In early June, Daniel Marlos, an eccentric, cherubic-faced Los Angeleno, received an intriguing message from a friend: "If there weren't two little, scrawny legs, I wouldn't think it was a living thing!" she said, describing a creature loitering on her porch. She emailed Marlos a photo of a tawny, wingless insect, its legs cartoonishly splayed against a wooden shingle. He recognized it at once: A walkingstick, a master of illusion whose twig-like body renders it nearly invisible in buckwheat and brush, its typical Southern California habitat.
Identifying insects -- for friends and strangers -- is part of Marlos' daily routine. By sunup, he's already sorting through the pictures of colorful moths, beetles and centipedes sent to his website, What's That Bug? Readers from China to Tucson post questions there about insects they've encountered on vacation, at home, or occasionally on themselves:
Reader Dear Sir, I have what looks like a tick? Photos to follow.
Marlos Please don't shoot the messenger. You've got Lice.
Marlos is a man of varied interests -- Charles Darwin meets Tim Burton. He's a gardener and art geek with a weakness for vintage bowties and metal-tapped cowboy boots. He teaches journalism and photography at Los Angeles City College, and his artistic idols include Diane Arbus, whom he says "infiltrated the periphery of the acceptable" with her macabre photos of dwarves, strippers and giants. At some level, What's That Bug? is Marlos' Arbus-esque attempt to bring insects -- creatures often relegated to the animal kingdom's shadowy margins -- into the light.
Marlos is not a trained scientist. But Eric Eaton, principal author of Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North America, says that after more than a decade researching submissions, Marlos has become a top-flight entomologist in his own right. Eaton is among the experts who help Marlos with tricky orders like dragonflies (Odonata) and katydids (Orthoptera). While some readers are thrilled to put a common name to the critter holed up in their petunias, only species names satisfy Marlos' hard-core fans. "(It's) terribly amusing," Marlos says. "The genus is fine with me."
His own fascination with insects began in childhood, when he spent hours with his mother in the family garden and bug-rich forests near Youngstown, Ohio. These days, Marlos indulges his passion through art -- he makes quilts that combine insect-patterned fabric with botanical sunprints -- and activism. With his Mount Washington neighborhood's Beautification Committee, Marlos works to preserve L.A.'s open space and native flora, including common milkweed, a source of sustenance for hundreds of insect species. Every month, he organizes volunteers to tend what he calls "the milkweed meadow" in Elyria Canyon Park. The group pulls invasive weeds and photographs the insects that happen by, from convergent lady beetles to monarch caterpillars.
Marlos hopes his website will encourage similar enthusiasm for insects among a new generation of amateur naturalists. He designed What's That Bug? as a pop-culture counter to the Web's drier scientific pages, giving it a Victorian sensibility that emphasizes personal discovery and citizen naturalism -- rare pursuits in today's gadgetized indoor world. He seems to be on the right track: The site receives 500 submissions a week and, this year, was viewed by nearly 2 million people from 219 countries.
Bug love doesn't come easily to everyone, though. So to curb insecticidal squashings, Marlos created an "Unnecessary Carnage" tab on the site, dedicated to posts from people who snuffed out the bugs about which they're inquiring.
Reader I found two of these bugs. One was floating in my teapot. They were both FULL of eggs. ... You can see them to the side of the squished bug.
Marlos We cannot fathom what provoked this senseless slaughter. We suppose this Ponderous Borer might have been accidently stepped on, but we somehow believe that there was intent behind the squishing. What we find especially troubling is the location you provided, the Sierra foothills in Mendocino County. We wonder if this was a state park. State parks have rules and regulations about the preservation of natural resources, and that includes the lowly bugs.
"People are not used to being admonished for dispatching harmless creatures," says Eaton, who believes that the "public humiliation" has been instrumental in shifting attitudes about insects, at least among the site's readers. Those scolded often submit change-of-heart stories about fighting their instinct to "flatten first." Marlos maintains that his goal is to educate, not embarrass, readers: "Insects should not be treated as insignificant life forms because, in the end, even the loss of a single species might have a profound impact on all life on the planet," he says.
The morning after Marlos received the message about the wayward walkingstick, he abandoned plans to cruise the Pasadena City College swap meet and instead embarked on a walkingstick rescue mission. When he arrived at his friend's porch, a better look at the bug's antennae confirmed his suspicions: It was a western short-horned walkingstick, one of three walkingstick species found in California. After coaxing it into a yogurt container, Marlos drove to Elyria Canyon and released it into a blossoming stand of buckwheat. As the insect greedily began to munch, it blended, like magic, into the herb's flowering branches.