Interviews with Entomologists

Prof. Dr. Holger Heinrich Dathe - interviewed in 2013

Interviewer: Viktor Hartung

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

I wanted to become a zoologist, if possible in research, and of course I wanted to participate in current developments there. I had discovered entomology merely as a suitable hobby- as an interesting, pleasant and relaxing occupation beside my job. As a biologist I was active in other fields. I am a trained behavioural scientist, and although I worked with insects, especially crickets, it was in the field of bioacoustics, which our group at the university investigated. I would have liked to have done research on mammals or birds as well. Later, I habilitated with a biophysical problem, which involved calculating the performance of birds in flight, and I was eventually awarded the professorship for animal physiology. But in all this I was accompanied by the same entomology I had come closer to as a student during an excursion: studies on Hymenoptera. This has become my serious hobby.

In retrospect, I can consider this as a coincidence, because when I was asked after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1993 whether I could step in temporarily to lead the German Entomological Institute in Eberswalde through various evaluations for its re-establishment - this was an absolutely existential question - I said yes, because I had somehow already been at home there, pursuing my hobby. In this respect I am a lateral entrant, but the fact that I stuck with it in the end and still became an entomologist by profession has to do with a peculiarity of the subject, which several colleagues have confirmed to me from their experience: once you have gone deeper into entomology and crossed a certain threshold there, you can't get away from it.

A key personal experience in this respect, the "moment", I can tell you about: When I first saw a golden wasp, an Omalus auratus, under the microscope, the impression was overwhelming. I suddenly realized that in addition to the world we know, there was another microcosm which we only fail to perceive because it is so small that we need optical aids to understand it. If you use them, this parallel world becomes bigger, more colourful, more wonderful and more interesting - and it never lets you go.

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

Once you are interested, you experience this subject with new eyes and see completely new characteristics even in familiar things. The great Surinam book by Maria Sibylla Merian, to mention the most famous example, is immediately artistically appealing, but then it also shows the developmental stages of the insects depicted, from which one can see that the painter must have reared the butterflies herself. And this at a time when people still believed in spontaneous generation. Historical literature has always appealed to me, and entomology is very rich in this respect. One finds many beautiful, old, lovingly designed works, with woodcut illustrations or copper engravings, often coloured by hand. The strange beauty of many butterflies and beetles has above all appealed to the eyes of artists, and that is still so today, from which science still benefits.

And then I got to know something newer, namely the identification works, which allow access to the preserve of "insiders". I went on excursions with the thick volume by Schmiedeknecht, The Hymenoptera of Northern and Central Europe (1930), which is a weighty work, both in terms of content and "tonnage". When you read into this, you realize what knowledge the old pioneers already had- at least much more than you can readily acquire today. This means that one is well advised to rely on previous work, to know it, and to apply it again and again. Such literature does not become obsolete quickly, and it is essential in order to get to know this group of animals.

Were there particular people who influenced you?

Yes, at first I learned a lot from people I could not meet personally. I have to mention Otto Schmiedeknecht again, but also Heinrich Friese, Johann Diedrich Alfken, Hans Bischoff, Paul Blüthgen or the Stoeckhert brothers. - i.e. authors in whose works one finds so much personal commitment that one is motivated to get to know the people in order to find out who they were, and how they lived. There are still traces of many of them today, for example memorials to Schmiedeknecht or Friese. I do think that these were important initial influences. Later, when I went to conferences, even outside my own field of activity in ornithology or behavioural biology, I met equally impressive entomologists. One of them was Ulrich Sedlag, for example. In order to be able to produce something myself, I naturally needed expert advice and access to collections, and for a long time my home in this respect was the Berlin Natural History Museum and its curator for Hymenoptera Eberhard Königsmann. He supported my efforts extraordinarily and proved to be a great stroke of luck for me. Unfortunately he died much too early. In this context I would also like to mention Joachim Oehlke of the DEI in Eberswalde, with whom a friendship has developed. I would like to mention numerous other people from Germany and abroad, among them Bernhard Klausnitzer and the Austrian apidologists - but it seems to me that our profession simply requires and favours specific friendly contacts, with mutual understanding, whereby all these connections are very individual. That would probably be a good sociological topic ...

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

That's something I've often asked myself - I was actually always allowed to delve into entomological topics, had bosses who accepted that, and who also regarded that as science. But I probably would have done so without this special permission or support. So great was the love.

