The Bugman of Mt. Washington
Originally published in the Boulevard Sentinel (VOLUME XV ISSUE 2)
News and Views
for Northeast Los Angeles
by Brenda Rees
“The Bugman” is a nom de plume that Daniel [corrected from David in original article] Marlos, a resident of Mt. Washington, didn’t actively seek out, but one that he wholeheartedly relishes and embraces with sophisticated gusto.
As a full-time instructor of photography at Los Angeles Community College in their media arts department and occasional part time teacher at Art Center College of Design, Marlos has been leading a double life as the world-famous Bugman for more than a decade. His charming wit and boundless enthusiasm for learning is the glue that holds together the popular website “What’s That Bug?”(www.whatsthatbug.com), that’s been an Internet sensation since its introduction in 1998.
Because of the success of the popular website – which drew 2 million people last year from 219 countries – Marlos has just published his first book, The Curious World of Bugs: The Bugman’s Guide to the Mysterious and Remarkable Lives of Things That Crawl” from Penguin Group publishing.
So how was “The Bugman” born? Or rather, hatched?
Marlos got his first taste of entomological writing back in the 1990s when he agreed to help his friend Lisa Anne Auerbach with a Xeroxed publication she was producing aptly named American Homebody. “It was meant to be a friendly alternative to Martha Stewart with recipes, tips and ideas,” he says. Marlos told Auerbach that he wanted to write a regular column about bugs, even though he had no background in the subject. “People always want to find out what kind of bug they have discovered in the bathroom, outdoors, etc.” he says. “As a child growing up in Ohio, I had – and still do — a great fascination with insects.”
The ‘zine moved online in 1998, but over the months it was apparent that Marlos’ column struck a chord with readers. People were logging in and sending digital pictures of strange and interesting bugs, insects they found in their homes, while on vacation, hiking or just down the street. Everyone wanted to know “what’s that bug?” and Marlos became the self-proclaimed insect expert.
Overwhelmed with the requests, Marlos reached out to the real experts in the field who could help him identify and give information about the critters people have discovered, including flies, wasps, beetles, caterpillars, scorpions, spiders, etc. Marlos quickly learned that the insect world is a complex, specific and almost magical in its depth and breath.
In 2002, “What’s That Bug?” branched out on its own as a unique website and today receives about 140-200 legitimate emails from readers all over the world per day. Per day. With 15,000 posts under its belt, the website can translate queries from 50 languages, including Arabic and Japanese. Accolades include Yahoo Pick of the week in 2003, USA Today Hotsite in 2004, Earthlink Weird Web in 2006, Real Simple Magazine in 2006, Sunset Magazine in 2007, and a lecture at the Getty in 2008. Google the word “Bug” and the first listing will be “What’s That Bug?”
Marlos is proud that the site is child-friendly even with a section on Bug Love (photos of mating bugs accompanied by the occasional double entendre) and the sometimes-disturbing Carnage section (photos of squashed bugs).
The Bugman is a strong supporter of not killing bugs. “People react fast and don’t realize that just about every bug they encounter is perfectly harmless and not worth killing,” says Marlos. The website, while it celebrates bugs, understands that there are those out there who shriek from them. To that end, Marlos uses the website as a platform to preach tolerance and encourage readers to look more objectively at bugs as natural engineering marvels.
Here’s a sample of a recent typical email question and the Bugman’s response:
Location: Lynnwood, WA
May 24, 2011 12:48 am
Holy crap, I was eating my angel food cake and spotted this thing crawling around in it. I flipped out mentally, but brought it out to my kitchen where the light was better and set it down to take pictures of it.
I went through the rest of the cake pretty thoroughly and found no evidence of other similar bugs, but I can’t shake the feeling that this thing was in here before I bought it at the grocery store.
Please help me figure out what it is, and tell me if it’s dangerous.
Signature: – Freaked Out
Dear Freaked Out,
We do not mean in any way to minimize the trauma you felt upon encountering this lost Lacewing Larva while eating your angel food cake, however, we chuckled none the less. The Lacewing Larva, if it was capable of feelings, would have also felt traumatized at the realization that it was no longer in a habitat conducive to hunting Aphids. Lacewing Larvae are found in gardens and among plants and they are very adept hunters that are cherished by organic gardeners because they help to control harmful insects. Lacewings are even sold in quantities, though they are not quite as popular as either Lady Bugs or Preying Mantids in the biological warfare arena. We highly doubt you found any additional Lacewing Larvae in your cake, though we feel quite certain that the entire pastry ended up in the garbage can.
This month, Marlos is answering requests from Northern Hemisphere readers, while in the winter, emails will come pouring in from the Southern. In addition to his website duties (“The first hours of my day are spent answering emails before I go to school”), Marlos is excited about the buzz brewing about his new book.
“It’s done in the spirit of What’s That Bug? but a little more organized,” he says calling it a Farmer’s Almanac-style book that contains short stories, tidbits and facts. Unlike the website though, there are no photos – just wonderful vintage line-drawings of insects which elevates the book into an artistic celebration of the science of insects.
The Curious World of Bugs is garnering some great reviews: Good Reads says the book “celebrates bugs for what they truly are: strange, mysterious, cute, beautiful, and occasionally disturbing…[it] offers a glimpse into the magical world of bugs that bite, infest, fascinate, repulse, and inform us all.”
All in all, teacher by day, Bugman by early morning, Marlos sees the world of insects both scientific and artistic. He can rattle off facts and figures about the Iron Cross Blister Beetle but also wax poetic about the charmed life of the Brunner’s Mantid, a mantid species of in Texas that have evolved to only be female, no males. They reproduce by cloning, of all things.
As it goes, Marlos owes a lot to bugs; they have given him a second “glamorous” life as well as a deep appreciation for the natural world. “It’s all about the interconnectivity of all things on this planet. We can’t eliminate one species without affecting others,” he says. “We can appreciate these lower beasts and, in the process, get a bigger picture of the world around us.”
Brenda Rees is an Eagle Rock resident and editor of Southern California Wildlife (www.socalwild.com), a website devoted to news, information and resources for the diversity of life found in SoCal.