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Columbia entomologist finds wide audience for bug talk

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A brown marmorated stink bug caught Michael Raupp's attention as it wandered around the spindly trunk of a zelkova tree. Lately, the entomologist has been noticing the pests everywhere — even on the small species of elm growing in front of a Columbia coffee shop.

Raupp, a University of Maryland professor and "Bug of the Week" blogger who lives in Columbia, says stink bugs "are going to be big" in a couple of weeks. The half-inch, shield-shaped critters will be making their presence known in Howard County and elsewhere from mid-September through the end of October, when the first frost of autumn blankets the ground.

The much-hated insects, which have been busy destroying crops everywhere, will begin seeking out places like homeowners' attics where they can "kick back and live off the fat" they've been ingesting, very much like bears hibernating for the winter, he said.

And when spring rolls around, their numbers will likely be twice what they were last year, he said, though he's hardly put off by the "ick factor" that accompanies that image for most people. A praying mantis peers out from a terrarium on his kitchen counter, nourished by the stink bugs that Raupp has collected and fed to it.

"My wife is also an entomologist," the extension specialist said with a broad smile. "Who else would understand?"

Actually, plenty of people would, say those who've witnessed his love for bugs firsthand.

"Whenever he gives a talk, it's a home run," said Jon Traunfeld, director of the Home and Garden Information Center located at the UM extension campus off Folly Quarter Road in western Howard County. "Here's a guy who's a full professor with a national and international reputation, yet he has a real zeal for teaching, and gets his audience laughing and engaged," he said. "He's a real gem."

'Proud to be wacky'

Raupp learned nearly everything he needed to guide his decisions in life as a young boy growing up in mining country in rural New Jersey, he says.

He did farm chores, learned to swim in a 50-degree mill pond, and had the run of fields and streams in his backyard, he said. His mother's sage advice back then was simple: "Go outside and play." And that's his mantra to this day.

Raupp got another formative dose of wisdom as a senior at Rutgers University, where he'd changed his major from biochemistry to pre-medicine to pre-veterinary to animal science. After amassing quite a few more credits than needed to graduate, he was summoned to an administrator's office and told he was being "kicked out," he said.

He took to heart the well-meaning suggestion that it was time for him to move on, and enrolled in the college's entomology program. A profession in which he'd be paid to soak up fresh air and pick up bugs sounded like a fine idea.

Yet even now, as a 59-year-old father of three grown children, he remains a proponent of the broad-based education he got by doing things his way.

"The broad training I received made me fluent in many realms of science," he said and accounts, in part, for his popularity on such national TV programs as "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show," and locally as a speaker at the Howard County Conservancy.

But he says the secret to becoming a sought-after guest who can bring insect knowledge to the masses lies in his inventive approach.

One of his first appearances on TV was in 2004, when "GMA" put out feelers for someone who could address the onslaught of 17-year cicadas in Maryland.

When the morning-program interviewer learned cicadas were considered a delicacy by some and asked Raupp if he would eat one, he popped it in his mouth, crunched down and chewed up the 3-inch-long specimen.

While guest spots are a lot of fun, Raupp said, they also give him the chance to translate for lay audiences "all the cool elements of animal behavior, like predation and mating and all that murder and mayhem."

That kind of outreach also furthers his career goal of helping people find environmentally sustainable ways to manage pests, which make up a mere 5 percent of the 2 million species of insects, he said.

"I'm proud to be wacky," he says, noting that scientists are trained to be critical, skeptical and discerning.

"I'm not saying I'm not all those things, but I work to translate science into something entertaining and interesting and that's when people learn. In other words, I'm not above hamming it up."

Fans of all ages

Raupp spent time this past week filming stink bugs during their last weeks of hyperactivity for 2011 at the Howard County Community Gardens off Oakland Mills Road. He'll post his latest video on the six-legged imports in a couple of weeks at bugoftheweek.com; currently he's blogging about webworms.

While he isn't giving away his "script" for this particular video, he does mention that his "CSI: Garden Pests" video, in which he impersonates Lt. Horatio Caine of TV's crime drama "CSI: Miami," has attracted nearly 1,300 views.

Meg Boyd Schumacher, executive director of the Howard County Conservancy, said his mid-August talk on managing stink bugs and other pests sold out at the nature facility in Woodstock, as anticipated.

"Mike has the ability to connect with his audiences and help them understand scientific things easily," and that's why his talks usually attract capacity crowds, she said. He also imparts advice people can use, like telling people to prevent stink bugs from entering homes this fall by caulking windows and doors and by screening ridge and gable vents.

But adults aren't his only fans.

The entomologist is giving a Wonder Walk for all ages at the Howard County Conservancy next weekend, where participants will observe "toxic" monarch butterflies, "parasitic" paper wasps, "cryptic" ambush bugs and "showy" milkweed bugs — insect descriptions courtesy of Raupp.

The scientist doesn't even have to be seen to get his message across, even though insects do make for compelling video.

"Mike could talk about dirt and people would listen, he has so much passion in his voice," said Tara Boyle, a managing producer at WAMU-FM radio, home of "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," on which Raupp is a frequent guest. "He's brought so much useful info to our news and talk-show listeners. He's one of our favorite guests by far."

Raupp said nature is wacky and he'll keep being wacky for as long as people want to be entertained while they learn, even though bugs have a distinct advantage in that scenario.

"Insects have been around for 320 million years, and they'll be here for another 320 million years," he said, "long after we all go the way of the dodo bird and become extinct."

jholzberg76@gmail.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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