On the other hand, because of entomology I did not necessarily have to neglect other passions. Classical entomology combines a passion for collecting, field observation of living objects, photography and film, historical documentation, artistic representation and much more in an almost lush abundance, so that there is something for almost everyone. I myself have always been interested in many things. As an example I would like to mention graphic aspects and their functionality. One can recognize and depict structures, one can try to determine their function from the structure. You can also measure functions according to their performance - that is, relationships that then extend into technical areas; I have always found these fascinating. With biological subjects, I was always interested in measuring, statistically checking, calculating and evaluating something, but on the basis of data that was as quantifiable as possible. That was the beauty of the calculations on the flight of birds. The findings were concrete, tangible, and verifiable from a scientific and technical point of view. It was always important to me to present the results graphically in a way that I could believe them myself. What I was able to show in my drawings, I had obviously understood. At our event here I met with Michael Engel (Lawrence/Kansas University). Together we want to finish a manuscript that a late colleague, Roy R. Snelling (formerly Los Angeles), left behind. This contains real hand drawings, most of them by me. I would like to see this in print, because these are the best (and most beautiful?) insect drawings I have ever done. Probably one would rather choose to publish photographs in such a work today, but the hand-made alternative, which stands for my passion, is also a distinguishing mark.

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

Dealing with living objects, whether animals or plants, always trains patience and commitment to ethical behaviour. If you want to prepare your children gently for commitments, you should let them acquire their own experience with animals. This may initially involve observations, for example at "insect hotels", the nesting aids for bees and wasps, but could also be the keeping and care of animal housemates. Entomology enriches in general. Nature is perceived much more intensely, every walk can become an event, even more so travel, and along the way one gains a better-founded relationship to the environment and its protection. When one learns to understand what the richness of insect life means and how this differs from a mass appearance of a single species, the processes and effects that are at work here, and who or what is responsible for them, then one gains general insights that can reach far beyond the event and ultimately lead to the assumption of ethical responsibility. No other animal group is as suitable for this as insects, because they are practically omnipresent. Such are my experiences with entomology. The deeper you go into it, the better off you are, as if in an ever-advancing process. It is good to investigate a topic in depth at some point- a particular insect group, insect-plant relationships, lifestyles, macro-photography or one of the countless other points of contact that the insect world offers you in abundance.

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 would tell him that these are not alternatives, but that he should turn to a modern entomology that combines both. After all, molecular biology is a method that also plays a major role in entomology. The classical form of taxonomy, which is only concerned with ordering the recognized species and bringing them into a classification system, remains imperfect in itself if the necessary supporting arguments are not found. Morphologically based classification has its merits, but also its limits. In more complicated cases, for example when species are very similar to each other, molecular genetic characters can provide decisive clues to the species' status. These data can even provide a phylogenetic framework and point to the location and age of phylogenetic branches. Today, well-founded analyses in the sense of Hennig's phylogenetic systematics can be achieved using genetic markers. In part, the methodology is already routine, and development is proceeding rapidly. As a result, existing opinions on phylogenetic relationships have often been confirmed, but there have also been dramatic changes affecting some nodes in the classification.

One should only consider whether to stop there. Use of genetics alone also leads to one-sided views. Morphology and its functions, together with the idea of how it really happened, based on observation of the real living conditions of the organisms involved - all of this forms a biological entity. Understanding this is the real challenge for the researcher. It is still possible to specialize in one direction or the other, but in no case is it wrong for a geneticist to be familiar with animals. He would be well advised not just to regard DNA as his study object, but to keep in mind that he is dealing, for example, with  beetles, or beautiful organisms that can fly. The connection must not be lost; molecular analysis requires precise taxonomic references (strictly speaking, the holotypes of the old and new authors) if it is not to drift away from reality.

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

This is not so easy to answer, as several different answers are possible. Thus, if you want to become a geneticist, you will often have to deal with Drosophila, and Drosophila is known to be an insect. So you could also approach the dew flies from an entomological point of view. Nowadays, there are entomological groups working practically all over the world, with certain focuses in North America, Australia and Europe. Further institutions in Asia, Africa and South America are joining them, mainly focused on applied tasks. On the other hand, each side is mutually dependent on the other, so that, especially in the last decades, an intensive cooperation, exchange of experts and joint projects have developed. There is no other way forwards if you want to be successful, whereby of course the global scale applies. This scale has another useful side effect, specialization. There are hardly any entomological working groups today that investigate exactly the same thing; what is typical is more of a coordinated approach based on the division of labour. The basic biological element with specific bionomy and ecological peculiarities is and remains the species, and with well over one million insect species there is no alternative to specialisation and division of labour. The range of places where one can become an entomologist is correspondingly diverse.

