated bug that sticks to cars in Florida every year.

Realizing a way to educate the lay population on insects, Hostetler spent a summer traveling the coast with a mesh net attached to the top of his car. He would remove the bugs periodically to study them.

Hostetler's offbeat hobby turned profitable in 1996 with the release of his book, That Gunk on Your Car, which catalogs bug splats.

He is writing a followup book that offers reasons to give up mowing the lawn. The working title? Why the Hell Should I Mow My Lawn?

His notoriety is making him the go-to guy when it comes to bugs. He recently received a letter from a man in the Tampa Bay area who sent him a white-green insect to analyze.

"Can you identify this for me?" Hostetler reads from the accompanying letter. Examining the insect, Hostetler guesses that it is a whitefly.

But, because of the shape the insects are in after they ker-splat on a windshield, Hostetler usually can't identify the species, unless they are love bugs. Sometimes he can narrow it down to the insect's order or family. And some splats baffle him -- the gunk may be a menagerie of several bugs or rain may have washed away identifying features.

On the Greyhound bus he inspected one day last week, Hostetler found a few muddled spots that left him puzzled. As passengers filed onto the bus, a few stared at the curious man studying the splats.

"Who, him?" asked John Posey, Greyhound bus terminal manager. "That's just the Bug Man."

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