Smear Tactics for Identifying Bugs on Your Windshield

05-01-1997 // Michael Lipske

For Mark Hostetler, the idea for a new field guide began with an encounter at a Florida gas station in 1992. A zoology graduate student at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Hostetler was pumping gas into his car when he noticed another motorist staring at a bug-bedizened pickup truck. "What is this crud, anyway?" asked the puzzled motorist.

Clearly a born educator, Hostetler walked over and cheerfully told the man: Well, these are lovebugs. Then he proceeded to explain that the insects are attracted to highways because auto exhaust fumes irradiated with ultraviolet light mimic the aroma of decaying organic matter in which female lovebugs lay their eggs. Courting lovebugs are especially prevalent in the Gulf States in May and September.

"We talked for about 10 minutes," recalls Hostetler, and I thought, Well, here's a person who's interested in something that was affecting him as he was driving down the highway, and he learned a little natural history about the area's lovebugs. Maybe there is a good book in this.'"

Today, the 31-year-old grad student is the author of "That Gunk on Your Car: A Unique Guide to Insects of the United States", an informative book that he published himself last year. It represents the first attempt in the annals of modern science to record the marks left on motor vehicles by mortally-impacted insects. Like all field guides, the book includes color plates, which in this case show how to recognize certain kinds of insects solely from their splattered remains.

Much of the research for the book was conducted during the summer of 1994, when Hostetler took off on a 12,000-mile tour of the United States, collecting data for what he calls "my real research." Hostetler's doctoral dissertation, which he is completing this spring, examines how people in suburban areas alter landscapes to different degrees, and how those altered landscapes affect bird communities.

Since he was taking the trip anyway, Hostetler decided to rig up a homemade net across the roof of his car above his windshield. With each promising insect splat on the glass, he pulled to the roadside to harvest the crumpled carcass that bounced from windshield to net. He also photographed the mark on his windshield. "Incidentally, he notes, have you ever seen birds walking along the sides of roads pecking at something on the ground? Guess what? They're eating all those insects that were unfortunate enough to hit our cars."

The splat researcher admits he got strange looks when he pulled into gas stations with his car-top bug seine. People also reacted with curiosity when he repeatedly visited the Greyhound terminal in Gainesville to glean flattened fauna from buses. "During some months, the front end of those monstrous buses were practically covered with insects," he recalls. Bus drivers began calling him "the Bug Man."

Hostetler poured the fruits of his research into That Gunk On Your Car. In addition to including before-splat and after-splat color plates of 24 kinds of insects, his book includes insect natural history and ideas for readers to conduct their own research projects (check out "Fun Things To Do With Muscid Flies "). The book even suggests some insect-oriented games for restless automobile riders.

Though Hostetler clearly wrote some parts of the book with tongue in cheek, he also hoped to create a little appreciation for insects. Buckled into sealed, air-conditioned cars, he says, people might easily dismiss insects as no more than "extraneous little nuisances " that soil their windshields. But these same small creatures pollinate many of the plants that we humans depend upon and that provide food for birds and other wild-life that many of us care about. Hostetler also knows that if he had written a book with a title like North American Insects not many folks would pick it up. But when it comes to anything that might affect their cars, the researcher believes, people usually pay careful attention.

Consider the case of the American cockroach. A hefty beast that can fly and that migrates after heavy summer rains in the southern United States, Periplaneta americana leaves a large splat on the windshield--nothing to be thankful about. But deep in the night, when a cockroach carapace collides with a speeding section of tempered windshield glass, the sudden encounter, says the book, produces "quite a bang!" Who knows how many drowsy drivers owe their lives to a startling cockroach wake-up call? For more information about his book, and how to get a copy, call Hostetler toll free at 1-888-BUG-GUNK.

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