[Editor's note: This year's Black Lights and Owls event takes happens at the Rice Rivers Center on June 13, beginning at 7 p.m. Contact Anne Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.]
It’s a cool, clear May evening and Art Evans is moving quickly among the three stations he has set up to attract night-flying insects. The breeze blowingoff the lower James River is tossing the white sheets that Evans has hung in front of ultraviolet lights. As dusk advances and a chorus of nearby frogs chirps and croaks, about 70 naturalists of all ages finish their potluck dinner. A crisp chill moves many of them to slip on fleeces. Warm and sticky weather would have been better:
“If you’re uncomfortable, that’s usually a good bug night,” Evans explains.
Located 22 miles southeast of Richmond, just west of Berkeley Plantation, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center comprises 494 acres donated to VCU in 2000. And on this night, the center is fulfilling its public outreach mission by hosting the 2014 edition of the Black Lights and Owls event: an evening of bug and owl watching that’s part of an ongoing effort to document the fauna at Rice Rivers and to establish a permanent reference and teaching collection.
Anne Wright, associate professor of biology at VCU, has been involved with the center from the start. And as its coordinator for environmental outreach education, she has frequently recruited Evans — a local entomologist familiar to the listeners of WCVE’s What’s Bugging You? — to speak on behalf of the bug world.
“He’s such a great personality and likes to perform and knows how to engage the public,” Wright says. “People like to meet and see [those] who have a huge amount of specific knowledge. And they like to listen to them, especially if they can speak well. That’s what Art can do: He can spin a tale.” In short, Wright says, “he spreads bug love.”
Evans believes there are two types of people in the world: those who love insects, and those who don’t yet know that they do. In his case, bug love began early and far from Richmond.
Born and raised in Southern California, Evans had parents who relished the outdoors. His mother loved the beaches of the Central Coast, and his father preferred the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, so they were always taking the kids on weekend excursions.
When he was in the fourth grade, the family moved from Lancaster, Evans’ birthplace, to a small, rural community about 40 miles away. And in Juniper Hills, located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains just off the southwestern fringes of the Mojave Desert, there were bugs everywhere.
“I was very fortunate to be in an incredibly biologically rich area,” Evans says. What’s more, both of his parents nurtured his interest in the outdoors. “They were very good at encouraging me. Dad even installed a mercury-vapor lamp on our garage wall, just the kind you see for streetlights, specifically so I could have insects all the time.”
Evans’ “incredibly practical” father was a civil engineer and electrician at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. “He could build anything,” Evans says proudly. “He could fix anything. And, umm … I can’t.” Evans chortles before adding, “I’m a biologist!” He continues laughing self-deprecatingly before adding, “When I go home to visit my mother, I don’t have to give her the talk anymore: ‘Just remember: I’m not the plumber, I’m not the carpenter, I’m not the electrician, but I am a biologist. And I can change a few light bulbs; I can move some heavy stuff and reach up high for you.’ We laugh about that.”
Evans’ stay-at-home mother was very tolerant of living things in the house — things that “occasionally escaped.” She drew the line at snakes, though, a detail with an interesting consequence for the budding naturalist: “I didn’t really grow up with an affinity for reptiles.” But, with his mother’s indulgent consent, he harbored all kinds of other creatures: tarantulas and millipedes and plenty of beetles and scorpions.
Evans also enjoyed a supportive social environment, with friends who were tolerant of insects, or even actively interested in them. “It could have been uncool,” he says. “They could have been discouraging or making fun of me, but they didn’t.”
In sixth grade, Evans went to stay in Pasadena for a week with a great-aunt who brought him to nearly every museum in the area; in particular, she introduced him to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the institution that would later become the focus of his life’s work.
In high school, one of Evans’ biology teachers invited him to a Boy Scout Jamboree, where Evans had the opportunity to teach the campers about insects. It was his first taste of being in front of an audience: “These kids were only a year or two younger than I was. But I had my five cigar boxes with my insect collection, and I had my field guides, and I’m talking three major body sections — head, thorax, abdomen — and some of the major features, and I really enjoyed it.”
After high school, Evans’ education continued with the completion of a bachelor’s degree in entomology (1981) and a master’s in biology (1984), both at California State University in Long Beach. When his close friend and college roommate, Chuck Bellamy, was invited to pursue his doctoral degree at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, Evans was “incredibly envious” and had to satisfy himself with the thought that he might be able to visit for a month.
