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Q & A with Merrill Peterson On Writing Pacific Northwest Insects

By Melissa Melloy, Nature Shop Assistant 


Author Merrill Peterson 

Dr. Merrill Peterson is releasing Pacific Northwest Insects, a user-friendly, comprehensive guide to over 3,000 insect species. Dr. Peterson is the Biology Department Chair at Western Washington University, and will be having an interactive (with special insect guests) book release at The Nature Shop at Seattle Audubon on Saturday, Aug 4 from 12:30 PM to 3:30 PM. This Q & A, where the author dives into his personal interests, passion for insects, and motivation for creating the book, was conducted electronically by The Nature Shop. 


Q: What was it that first got you interested in insects and their biology? Was it a
special event or memory? A specific insect?

Dr. Merrill Peterson: I’ve been fascinated with insects my whole life.  In trips to the zoo when I was little more than a toddler, I was at least as enthralled by the bumble bees visiting the flowers in front of the lion and tiger enclosures as I was with the big cats themselves. When I was 11, I visited the Denver Museum of Natural History, which at the time had an exhibit showing butterfly diversity in the Rockies. I was completely smitten and started collecting butterflies soon after that. By the time I was 15, I was hanging out with Seattle-area entomologists and had a clear idea that I wanted to get a doctorate studying insects so that I could have a career studying insects.

Q: What is exciting to you about this new field guide?

Dr. Peterson: The dizzying diversity of insects included in it and the quality of the photographs are probably the most exciting things that readers will first notice. Once they start to use the book, I think readers will be surprised to find that, even without prior experience, they can use the book to accurately identify insects. They’ll also find that it’s packed with all sorts of tidbits about the interesting insects that live in our area.

Q: If different than above, what sets this field guide apart from others that have been previously published?

Dr. Peterson: As far as I know, this is the first general insect field guide – for any region – to make accurate species-level identification of insects possible. Insects are far more diverse than birds, mammals, trees, and wildflowers, and authors of insect field guides typically provide examples of various insects without telling the reader whether there are other species that are likely to be confused with the featured ones. As a result, users of such field guides will assume that if it looks like the featured species, it must be that species, oblivious to the fact that there may be several other very similar species. Pacific Northwest Insects takes a different approach, in that it lists the species that can easily be confused with the featured species and what characteristics can be used to distinguish those species. What this means is that, by using this guide, one can be confident that they are accurately identifying the insects they find. The other important contribution of the book is that the information is tailored to our region. Thus, the book tells readers what the seasonality of each species is in the Pacific Northwest, where it occurs in our area, and what the similar species are in our area. North American insect field guides, for obvious reasons, are not tailored to our region.


Photo courtesy Dr. Merrill Peterson 


Q: How do you think insects function within our ecosystem?

Dr. Peterson: Insects play many different roles in terrestrial, freshwater, and intertidal ecosystems throughout the region. They pollinate a huge variety of crops and wildflowers. We wouldn’t have many of the fruits and vegetables we eat and couldn’t enjoy flower-filled meadows if insects weren’t around to fill this role. Insects are also important members of food chains that make it possible for ecosystems to support birds, bats, frogs, salmon, and many other organisms, and through their work as herbivores and processors of animal waste and dead organic matter, they facilitate the recycling of nutrients. Insects also help keep invasive plants and pests (including pest insects) under control.

Q: Why should everyone learn and care about insects?

Dr. Peterson: For one, they should care about insects because of all of the valuable ecosystem functions they fill, which certainly make the world a much better place from a human perspective. More than that, I think people should care about insects because they are so amazingly diverse and successful, and they live their lives in all sorts of bizarre ways. If you want to be blown away by the wonders of nature, insects are an excellent place to start! Insects are also useful “canaries in the coalmine” that help us notice when environments are being degraded through our own actions. If we start to notice the insects around us, we can see species disappear from areas where they used to live (and new species become established) as our natural areas are impacted by pollution, the arrival of invasive organisms, increased development, deforestation, conversion of natural prairies and shrublands to agriculture, shifts in climate, etc. Through a lens of understanding insect diversity, it’s possible to see that these changes are occurring at an alarming rate and that they are impacting a huge variety of organisms that don’t have the option of living somewhere else. It’s only when we notice something going wrong that we can actually do something about it.

Q: What are some common myths you'd like to prove untrue?

Dr. Peterson: One common myth is that everything that looks like a bee or wasp is to be feared. This isn’t true at all, because many bees and wasps pose no threat to people (quite a few are stingless) and because many insects that look like bees or wasps are something else entirely (moths, flies, beetles, etc.) and the reason why you are fooled is because they have evolved to look like something a lot more dangerous than they are. Another myth is that insects, in general, are pests that are to be loathed. In fact, the vast majority of insects are not pests and if we took a moment to learn about the insects we encountered, we’d find that each has a unique way of living and provides a fascinating window into the natural world around us.

Photo Courtesty Dr.  Merrill Peterson 


Q: What is your favorite insect and why?

Dr. Peterson: This is a tough question because there are so many cool insects. If I had to pick one, it’d probably be the Banded Alder Borer (Rosalia funebris). It’s a spectacularly large and showy beetle with ridiculously long antennae. It is found from Alaska to New Mexico, so the Pacific Northwest is really at the heart of its distribution.

Q: Any other comments you'd like to make about yourself, this book, or insects/nature generally?

Dr. Peterson: While working on the book, I was surprised (even delighted) to find that there were interesting entomological discoveries to be made even in my own backyard in the heart of Bellingham. There, I found the first population of an invasive sawfly (the caterpillars of which eat spruce needles) in western North America – the sawfly had been known from eastern North America for many years and is considered a potential forest pest. Also in my backyard, I found and was the first to photograph a lovely little moth species that had apparently just begun to invade the region. It is native to Europe and is on several countries’ lists of species of conservation concern, and I ended up writing a paper about this discovery with some other folks who had been finding them in pheromone traps around Seattle and Vancouver, BC. The moth seemed to be thriving in my yard! While taking pictures for this book, I made several other similar discoveries – invasive species new to the U.S. or native species found for the first time in Washington that made it clear how poorly documented our insect fauna is and how many species await discovery by those who take the time to look. I hope this book inspires others to start investigating the insects in their part of the Pacific Northwest!





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