Traverse Classics: Northern Michigan's Bug Man

Traverse Classics: Duke Elsner smiles a wry smile and extends a hand, palm up. “Look what somebody brought in,” he says, displaying a bug (dead), its brownish body as big as a mouse, its pincers stout enough to bite a pencil in half. Duke, a certifiable bug nerd, lays the insect on a desk and crosses his arms, gazing at it proudly. “It’s called a giant water bug,” he says.

"If one of these things stings you, you know it."

It is possibly the largest water insect in North America, so enormous it makes meals of vertebrates like frogs and minnows. Duke, who admits to a fascination with the predator-prey aspect of insects, has kept these supersized insects as pets in aquariums, feeding them tadpoles. “The giant water bug is an excellent swimmer and a tadpole is kind of clumsy,” he says, slowly tracing his index finger over the bug’s 1⁄8-inch-thick left front arm. “See how muscley they are—the sharp claw is for holding prey.” The piercing mouth jabs a quarter-inch long and delivers venom that can stun a good-sized minnow and dissolve its tissue. When the inside of the prey becomes a kind of milkshake, the insect sucks it out with a strawlike mouth. “If one of these things stings you, you know it,” Duke says.

Entomologists are people who are experts on insects. People who study insects. People who stick pins in insects and label them. People who dissect insects and don’t get grossed out. Entomologist accurately applies to Duke Elsner, because he is indeed a learned man of bugs—he holds a Ph.D. in bugs and, as a county agricultural extension agent, is the man who farmers and homeowners across the North turn to with their insect problems. But entomologist is a stuffy word, a fussy word, a technical wor d, and in that sense it does a woefully inadequate job of conveying Duke Elsner’s enduring love for the million or so species of insects that creep, burrow, fly and swim about on our fair planet.

A look around Duke’s office reveals many of his darlings. Most, like the giant water bug, are dead and are typically mounted in a display case with a nametag. But in a clear glass gallon jar over in the corner, there’s a live one. A sign written in fat black marker reads, “Do Not Open.” Inside resides a spider with a body the color of black onyx, strutting around a web studded with dead insects. “That’s the northern widow,” Duke says. “Its venom is a neurotoxin. You’d have significant swelling and probably difficulty breathing. You’d want to seek medical attention.” He says it all so matter of factly. “It’s not as deadly as the black widow, usually only lethal to little children and the elderly.” For many people, it might be troubling to know the northern widow is common in the Northern Lower Peninsula and in the Upper Peninsula, but to Duke, it’s all just part of the insect extravaganza.

Duke steers to a stack of display cases and lifts the lid of one full of butterflies. Most are swallowtails, yellow, black, grand and bright and beautiful. But Duke’s favorites are small butterflies from the hairstreak family. “They’re drab above, but brilliant below.” Their name comes from tails that descend from their wings, thin as hair. He appreciates their life history, like that of the coral hairstreak, whose caterpillar exudes a honeydew-like secretion that ants love so much they station sentries near the caterpillar to chase off predators. Another hairstreak, the early hairstreak, is especially rare—20 years may pass between sightings—but Duke found one in 1998. “There was quite a hubbub about that in the collector community,” he says.

But most of all he loves the pursuit of hairstreaks, his net billowing in the breeze, wandering mixed wetlands, stalking the delicate but fast-flying beauty. Duke pauses as he remembers the hunt. “I can lose whole days to that.” It’s a sentiment any addict can appreciate.

Duke Elsner, now 47, doesn’t recall the moment when his fascination with insects first emerged. But his parents have told the story many times. They say it happened in the sandbox one day when he was 3 or 4, at his home in Stevensville, Michigan. Duke saw a large beetle, picked it up and studied it. “That was the beginning of the end,” he says.

By junior high, Duke’s interest in bug collecting was clearly more than a passing fancy or a project quickly forgotten after a Boy Scout badge was earned. His teachers, perceiving Duke’s interest, encouraged him. By chance, one of the science teachers had done insect surveys for Michigan State University’s Agricultural Extension Service for several years and was looking to hand off the work. The insect surveys help farmers know what types of bugs are hatching, a kind of early warning system. Duke didn’t have to be asked twice.

Even as a preteen, Duke already knew he wanted to stay connected to bugs, and beyond that, to agriculture, assisting farmers. He had helped his uncle run the family farm. “It was a farm in decline, and I saw firsthand how hard it could be and how good it is to get some help.”

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