Fortunately, Bellamy very soon lobbied for Evans to join him. As it happened, the Department of Zoology and Entomology was looking for someone to work on scarab beetles, Evans’ specialty. So, for several years in the mid-’80s, Evans studied at the University of Pretoria, where he completed a Doctor of Science in Entomology in 1988.
Evans then returned to Los Angeles as a “systematic” entomologist, one who looks at the evolutionary relationships of insects, studies their morphology and geographic distributions and tries to sort out their relationships and means of identification. All the signs pointed toward a career as a traditional academic researcher. But his interests had started to change.
“My heart was really with working with people,” Evans says. “Most of my colleagues were perfectly happy being squirreled away, working on their beetles and giving lectures once in a while to college audiences. But I liked the mixture of things even then.”
After one year curating the arthropod research collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Evans was faced with a game-changing choice. “[The Museum] had just received a $2 million grant to build an insect zoo,” he recalls. “And my first thought was, ‘What a nightmare.’ I mean, you know, these insects have to be kept alive. They’ve gotta be fed, they’ve gotta be watered [or] they die! … But I literally woke up one night in the middle of the night, and I just thought, ‘I wanna do this.’ ”
After lobbying everyone in the museum that he was the right person for the job, Evans was interviewed and hired. “I had a great boss,” he says. “The sole direction I had from her in 10 years was, ‘I assume you know what needs to be done.” For a decade, Evans enjoyed nearly total autonomy and helped create what was then only the fourth insect zoo in the country. “Ever since then, I’ve always been interested in informal science education, and that has informed everything I do.”
In 1996, Evans added to his growing list of nonacademic publications by co-authoring An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles with his old friend Bellamy. As a visual tribute to the world’s largest and most diverse group of animals, it was the book that inspired Evans to do more photography. He and Bellamy didn’t have many of the images they wanted, which got Evans thinking: “The only way I’m gonna get those pictures is to learn how to take them myself.”
Around this time, someone with whom Evans had had no direct contact in 30 years called from Richmond to ask about a bug. “It was kind of a stupid question; it was just like, ‘What is this thing?’ ” But Paula Graham thought, who better to ask than her old family friend Art Evans, the one whose childhood interest in insects had become his career; the one who, while playing softball, had hit the 14-year-old Graham in the nose with a line drive that deviated her septum.
The bug turned out to be a mayfly, and Graham turned out to have more than a passing interest in insects.
In 1997, to fulfill an assignment she’d been given in her Toastmasters course, Graham wrote an essay titled “One of Nature’s Most Successful Designs.” She begins this essay by recounting the story of the line drive to the nose and how, at the time, she impressed “the young Mr. Evans” with her knowledge of Echinodermata — a phylum that includes starfish and sea urchins — knowledge acquired the previous spring “in Mrs. Duba’s eighth-grade science class.”
In short, the essay is an eloquent response to the question of nature’s — and Evans’ — inordinate fondness for beetles, a response that ends with this propitious thought: “Those things that we respect and love, we work to preserve.” After several years of closer friendship, Evans and Graham married in December 1999.
Evans finally moved to Richmond in January 2000. “When he came here,” Graham explains, “he wasn’t too sure what he was going to do. And I said, ‘Well, what do you wanna do?’ And he said, ‘I wanna write and do my photography.’ And I said, ‘Well, why don’t you do that?’ ”
One day that summer, Evans and Graham went on a walk with their dog and came across a pile of red-and-black insects that were unfamiliar to her, but that he easily identified as boxelder bugs. “And I said, ‘Oh! Well maybe you should write about those for the newspaper. Just submit a story.’ So he did.” The result was a monthly column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch called “What’s Bugging You?,” which Evans conceptualized as “a fond look at the animals we love to hate.”
In 2005, Evans met WCVE producer Steve Clark, who was providing the sound engineering for Evans’ interview with an NPR gardening show. At the time, Clark had suggested that he and Evans work together on some kind of project. “It wasn’t because I was particularly fascinated by his insect stories,” Clark recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Man, this guy is articulate. Not only does he know his stuff; he seems to be able to put it into terms even I can understand.’” But they were both busy, and it would be several more years before the timing was right.
Then, in 2008 — after eight years and nearly 100 articles — the Richmond Times-Dispatch terminated Evans’ column without explanation.
Evans explains what happened next: “I invited [Clark] over for dinner, and he brought his recorder, and I just started pulling out [insect] drawers and talking about my projects. … He put something together and took it to the station and said, ‘I think we’ve got something here.’ ”
On April 6, 2010, Clark’s soothing baritone introduced a new, regular feature that has now just entered its fifth year on 88.9 WCVE, Richmond’s public radio station. What’s Bugging You? airs every Tuesday at 8:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. during NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, respectively.
