Interviews with Entomologists

Prof. DI Dr. Ernst HEISS - Interviewed at the Entomologists' Conference 2013

Interviewer: Viktor Hartung, translated by Andrew Liston

How did you get into entomology? Was there a particular moment in your life when you said I want to be an entomologist?

The first inclination came at school after a teacher of natural sciences introduced us to such things. The experience rubs off a bit on you, the collecting and catching. At first with beetles, as is usually the case, then all possible sorts of things came in between, especially studying and then work, so that I could only continue with entomology in a very limited way, and only when I had a bit of spare time again, did I think: carry on.

I trained as an architect and ran my own office for 40 years, but at the same time I also started collecting and then, while working as an architect, I started studying biology in order to be able to place the topics, the practical investigation of which I was already tackling, on a more solid theoretical footing. I finished my doctorate in biology (zoology) in 1995 and thus achieved a better basis for my subsequent entomological work.

Were there any books, films or works of art that could have inspired you?

No, I think it was the experience in the field, just the things I saw and wanted to see. That was a joy – and, building on that joy, also the interest in knowing what could be what, and so I obtained literature, tried to get contacts, and thus I made progress.

Did particular people influence you?

Less influenced, rather more they were the initial contacts when one needs help to get started, and at first they were beetle collectors, and later they were two or three acquaintances among the now deceased heteropterists, who helped me bit at the beginning.

Is entomology your "one great love", or one of your many passions?

I would say it's one of my great loves, so I inflicted it on myself to do a course of study alongside work, which was very time-consuming: I often had a lecture at 8 o'clock, a construction meeting at 9 o'clock, and then this or that again, but I did it with joy and enthusiasm. In the meantime, I gave up my office to try and deal more intensively with the things that really interest me.

It is claimed that mathematics develops logical thinking in humans; technical professions help people to cope better with devices and computers in everyday life. Is there something that entomology develops in humans, or what it is good for in everyday life?

I would say that I have certain advantages from my architectural training and especially from my work. I can draw more easily, I can imagine things spatially, I can see things three-dimensionally better. Otherwise I would say that entomology is a thing that is primarily meant to bring joy, that is primarily meant to bring a personal feeling of happiness or success – which it does. Apart from that, of course, it also has economic and scientific benefits – but these are different areas that may sometimes complement each other, sometimes not.

Imagine a freshman comes to you and says: I have the choice between a career in entomology and a career in molecular biology. What would you advise him to do?

I can't judge that. Try the one thing that gives you pleasure, and then – see if it works.

What would be the best places – in Austria, in Germany, worldwide – to become an entomologist?

It's a difficult question. It depends on the people who teach entomology there. At the moment all universities are cutting back. There are hardly any universities left where a taxonomist tries to pass on knowledge to young people – and that is very regrettable, because unfortunately this state of affairs will soon lead to a big gap in taxonomic work. After all, molecular research is ultimately based on taxonomy; only a reliably identified object allows statements to be made about it.

You had a different profession and entomology as a sort of hobby; but is it possible at all to reconcile entomology and business, entomology and earning money?

I think that with me it's the opposite: I earned money with another job and now I spend it – to buy material, to travel, to do identification work – without getting anything in return. So I don't think that you can earn so much with entomology that you can live off it without any problems – those are exceptional cases. But certainly you won't get rich.

What do you do – or what would you like to do - to bring entomology closer to people, to "promote" it better?

What I can and do is to inspire young people, help them and give them a hand, as much as I can – and this has developed rather positively, so that I'm glad that it works like this.

Now comes a question that is very difficult for any entomologist – but I have to ask it anyway: do you have a favourite insect, or group of insects?

I have a favourite group – the Aradidae, the bark bugs. I have a fair knowledge of them, and that's why I always find something new and especially interesting to look at.

How do you see the future of entomology? To exaggerate: what would be the three big problems that entomology should solve in the 21st century?

Tough question. One of the most important problems seems to me to promote an adequate level of education. The second – a reliable inventory, so that one knows what is still there. And thirdly – containment of all these extermination campaigns, which are happening on a small and large scale worldwide, because very soon a large part of this fantastic fauna will no longer be there. A very personal view.