To make it a little more concrete: With my "pets", the wild bees (Anthophila), there are one or a few specialists for practically every genus in each faunal region, worldwide. The best thing is to choose a genus that is "vacant" or little worked on, and there are different focuses in the tasks. Fortunately, even after the death of our old master Charles D. Michener, his place of work in Lawrence, Kansas, has remained a center of study on bees. Charles Michener's school and his great work "The Bees of the World" is continued by Michael Engel.

Is it even possible to combine entomology and business, or entomology and making money?

As with other attractive activities, opportunities are limited and competition is fierce. Outside applications required in industry, work in entomological research institutions is usually not a funding priority. Classical taxonomy still seems attractive, but a move from leisure research (which is still of considerable importance!) to professional scientific work cannot be highly recommended. In most cases, patience would probably be tried too heavily. Better chances arise with a doctorate and after a number of projects have successfully been applied for and completed.

If your question is more about the extent to which entomology is still up-to-date, I can answer much more optimistically. Entomology has changed, but it has not lost its importance. As keywords I would like to mention biodiversity and globalisation, in which contexts the small animals play a paramount role, due to their number, their diversity, their distribution - and the incredible amount of ignorance about them. A lot will have to be done here. Entomologists are not unprepared, because they still meet in conferences, but are much more concentrated than previously on specific topics. Certainly, entomologists are still stubborn, perhaps because they are often confronted with questions that are very clear to them. They may first of all ask themselves whether an answer is worthwhile, because they themselves can answer very clearly. But there often remains a need to justify themselves to the rest of society, which does not have these insights. This may be similar to other people who are dedicated to music or sports, for example, although the general understanding of the working environment in the latter spheres is somewhat greater than when it comes to small creatures, or "creepy-crawlies".

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?

Yes, I do, I admit it. I find Hymenoptera not only interesting, but quite simply beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. As already mentioned, I first came to this topic via the golden wasps. Golden wasps are still among my favourite animals, but I have not done any special research on them, because there were other good specialists. In the garden I noticed something else, a colony of beautiful bees with bright orange fur, black underside and black head, which I could even identify: Andrena fulva, the Fox Red Sand Bee. I fenced the lawn against mowing, which meant that the colony practically disappeared the next year. This gave me food for thought, and subsequently I tried to find out how I could reverse this. So I was right in the middle of one of the basic problems of apidology. After an expedition to the Caucasus, I found out that there was nobody who could or wanted to determine my masked bees, Hylaeus. So I delved into it myself, and as it is, the objects that one deals with and about which one learns most then become favourites at some point. So the answer is clear: my favourite insect is "the bee" (of which 20,000 species are currently known worldwide). Bees are the most popular insects anyway. And yet, objectively speaking, they are neither more beautiful nor better than dung beetles, for example ...

How do you see the future of entomology? To put it more concretely, what are the three major problems that 21st century entomology should solve?

I think that the general consciousness has already changed considerably. When I started studying, the concept of biodiversity did not even exist. But today, if you have such a term that is self-explanatory and that is accepted from the outset, then many things are easier. And insects have the greatest diversity that an assemblage of living forms has achieved, and in such an overwhelming way that one is simply forced to engage with them. How did this diversity come about? What does this high diversity mean? I have had occasional discussions with practitioners who have said: every organism has a certain function in the environment, so it is enough for there to be one species to fulfil it - why does it have to be ten different species? I cannot give an exhaustive answer to this question, but it is correct to ask it: there must be solid reasons, in an ecological context, why such richness exists. Or are the species perhaps not identical after all? Perhaps we simply do not know in detail how and why they differ. Answering such questions is one of the most urgent necessities that we have to address in the 21st century.

Today, no one wants to claim that we have mastered nature; after all, we experience time and again that nature takes unexpected paths that no one had foreseen. Again and again, resistance develops or new harmful insects, new diseases, and new threat scenarios appear. I think that entomology has a high practical significance in dealing with these developments. That is its value and its necessity. In order to be able to react, there must be a solid foundation of knowledge. And fundamental to entomological science is taxonomy. You cannot deal with any object that you have not defined precisely. You have to describe the species precisely, and the work of the taxonomist is to define. If you write the wrong class in the newspaper for a locomotive shown in a picture, you will get a bunch of protest letters.

But if you protest that there is no honeybee in the picture, but a trouser bee called Dasypoda plumipes, then you will probably be told not to be so fussy. For us it makes a difference, at least as much as it does for the railway enthusiasts. This type of bee builds its cells in the ground, preferably on sandy paths, and the honey would probably be dusty or crunchy.