“It just amazes me, the following it has,” Evans says. “I mean, it’s just me and Steve talking in a room, alone, so I’m always kind of surprised when people I don’t know come up to me, or somebody recognizes my voice. I think I have the anonymity of radio, but I really don’t.”
Clark says that Evans was initially concerned about over-popularizing or dumbing-down the topic of insects. But he observes that, while most of WCVE’s audience are not scientists, “they can learn and enjoy a conversation about something that — maybe before they heard What’s Bugging You? — they would have been repulsed by.” He quickly adds that they may still be grossed out by the story of “some weird beetle that makes its way inside of a frog and then eats its way out. But, I’ll tell you what, they’re not going to tune away.”
Clark describes Evans as “congenial” and “inclined to think the best of people.” But Evans also “requires performance” and isn’t one for excuses. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him make an excuse for himself,” Clark says.
In addition to consulting, editing and teaching at several institutions, Evans has given more than 50 invitational lectures and has written — usually alone, but sometimes with a co-author — 27 peer-reviewed publications, more than 150 popular articles, 20 book reviews and 11 books.
His book, Beetles of Eastern North America, was published by Princeton University Press in spring 2014 and launched last May at a party hosted by Stir Crazy Café in Richmond’s Bellevue neighborhood.
Evans’ goals for this book were to document all 115 families of beetles known east of the Mississippi River and to help people to look at his favorite insect in a new way. While birds, butterflies and spiders attract wide popular interest, Evans says that beetles “are way down on the list” and that, in the past, publishers have often flatly rejected his argument for the creation of an audience.
By contrast, Princeton University Press was very responsive to him and made him part of their team. “They gave me lots of rope to hang myself with,” Evans jokes. In fact, they were so good to work with that he’s doing another book with them — Beetles of Western North America — due in three or four years.
Fellow entomologist Mike Quinn, who lives in Texas, calls Evans’ book “a milestone” and “a crowning achievement,” a work that he says would not have been possible five or 10 years ago, given the lack of high-quality photographs for so many species. He applauds the book’s breadth and depth and believes that it has the potential to “turn the corner on the popularization of beetle interests.”
Evans has spent his life bringing attention to insects, and he has worked hard to do this on his own terms. As Anne Wright sees it, his focus on taxonomy — the catching, identification and description of bugs — “kind of puts him at a disadvantage in the academic world, because what the universities want to see are research-oriented professors who get grants.”
In the past decade, Wright has “roped [Evans] in to doing a lot of different activities,” including the development of a VCU Summer Workshop on terrestrial and aquatic insects, which he taught to teachers for several years. She connected him with funding that provided for the establishment of a teaching collection for the Rice Rivers Center. Wright also encouraged him to teach entomology at VCU, which he has done since 2010 alongside adjunct positions at Randolph-Macon College and the University of Richmond.
Given the sheer variety of Evans’ freelance public engagement, it’s surprising to learn that his efforts are even more purposeful than they appear. “I am coming to embrace the fact that I am very much an introvert,” he says. “But I know how to be an extrovert. It serves me well.”
A few hours before the book launch party last May, Evans admitted, “I’ll love it, I’ll have a good time with those folks. But once the doors are closed, I will crash and burn. My batteries are not recharged; I am completely,” he said through a guffaw, “depleted!” Evans added that he’s glad that people don’t perceive how much his public persona demands of him. “I want my enthusiasm to help inform them, to open their eyes to something maybe they haven’t seen before or an aspect of natural history that maybe they’re not so familiar with.”
Given the uncertainty and potential instability that comes with his unconventional professional life, Evans has had to be extraordinarily resourceful and resilient. Fortunately, as Wright points out, he also has the benefit of a loving and supportive wife. “[Graham] is his rock, I think. They’re a great couple. She’s really into what he does.” And as a business writer, Evans’ wife is “his best critic.”
While he loves living amid Virginia’s lush, green environment, Evans sometimes feels claustrophobic here and misses the wide-open spaces of the West, a world he feels more comfortable in. “Having grown up in the Mojave, I still look around here and think, ‘Where am I?’ Even when there’s a drought here, it’s still green and lush and there’s water in the river. These are things I did not grow up with.”
For this reason, Evans gravitates toward the sandhill habitats along the East Coast; as for everything else here, he says he still feels “like a kid in a candy store” every time he steps out. “I’m always seeing something new or seeing the same old thing in a brand new place or different situation. It helps to keep my eyes fresh.”