The gravel-bottom stream in a forest in Zulia Province, Venezuela, was knee-deep with clear, fresh water: The perfect habitat for the insects Robert Sites wanted to find.
Net in hand, he was approaching the Colombia-Venezuela border and just steps away from gathering samples that would potentially add to his research collection of saucer bugs.
But his plans fell short when he and his colleagues were approached by armed guards protecting a farm against insurgents from the neighboring country.
“These collecting sites are not always friendly places to go,” Sites said.
This time, the guards were curious about Sites and his army of fellow researchers and sent them on their way unharmed.
Sites is a systematic entomologist, someone who studies biological diversity, including the relationships among all kinds of organisms, at the University of Missouri. Sites travels the world collecting and describing new insect species — 108 of them since 1988 — including eight new genera, six new tribes and a new subfamily.
Sites is also the director of MU’s Enns Entomology Museum, which holds approximately 6 million specimens of insects, arachnids and fossils.
In his long and narrow office attached to the southeast corner of the museum, samples from French Guiana sit to the right of his computer. He plans to write a paper on those specimens.
The bugs are kept in upright collection tubes and sit as a reminder that it’s time for him to start his next paper.
Due to climate change, pollution and development, insects are disappearing faster than entomologists can put a name on them. A study published in Biological Conservation found around 40% of all insect species are declining.
Insects play fundamental roles in ecosystems, like pollination, nutrient recycling and serving as food for birds and other animals. They also make up half of living organisms.
Famed biologist Edward O. Wilson often lauded the importance of insects. “If we were to wipe out insects alone,” Wilson said in a 2007 TED Talk, “the rest of life and humanity with it would mostly disappear from the land.”
Meanwhile, according to the Smithsonian, an estimated 80% of insects haven’t been described by taxonomists. Scientists like Sites are on a deadline to learn about all of these organisms before they’re gone.
Searching for saucer bugs
Sites’ interest in insects goes back to when he was a kid in Northern Illinois. He would join the kids on his block as they collected butterflies with brightly colored wings.
As he got older, Sites realized other kids grew out of their fascination with bugs, yet his interest only deepened.
Sites got his doctorate at Washington State University in entomology and started working at Texas Tech University in agricultural entomology. He was offered the chance to work in systematics at MU, and he had to take the opportunity because it was what he truly wanted to do.
Sites has remained at MU since 1991. It brought him to the saucer bugs he’s been studying for over 30 years.
Now, research stations around the globe have invited him to survey their locations to figure out what lives there.
In 2010, Sites returned from a collecting trip in Tanzania and he may have figured out the culprit to a flesh-eating disease, Buruli ulcer. Through Sites’ findings, it was later discovered that some members of the Naucoridae family — his saucer bugs — have the mycobacterium in their salivary glands.
Sites’ work describes this family of insects and has helped researchers and physicians learn more about the bugs.
Another of Sites’ passions is the Thailand Study Abroad program, which he lead for 19 years. Instead of going home for the holidays, Sites would lead MU students on the 3-week program during the country’s annual dry season.
He redesigned the program in 2006 to focus more on conducting biodiversity and conservation projects, and many students were excited to be a part of it. Sites is one of two MU professors to earn the inaugural MU Study Abroad Teaching Excellence Award.
Sites has his motto printed on a notepad: collect, kill, publish. It refers to gathering insects, putting them in alcohol to preserve them for display and publishing his findings.
Collecting in the field
No matter where he experiences chaos in the field — Belize, Colombia, French Guiana, Madagascar, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Venezuela — usually after two weeks in the country it’s time to go home and look at the samples. Describing these insects and completing the research takes a lot of time, Sites said.
Sites and his colleague, Johannes Bergsten of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, recently submitted a paper on his findings of 25 species in Madagascar. It includes nine new species and one new genus.
This research has been 10 years in the making. Sites went to Madagascar years ago, and Bergsten had gone there a number of times previously.
They examined insects under a microscope, comparing them to similar things and determining if they have been described before.
Sites separates his descriptions by giving a detailed one about the male and one about the female. He does this by designating one specimen as the holotype — the specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based.
“That’s the standard,” Sites said.
The sample that is designated by the describer of the species is made available to those who want to verify the status of certain specimens. His characterizations of a specimen include the head, the thorax, legs, abdomen, genitalia and other important descriptors.
Sites’ friend and colleague, Bill Shepard, said there’s a passion and a drive that comes with the field work and publishing a new species. Sites has that.
“I retired about 18 years ago from the university where I taught and was getting ready to quit field work and describing new species,” Shepard said. “(Sites) said, ‘Oh no, you’re not going to do that. I’m not going to let you.’ He made me continue on, and it’s been very useful to have him as a cheerleader for me.”
Sites’ former graduate student Daniel Reynoso-Velasco, who now works at Instituto de Ecologia in Xalapa, Mexico, says the professor’s kindness and desire to help others is a big part of who he is.
“During our first collecting trip, and just after three days of knowing each other, he gave me an aquatic net, a fancy one,” Reynoso-Velasco said. “It was my first aquatic net and the one I use, and will use, in every single collecting journey.”
Discovering new species
When deciding on where he wants to collect samples that end up in his published papers, sometimes Sites is looking for specific specimens, but other times, he takes advantage of the opportunities thrown at him. It can be as simple as someone saying they’re visiting a country to do some collecting.
“Well, I’ve never been there; I’ll go along,” Sites said. In August, he will be visiting a research farm with Shepard in the Peruvian Amazon, at Finca Las Piedras.
Sites joked that as he collects samples in streams, he will be “trying to avoid electric eels and caimans.”
Shepard met Sites at a national meeting for the Entomological Society of America. Shepard’s wife, Cheryl Barr, introduced him, and their friendship still remains after 35 years.
The two get out for at least one international trip together each year, except during COVID-19 times.
“He’s just a wonderful friend,” Shepard said. “It’s good to have somebody who has the same sense of humor, but also we compliment each other.”
Shepard usually drives while Sites sits and navigates in the passenger’s seat.
During one of their trips, driving up a bridge in Belize, they were collecting in little streams in the thick jungle trees. Shepard pulled to a stop and turned to Sites.
“Oh Bob, that’s a good site,” Shepard said. “Go over there and check it out real quick.”
As Sites got out to approach the stream, a large caiman — a large reptile related to an alligator — jumped into the water. Sites jumped back and turned around.
“There’s no saucers here,” Sites said. Both of them laughed, and Shepard jokingly suggested that he try again.
John Abbott, chief curator and director of the Department of Museum Research and Collections at the University of Alabama, joined Sites on his first trip to Belize alongside Shepard and Barr. All these years later, he still remains in contact witnessing all of these big milestones.
“I have always admired and learned a lot from well-rounded entomologists like (Sites),” Abbott said. “I am interested in all aspects of natural history and love to learn from others with specific expertise in areas I am less familiar with. He has made significant contributions to our understanding of insect biodiversity in multiple countries and in multiple groups throughout his career.”
As soon as Sites finishes a paper, it’s on to the next one.
There are many samples he has yet to go through, and it may be only a matter of time before he discovers the next new species.
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